What Sobriety Means to Me

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I was asked to write a piece for an online medical publication about “what sobriety meant to me.”  As is often the case when it comes to substance abuse matters tensions ran high.  Some disagree with the opinions expressed in this piece and would not publish it unless I changed my opinions.  Those with any working knowledge of the author can surely understand that I would not accept a situation in which my voice was censored.  What I am publishing here is the original article that I submitted in it’s entirety.  I have omitted nothing.  This is what sobriety means to me and no one is going to tell me otherwise.

I can’t think of a more difficult subject for me to write about than my ongoing fight with alcoholism. I dislike talking about it because so few people know what it really is and many judge you based on the fact that you are an alcoholic/addict alone. Indeed I’ve met people who have told me to my face (and with a great deal of pride for some reason) that my problem with addiction makes me weak. As an addict being sober is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve written books, screenplays, TV pilots, gone back to school, graduated from school (and am on the cusp of graduating with another degree soon), I’ve been charged and convicted of crimes, gone to jail, and completed stint of more than three years on probation. There may be weakness in me somewhere but I dare you to walk a mile in my shoes and call me weak again. I’ve spent twenty nine-years on this Earth and the frist twenty-five I’m not real proud of, but you know what? I kept living. A lesser man would give up. A lesser man would kill himself or succumb to the persistent naggings of addiction. Addiction stares us in the face every day all the while quietly whispering in our ears: who dares? It’s just one drink. What’s one drink? One drink, man. One drink would kill me.

Now, physically one drink isn’t going to kill me. But it would lead to a calamitous series of events that given my history with addiction one could say with pretty good certainty that it would only be a matter of time before my life was gone in one way or another. Believe it or not I feel blessed. I feel blessed because I have a second chance at life. Many people do not get a second chance. I am among the fortunate. I get asked every now and again to speak with or write to someone with substance abuse issues and I almost always say no. I say no for a number of reasons. First off, if they’re still using they don’t want my help or any help for that matter. Second, this is the single toughest issue for me to talk about. Third, I don’t feel comfortable talking to people I don’t know. I barely feel comfortable talking to people I do know. I’m a naturally introverted person so when the extroverted world tells me that I need to get out more I tell them I’m just fine thank you very much and thanks also for the unsolicited advice.

Some ask how I’ve managed to beat substance abuse. My response is that it’s a false question to ask how to beat something that can’t be defeated like substance abuse. It’s like declaring victory in the war on terror. You can’t win a war against a tactic. Similarly addition is something that you live with and hope you never have to seriously deal with it again. By that I mean that you hope that temptation doesn’t draw you in. That’s really all that’s separating an addict that’s not using from one who is: willpower. I lived a good deal of my life with extremely poor willpower and even worse judgment. Those two things have, for all intents and purposes made me unemployable. I still try though. I still try because to give up would be to give in and that’s just not my style. I live my life in a way that minimizes my access to alcohol. It’s the only responsible approach one can take in my view.

I quit smoking when I was twenty-five. I just decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. It took a lot of willpower and it still does to some degree because for seven years tobacco was a part of my life. In that respect I’m just one cigarette away from smoking as well. I have a half pack of cigarettes in my room somewhere as a sign that yes, I was able to just stop. The weed is powerless over me now or so I like to think. I had to wean myself off of them. Some people call it quitting cold turkey but really you just smoke less and unless until you don’t smoke at all. You’ve got to have the willpower though. Without the will to do something I don’t know why you’d even try. The same method for quitting smoking I used to quit using alcohol. I used to drink a little over two-fifths of Vodka and about three cases of beer a week. I used it to relax me or so I thought. I don’t think it ever helped me relax, it probably made me more anxious and depressed than anything else.

A lot of people look at quitting drinking as essentially quitting fun. People who don’t drink aren’t as much as those who do or so the thinking goes. If alcohol is the only thing that allows you to have or if alcohol is the only thing that separates a great time from being bored to tears then maybe you’re not ready to quit drinking yet. A lot of addiction counselors will take issue with what I am saying so be forewarned. If you’re at a point in your life where you seriously believe that you can only have fun by using alcohol or drugs then sobriety probably isn’t a good fit for you at this point in your life. I’m not advocating that you keep drinking but if you really believe that the only way you can have fun, relax, or function day-to-day is by consuming drugs or alcohol then nothing I can say or do is going to stop you. There was a point in my life where life without drugs and alcohol was not something I was willing to consider and it wouldn’t have mattered what you said or did to me you just would not have changed my mindset. Some people believe that you should be forced to quit and live a sober life but I am not one of those people.

