Here’s the question you want to ask if you run into a recovering alcoholic in a chatty mood: So what was it about the last time you tried to stop that finally worked? From my previous blog, you know I tried a number of approaches to curbing my drinking, and none of them lasted or really made a bit of difference. What I said to myself after each fail—to the extent I acknowledged the fail at all—was something along the lines of, I must not have been all that serious about it. Eventually I will get serious, and things will change.
That idea proved both a lie and the truth. I know now that I stood no chance of actually curbing my drinking, going from alcoholism back to being a normal drinker, no matter how seriously I tried. Alcoholism owned me by 2014. As the saying goes, by then “one drink was too many and eight drinks not enough.” The idea did prove true, however, because once I relinquished any idea of getting back to normal and admitted to myself I was an alcoholic, once I got that serious, it all changed overnight.
Well, overnight-ish. As the teaser I closed my previous blog with suggested, I did have one last game up my sleeve. You see, I went to my first AA meeting on Sunday, December 21, 2014. That was the miracle first meeting I’ve written about, the session where I heard in the stories from other alcoholics my own entire tale, where I was embraced and welcomed and encouraged at a point when I had lost all respect for myself. The net effect of all of this was, I knew I belonged here. Just like that, I had a vision for how to move forward and away from my problem drinking.
I was jacked! I was told to “go to 90 meetings in 90 days” by way of power starting my recovery, so the next day I went to another meeting, and the day after that I did as well. Guess what else I did those first few days? Right—I kept drinking. An alcoholic to the very end, my drunk’s mindset decided, once it caught that vision of escape offered by AA, wouldn’t it be awfully keen of me to have as my start date Christmas itself. And that’s what I did. I began my program of recovery while still drinking for four more days, until, Christmas miracle of miracles, I indeed stopped altogether on the 25th.
From the remove of two years, I can now laugh at such goofiness (even if giving oneself sobriety on Christmas is indeed a great gift). But make no mistake: that is classic alcoholic thinking and doing right there. So wonderfully twisted. I call this “my wet start.”
In AA, we often close meetings with a prayer for those “outside our circle who have yet to find the solution.” Here’s what finally worked for me in recovery, the solution I found, as of December 25, 2014.
Alcoholics Anonymous worked for me, immensely. Beyond its sound practices and vibrant community, the value of its myriad meetings just being there for me—as it is for everyone, every day, everywhere—cannot be underestimated. AA gave me a place to go and something tangible to do every one of those precious, early, vulnerable days when I was groping like hell to do anything but that one thing I wanted so desperately not to do (I mentioned the “90 in 90” strategy—I think I made about 87). Each session inspired me back then (in my wildly receptive state I easily found inspiration in even the least of them), making of each meeting a speed-booster station like you used to have with your Hot Wheels tracks, shooting me out the other side with a full head of steam to soberly take on the next 24. The upbeat nature of the meetings, the camaraderie, the wisdoms you absorb, the infinite (and infinitely entertaining) AA sayings, all made their differences for me (and continue to through the present). AA also revived my spiritual self—the whole higher power thing—at a time when I really needed to reconnect with God, to make my relationship to God an active, living thing. Last, I discovered the practice of regular meditation through AA (it’s not an integral part of AA, but there are meditation meetings that use it), and while I’ve let that lapse as a daily practice (I do still attend the weekly meeting), I learned a lot from meditation, and consider it a tool always available to me. Believe me when I say, AA is GREAT, and as recovery programs go, you cannot beat the price.
All that being said, and as much as I consider myself a card carrying member of the organization, it is also the case that I never made a total conversion to AA. I’ll talk more about that in Part III.
Other things that made a crucial difference during those early days of change.
Ann made a HUGE difference back then, by doing…nothing. I’m being ironic in saying that, meaning, there were a lot of things Ann could have done those early days, when she was pissed, and skeptical as hell of me, and struggling like mad to find a reason to hang in there any longer with me…but she didn’t. She didn’t sit around giving me the stink eye, exuding an attitude of it being just a matter of time before I fucked this up and drank again. She didn’t react to any and every even nominal deviation in my behavior or my daily plans with an immediate accusation that I’d been drinking. She didn’t berate me every day, for all of the crap I’d done, all the pain and fear I’d caused her. She also didn’t fawn all over me and my newfound conviction to get well, didn’t respond to my returning home from the next meeting with a gushing desire to hear all about it. You know what Ann was during that time, which was exactly what I needed? She was the perfect Missourian. She stood bravely there, one day after the next, and simply said, Show me. I didn’t need a cheerleader then (I had that in my fellow AA members), but neither did I need a doubting Thomas just staring at me then. Just someone willing to see that I did today what I intended to do—that was all I needed. I love my wife for finding it in her to do that then. And, of course, every day since.
