At 1:00am on June 12, 2012, I was several months past 40, drunk on a Monday night, sitting with a friend at an outside beer garden. I was afraid. I knew I stood to lose everything I valued in my world, namely my wife and daughter, if I drank for another day.
The course of my drinking had been a slow evolution from college binging to knocking back at least a six pack of tall boys a night and a lot more than that during the weekend. It took more than 20 years to get there, but I knew there was a point where I couldn’t fix the damage I was doing and I’d lose everything I was taking for granted. And that point of no return was close, really close. I’d watch my dad fall over that edge when he was 40. I didn’t want to be my dad.
That June night, I couldn’t keep going like I was going anymore. If I did, I was pretty sure I’d die. I was supposed to be up at 6:00am to take my wife and daughter to the airport for a trip back east. I was drunk enough I thought I’d probably still be drunk when I woke up. I was crying. I couldn’t stop. I was freaking everyone around me out. I couldn’t explain what was wrong. I dumped myself into a cab and went home, still bawling. When I woke up the next morning I felt OK to drive. I drove the hour plus each way to the airport, and raced back to make a psychiatric appointment I made months ago. I had to get there. It felt like life and death. I had three weeks of alone time staring me in the face and I knew three weeks of continued drinking would be the end of my life. I made it to the psych appointment. I talked to a counselor and got some pamphlets and other stuff, including the schedule for local AA meetings. That night I crept into one of those meetings and took the first seat I could get to. I made it through that meeting and that day without a drink and I haven’t had a drink since.
To someone who isn’t an alcoholic, that probably sounds like a huge success story, and in many ways it is. Any addict who can stay off their drug of choice for five years deserves credit. But let’s not confuse things. Being sober is an achievement, but it’s not the goal. I didn’t know that was the case when I made it through my first day. There were a lot of really hard days to come, and not hard because I continued to crave alcohol. Beyond the (much longer than you’d think) detox period, I have almost never been seriously tempted to take a drink. No, being alive and not drinking was the hardest challenge I have ever faced.
1,826th days. Five years of sobriety. Seems like a good time to take a few minutes to write down some of what I’ve learned about myself and about being sober, what I’ve done wrong and what I can still get right. I’m writing this for myself, because I’ve been really, really down lately, but also in the hopes it might help someone else.
Here are 5 things I’ve learn in 5 years of sobriety.
1. Not drinking doesn’t make your problems go away.
Nobody’s life is easy and no one is free from problems or struggles. I’m no different. I’ve had a lot of identity problems that stem from many factors in my life — adoption, parents who divorced, and a lot more. These factors share co-morbidities and resulted in a crippling lack self confidence. This is really ironic, because on the face of it, everything I’ve done in my life has been very public and you’d think it would take a ton of self confidence to do it. But no, in reality everything I’ve done has been an effort to prove I worthy of drawing breath — and failing to do so. By the time I hit 30, I’d already struck out at becoming the professional musician and songwriter I always wanted to be. Or I felt deep down in my soul I’d failed. Since I was a child, I had no other life goal. I wanted to be an artist and support myself with my art. I wanted to reach people the way art had reached me. I worked hard. We lived in NYC for 11 years and I spent every one of those years busting my tail and getting close to record deals and such, but they never quite panned out. Drinking slowly became a way to dull that pain and convince me there was still hope. We left New York when I was 33 and I knew my music career would never happen the way I hoped. I kept drinking, even though my daughter was born around that time. I had succeeded in in helping create her something bigger than anything I wanted from my music, but I couldn’t see it.
Ten years later, having graduated from a pretty prestigious writing MFA program my first novel was rejected repeatedly. It was challenging to feel as though I’d failed in two artistic venues. Now, I’m fully aware I didn’t fail at either. I created work I’m incredibly proud of, but the weak, insecure person inside of me who needed approval from the world to justify his existence was in despair. Drinking helped push that down, but it didn’t make it go away. Eventually, it made it worse. Over the past five years, I have gotten better at intellectually accepting my successes, but down there in the deep recesses of my psyche that weak, damaged little boy still needs all the love the world has to feel better. And it’s a losing game. But I’m not hiding anymore and that’s been a positive yet really difficult step.
2. You’re still an addict
I quit smoking cigarettes 15 years ago. I used to bite my nails habitually. I was a nose-picker as a boy. Drinking alcohol was one of the many tools I used for self-soothing. The need for self-soothing didn’t go away when I stopped drinking. Instead of pushing back against that need and healing, I focused that need for self-soothing into shopping and seeking public office. The money thing is what it is. I love gadgets and always have. And not drinking freed up more money for buying stuff. But it got out of control. I started buying things compulsively. I’m trying really hard to stop.