When I did my first stint in rehab I was eighteen. The counseling center didn’t know whether to put me with the teens or with the adults. At first they chose the adults. After a couple days of missing meeting and feeling like a general outsider they moved me upstairs into the teen group which was a much better fit for me. I met a guy who I got along with and he told me his story. He was sixteen when he was arrested for drug trafficking. He was facing a great deal of exposure when it came to our prison system and he would be going to prison regardless of anything else. That had to be a daunting realization. It didn’t seem to bother him as much as it did everyone around him. I suspect he was putting on a brave face as I think one has to in that situation. If you cannot change your situation or your circumstances then the only thing you can change is your attitude. He was upbeat and lived in the moment. I admired that about him. I was not the kind of person who could live in the moment and I’m still not. I’ve struggled to appreciate what I have and how lucky I am but at the end of the day I try to do so by remembering what I’ve been through and every now and again I recall his story and realize how much worse off I could have been.

I’ve never been to a sadder place than rehab so imagine my surprise when I met a seventeen year old kid looking at an eight to ten year prison sentence who was just about one of the happiest guys I had ever had the pleasure to meet. This was strange to me. But from his point of view I suppose rehab was better than prison. I smelled like cigarettes when I arrived on the second floor. That’s why he started talking to me. Having come from downstairs where counselors would go out and buy you cigarettes if you asked them to (some even smoked themselves like Ron who used to pop speed pills like they were Skittles) he knew I could get my hands on some smokes if I was so inclined. I’ve always had a certain empathy for people going through hard times so I asked of the ladies downstairs who liked to talk to me to get me a pick of Marlboro reds which I gave to him the next day when I went back upstairs.

It was a strange arrangement that they had me set up in. I spent all my time upstairs yet continued to sleep downstairs. What wound up happening was I became the gossip magnet for both floors because I was the only non-counselor who had access to each floor. As soon as I plopped myself down in a chair to watch late night comedy the “elders” as I called them (the folks that had been there longer than I had been there) would make their way over to me and pull up a seat next to me. They would fill me in on the latest gossip and of course everyone downstairs wanted to know what everyone upstairs was up to so I filled them in on that. One of the ladies downstairs liked the kid upstairs, the one that was going to prison, so she always wanted to know what he was to and how he was doing. In rehab most of your time is what I call “dead time.”

There’s really no way to make effective use of your time when you’re shuffling in and out of meetings and participating in pointless team-building exercises that should have been banned during the Clinton administration. I was only eighteen at the time, so I had yet to discover my love of writing. Truth be told it wasn’t until I was done with my second stint in rehab and had gotten out of jail that I found my love of writing. I felt very sad when I was downstairs with the grown-ups. It wasn’t that they were bad people or even depressing people. The mood was just rather despairing on account of the general position that these people found themselves in at this particular juncture in their lives. People weren’t exactly happy upstairs either but they weren’t in the perpetual state of misery that I found downstairs either. I actually looked forward to going upstairs not only because I had friends there but because I got to escape what felt like a never-ending stream of sadness that existed downstairs.
When I left rehab I was asked by Gus, who was the leader of the adolescent floor of the rehab facility to write in the going away book. It was supposed to be a way to reflect on all the great times you had in recovery kind of in the say way one might ask you to fill out a questionnaire upon leaving the dentist’s office.

How anyone had anything positive to say in this journal of horrors is beyond me, but perhaps that’s the ultimate sign that you’ve made; when you’re able to recount one of the worst experiences of your life in a way that seems happy. Maybe we’re all just supposed to incur the harsh reality of life and reassure everyone else that it’s not nearly as bad as it seems all the while admitting to ourselves that life really is a giant clusterfuck. That was one of the messages that I got out of rehab. In this book I expected to see questions along the lines of: on a scale of one to ten how likely do you think it is that you’ll be coming back here? I would have put an eight or a nine had that question been asked by the way. But Gus told me that I should reflect on time there and leave any happy memories or sound advice for everyone to remember me by. I started to think that this was a lot like giving a journal to a kid who was in a “time out.” Isn’t whoever is writing in this thing just going to be totally pissed at the whole experience? That’s how I felt. I was tempted to write something along the lines of: “do as many drugs as possible and drink until you can’t stand because life doesn’t get much worse than this place.”