My successful break from drinking was also fostered by my managing my environment aggressively for the first 185 days. If the scene involved much drinking during that time, you likely didn’t find me there. Even in simple ways, like pouring Ann her nightly beer or buying beer for her at the grocery store, I was pretty gun shy early on. My friendships simply had to take a back seat in my life during that time, and I didn’t get together with folks unless it was under safe and controllable conditions (which, being pretty much the opposite of the environment my friends prefer, meant time apart). I regretted none of this, frankly. I’d made a mess of things on my own, in my dark secret life, so it made a sort of sense to me that I’d do the heavy lifting of making changes in a similar, solo mode. Even giving up concerts—imagine!—wasn’t all that hard, and certainly made a world of sense.
But on the subject of concerts, therein explains my reference to 185 days. I consider my first sober foray back into the world of my friends to have been when I attended the Fare Thee Well Dead concert at Levi’s Stadium in late June of my first year. That’s right: straight into the belly of the beast went I! It was a frigging BLAST, and altogether successful. Which taught me I could do this, be out and around partiers and not do it myself and still have a good time, and relieved my friends that this could work as well.
Another thing that helped immeasurably yet is nothing anyone attempting to go sober should count on was the blessing I experienced in not being encumbered daily by drink cravings. Boy, did I get lucky here. I just did not have them. What I did experience, for the first few months, were these passing notions that whispered, “NOW is one of those moments when you’d normally steal a drink.” In other words, the many associations I’d built up between life moments and “have a drink!” did linger for a period of time. When they popped up, I would acknowledge them but found I could just as quickly let them go and they’d be gone. I tracked their frequency over time and mercifully that line trended ever downward as those associations withered away. I’ve probably had about two of those moments in the last four months. Cravings can be as persistent as they are demoralizing, a constant reminder of what you’re giving up, what you’re missing. In going without them, I was that much freer to notice all that I was gaining in my sobriety.
Finally, I’d be seriously remiss to not mention how great and loving my mother and siblings were in the face of my news, as were my friends as I eventually rolled my story out to each of them. The grace and acceptance shown by most everyone was particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that I was surprising the crap out of most of them with my news. In fact, what I learned in this process is that, while a successful hidden drunk may skirt a lot of hassling from others along the way, the truth is, you have to do a lot of catching people up on things when you finally come clean. They’re all decent people, of course, so they all reacted initially as you’d expect: “Oh! Well, good for you! How can I help?” Still, many eventually admitted how surprised they were by the news, and at least a few even went so far as to ask, “Do you really think you’re an alcoholic?” or “Do you really think you’ll never drink again?” The beauty of the AA model is such that for these questions you have a very simple and honest answer. “I’m not really thinking about “ever again,” just today. And today I’m choosing not to drink.” If I thought any of them were more skeptical of my outlook (hey, they were losing a pretty good life of the party. I would have been downright disappointed if all of them had gone down without a fight!), I’d gently walk them through what a day of my drinking had become, and that would pretty much resolve their questions.
So that’s what it took to launch me into recovery. A clear program, embedded in the context of unconditional support. A life partner who was immediately ready to recognize my changes. Managing my environment, not being hassled by cravings, and having a network of loved ones who instantly showed up for me.
I’ve been really, really fortunate in that my practically instant conversion to sobriety (after the wet start, of course!) didn’t serve to prompt a mind game that trips a lot of people up, the whole, “well, if I can walk away from drinking that cleanly, maybe I don’t really have that bad a problem with it.” What I will say to that is, what I discovered in life through living sober, once I was firmly on the path, was so endlessly great, I simply see no place for drinking in my life anymore. It’s not, I have to live sober, it’s truly become, I absolutely LOVE living sober. An elaboration on the subject of which will be my focus in the third and final blog on this subject.