Seeking public office seemed to offer me the chance to make amends for the drunk, selfish shit-heel I’d been for decades. It seemed to offer me the chance to do what I hoped my art would do: change people’s lives for the better. But it didn’t. It destroyed me more each time I lost, because I was still that needy bastard who had to have approval. I ran for office three times and lost three times. Some say you have to hit rock bottom before you stop drinking or doing drugs, but that’s not exactly true. I hit rock bottom years after my last drink because I wasn’t so much addicted to alcohol as I was to external approval. And that shoe dropped just recently a year after losing my last election campaign. I think I’m on the road to recovery now. It all goes back to the root cause of my problems — low self esteem — and that underscores the need to faithfully, honestly attack that cause if I ever hope to stem my addictive behavior. I don’t want to demean the instinct to serve, but I was in no way healthy enough to put myself in that position (see below).
3. You can’t handle as much as you think
One of the first tenets of AA I learned is “don’t make any big changes.” You need to spend time where you are getting used to your new, sober self in familiar surroundings. If you make big changes, they are likely going to mask your real struggle and hinder your recovery. I heard this message loud and clear, yet I changed almost everything about my life. We moved into a new house. As I mentioned before, I became active in local politics and ran unsuccessfully for office 3 times. We adopted a teenaged boy. We love him. We have tried to help him. But the situation has been incredibly difficult and damaging for all of us. He has had terrible experiences in life, but his damage was deeper than we could have ever imagined, and I overestimated my ability to help him. After a few years, as he grew, we found ourselves in physical and emotional danger nearly every day. Failing him has been a shame greater than any I perpetrated on myself when drunk.
The result of all this new stuff: I never really started my recovery. I never learned who I was as a sober person and what I needed to work on to heal. I piled on new responsibilities and projects like I used to pile on the booze and eventually I crashed. That’s where I am now, barely functional some days, confused, depressed, anxious. But the upside is I see my mistakes now. I am finally in a place where I’m doing my best to be honest about what I have done, what I am doing, what I shouldn’t do, and I hope I can begin to heal. I was not in the position to be what I tried to be for my community, for my son and family, or for myself. I kept pushing because I thought living in the sober world and taking on sober responsibilities was the road to healing. Now I know I have to do the healing first.
4. There is no pink cloud
In those early AA meetings I heard sober drunks talk about finding the pink cloud, a place where suddenly everything seemed to slot into place and all felt right with the world for the first time in their lives. At least that’s what I think they were talking about. I never experienced that. I never felt like things were suddenly better or even alright. Most the time I felt the grind, the daily waking up and dealing with my troubles without the buffer of drinking. I thought it would get better as time went on, but it didn’t. I had nothing to look forward to every single day because I hadn’t learned to live a sober life. I was still driving hard to “get somewhere” and killing myself doing it. I had no way to turn off my motor, to punch the clock, to relax. Everything I enjoyed doing while I was drinking was no longer enjoyable to me. I couldn’t play a gig or listen to live music for more than 3 years because I felt so uncomfortable around people and so on edge in bars I couldn’t handle it. I became more and more isolated, to the point where I really had no friends anymore. My anxiety ran my life and I couldn’t bring myself to use the phone or set up a time to hang out with even my closest, most long-term and valued friends. So after 5 years, I’ve lost touch with just about everyone I’ve cared for. And my forays into politics have left me more alienated in my adopted hometown than I’ve ever been anywhere in my life. Without the social lubricant of alcohol, I was incapable of engaging the world unless I was play-acting at being something I wasn’t. I could never be me. Just me wasn’t worth the time. The rock star, the politician, the teacher, are all more valuable than Jason. I had (and have) no ability to love myself. But knowing is half the battle and now I know. I am trying.
5. You have the chance to change everything.
If you’re still reading you probably think going back to drinking sounds like a better life than living through this bullshit. But no. I’ll still take sobriety and the chance to live a healthy, loving life over trying to wash away my pain and fear, eventually drowning myself in booze, denial and despair. Even though these past 5 years have been harder and less fun than I ever could have imagined, I still have what I hoped to save: my family. I know they love me because who would go through all this bullshit if not for love. Even in this state I know I can be a father and a husband and get better at that stuff each day I continue trying. I also know I’ll never be my father. I can see my flaws and faults and I’m almost ready to deal with them full-on for the first time in my life. Being sober is harder than anything I’ve done in my life, and not because not drinking was hard. It wasn’t and isn’t. Being alive without drinking is hard. Being alive and feeling the pain of life for the first time is hard. Trying to find a way to love — or even like — myself is hard. But I can and will get better because I’m not hiding anymore. Every day I’m sober is another day I can change myself for the better.