What I wound up writing was a variation on what my grandma used to tell me growing up before I went to school which was: “study hard, you might be President someday.” What I wrote was: “give it your best shot because I don’t want to see any of you downstairs.” I thought at the time and still do think to some degree that that was a rather wise thing to write and probably the most applicable of all the things written in the little book for those still there. When I got out of rehab I was in a very confused state. The first thing I did when I got home was go on a long, meandering walk through the neighborhood I had grown up in. It was quite the eye-opening experience. I reflected on my life and where I was but for whatever reason I gave little thought to where I was going. For whatever reason I believed that I could still drink and use drugs and move forward with my life. For the next couple of years I sort of aimlessly wandered thinking that eventually life would sort of explain itself to me and make my role in it apparent to me in the process. Needless to say this didn’t happen. It took seven more years of mistakes before I finally began to get on track.
It was a long journey to sobriety for me. I started using when I was eighteen and I didn’t fully stop using until this year.

My road to sobriety began in 2009. I had come to the realization about a year earlier that writing was what I wanted to devote my life to. By 2009, it had become abundantly clear that my using was interfering with my work but that evidence was still not enough to stop my destructive behavior. Being an addict I thought that I could balance my work and my addictions. In this, of course, I was quite mistaken. I then realized that at a minimum I needed to scale down my alcohol use which I did for three years until I made the decision in 2011 to get completely sober. It’s one thing to say to yourself: “okay, I’m going to get sober” and quite another to actually take the steps to work towards your complete sobriety. I don’t think I was completely comfortable with the idea of complete sobriety until late 2013. When I actually made the decision I didn’t give it a second thought. It seemed like the obvious thing to do and because I went about getting sober my way I stand a higher statistical chance of staying sober over the long haul. This isn’t to say that I won’t make mistakes. My life is full of mistakes and I would be shocked if I led a choir boys existence from here on in, but the point is that I’m trying my best to be the best me I can be and that’s what getting sober is all about.

What it all boiled down to for me was deciding whether I wanted to continue to live a destructive life where I was used to letting people down and tearing things apart or whether I wanted to live a constructive life built around the idea of being a better person, building people up, helping people out and being a positive force for good in this world. It seems like a relatively simple choice to those who have never had any issues with addiction but for the addict it is quite the quandary. It is often only as a last resort that we make the decision to get sober. For many, the idea of “never being able to drink again” seems daunting and in some ways unattainable. After all, imagine that someone came up to you one day and told you that a major part of your life had to be excluded for the remainder of your years here on Earth. It would not likely go over very well with you and such is the case when presented with the notion that one must never touch another drop of liquor for the remainder of their days. Although sobriety is for the addict an all or nothing proposition we cannot afford to look at it as such. The reasoning is pretty simple. Let’s say I told you that you could never drive your car again. You can ride in cars all you want but you can never drive. Some might be okay with this for a short time, but most would find that the lack of independence that this sort of situation would cause to be alarming. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: if you tell anyone they can never do anything ever again they in all likelihood will not take that news well. It is for this reason that telling an alcoholic that they can never have a drink again can be quite counterproductive for the purposes of getting them sober. Indeed, some contrarians may see this as a challenge. Hat certainly is not the message to send to an addict.

There are many things that we can do to help alcoholics and addicts but telling them what they can or cannot do is not something the will likely wind up being particularly helpful to anyone in any situation. Sobriety is a loaded topic in our culture. Beer and liquor companies dominate the airwaves and those of us who want to live a sober life face a daunting uphill challenge. Because of this it is integral that we understand why we are choosing to live a sober life and what sobriety means to each one of us individually. The reasons will be different for everyone and although I recommend writing down your reasoning for further reference (especially should you find yourself in a situation where you fear you may relapse) it is not necessary so long as you understand those reasons concretely. What sobriety means to me is that I can pursue my writing with all of my energies. Any additional time that I have can be spent doing other constructive things, but being sober means that I have the freedom and flexibility to do what I love. Were it not for sobriety and my decision to live a sober life nothing that I am currently working to accomplish would be possible.

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