5 Things I Learned from 1,826 Days of Sobriety

Me, close to the time I stopped drinking.

Me, close to the time I stopped drinking.

I started drinking when I was about 17. I waited longer to start than most people because I'd seen people close to me struggle with alcohol and I didn't want to repeat their mistakes, particularly the mistakes of my father, whose life went down the toilet pretty quickly in relation to how much and how often he drank. By the time he turned 40 he had completely screwed up everything in his life beyond repair. When he died 20 years later, although he claimed to have stopped drinking years before, it was plain that his drinking set a course for his life and it had never gone off that course until his death. He'd become estranged from his kids, been bankrupt, divorced 3 times (twice from the same woman), lost his driver's license, hadn't held a steady job for years and was living on disability in a cheap, shitty apartment, dying of cancer, surrounded by nothing but photos of him with every car he'd owned.

Drinking wasn't my dad's only problem, but it played a big part and I had a front row seat for the beginning of the fall. True, I was adopted, so I could lean on the idea that not having his genes might save me from his fate, but on June 12, 2012 I found myself several months past 40, spending too much time in bars, drinking what I'd known for a long time to be way too much, way too often. I was making choices (or not, depending on how you look at it) that I stood to lose everything I valued in my world, namely my family, my wife and daughter.  My wife and I have been together for 25 years now. I am not an easy person to be, let alone to be around, and it's taken me years to appreciate how much it means that she's stayed with me all these years. My daughter, not yet 8-years-old in 2012, was (and is) a miracle that has proved to me over and over through the years that parenting her is a gift greater I deserve.
The course of my drinking had been a slow evolution from college binging to knocking back at least a 6 pack of tall boys a night and decidedly more 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.

Me, not too long ago.

Me, not too long ago.

And on June 12, 2012 I finally snapped. I was out past 1:00am on a Monday night, I was supposed to be up at 6:00am to take the family to the airport for a trip back east. I was drunk. I was crying. I could get myself to stop. When I woke up the next morning I drove the hour plus each way to the airport, and raced back to make it to a psychiatric appointment I made months before. I knew I had to get there. It felt like life and death. I had 3 weeks of alone time staring me in the face and I knew 3 weeks of continued drinking would be the end of my life as I knew it. I made it to the 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 hasn't been an alcoholic, that probably sounds like a huge success story, and it is. Any addict who can stay off their drug of choice for 5 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.

These 5 years have been the hardest of my life for myriad reasons. So, on this day 1,826th day of my sobriety I thought I'd take a few minute to write down a few of the things I've learned about myself and about being sober. I’m writing for myself, but also in the hopes it might help someone else.

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. These factors share comorbidities and result 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 if-not-famous then professional musician and songwriter I always wanted to be. Since I was a child, I literally 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 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 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 I'd written and my first novel was rejected repeatedly. It was challenging to feel as though I'd failed in to artistic venues. I'm fully aware, that 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 gaming. But not hiding has 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 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. 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 even more each time I lost, because I was still that needy bastard who had to have approval. 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 sometime in the past year. 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.

3. You can't handle as much as you think
One of the first tenets of AA I remember learning 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. He has had a terrible experiences in life--true nightmare material--but his damage was deeper than we could have ever imagined, to the point that 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. I bought new cars, new computers, new everything, all the time. And the result is 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 alright. Most the time I felt the grind, the daily waking up and dealing with your troubles without the buffer of drinking. I found I had nothing to look forward to. 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. At all. I couldn't go to play or listen to live music for more than 3 years because I felt so uncomfortable around people and so on edge in bars I just couldn't do it. I became more and more isolated, to the point where I really have 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 home town 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 isn’t worth the time. The rock star, the politician, the teacher, are all more valuable than Jason. I have no ability to love myself. But knowing is half the battle and now I know and 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 and eventually drown myself in booze, denial and despair. Even though these past 5 years have been harder and less fun than I ever could have imagined them, 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. 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 has been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, and not because not drinking was hard. It wasn't and isn't. Living 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.