The first time I got sober was in the year 2002, and I was 32 years old. I have spent the last 13 years of my life in recovery, more or less. So now I find myself a middle-aged gay man, a washed-alcoholic/drug enthusiast, and a spiritual junky. And I have never, ever been happier or more alive to the possibilities the future holds. Let me tell you kids, it’s a long strange life… That is, should you be lucky enough not to die while enjoying the “consequence-free” shenanigans of your youth. I am grateful to be alive, grateful to be in my 40’s, and grateful that things seem to be getting better and better, still.
So like I mentioned, I have had long-term sobriety in my life, but the truly remarkable thing is that, only in the last year have I managed to shed the feelings of anxiety and general inferiority that have plagued me since early childhood, and experienced a sense of inner freedom. Unfortunately I had to relapse to do it, after 10 years stone cold sober in AA. But in hindsight, I see I was never able to get comfortable in my own skin, even in sobriety. Giving up my “medication” had initially left me with a disturbing feeling of being exposed, like I had lost my clothes and was naked in public, for months and months. This mellowed into chronic, floating anxiety, and eventually loneliness, even though I had many, many friends whom I loved. But I adapted, and managed to bury or ignore any awareness of the fact that I was still scared of my own shadow. And eventually I was so tired of the person I had become, and the work it took to maintain a false sense of contentment, that I no longer felt that sobriety was worth it. I needed a break from myself.
So without knowing exactly why, on my 42nd birthday, I ordered an elegant little cocktail at a bar in another city. I understood that I was waking the sleeping dragon, that I could (and did) lose the precarious structure of my sober life–my “time” in the program, my friends, money, job, credibility and my self-respect. What I did not yet understand was that I would meet myself in the process–the light, the dark, the vulgar and the divine–and that it would be worth it. I burned my house down because it didn’t suit me anymore, and never really had. I missed my old drunk and drugged self, because that boy was more authentic than the sober man I had become.
Within a month I was back to a daily 12-pack of beer, augmented with vodka, and also the fun NEW additions of amphetamines and Xanax, just to keep things running smoothly… I knew my little experiment had failed, and that I would need to get sober again. Things were getting DARK, as they do when you live every waking moment under the influence, and my life was going full-speed toward a cliff. But I was already afraid to stop. It had to get pretty bad before I was finally persuaded to give rehab a try—and I’ll write more about that in future posts. But I had never been to rehab before, and I was actually looking forward to it. A break from work, a lot of therapy, reading books, quiet time… Yeah right! But anyway, after drinking and using for a year, I couldn’t make any more excuses at work about all the balls I was dropping, and I came clean, and offered to go into treatment to save my job. So I turned myself in at the treatment center my doctor recommended.
And I loved it. Then I relapsed. Then I went back again, and hated it, and relapsed again. I went through four treatment programs before enough pieces of the puzzle fell into place, before I was willing and able to take a good, hard look myself, which was the real underlying problem. I learned that my powers of denial were extremely well-developed, and I had to work hard to uncover the truth within my own mind. I had no idea I was in denial whatsoever—I fancied myself a man who knows his own mind. I had to learn how to just sit with my feelings, even the ugly, scary, and sad ones, and not try to escape, or meditate them away… And I survived! I came to understand that they had absolutely no power to hurt me, and if I REALLY looked into them, they each carried a message from my internal divine wisdom, and then evaporated. Poof! Not so scary after all.
So it turned out I had been running from my own shadow all along. I was afraid of my own feelings. As I have gradually become unafraid of how I’m going to feel, I’ve lost my fear of the world. It’s become a truly friendly place, and when it isn’t, I don’t take it inside and ask what I did to bring that upon myself. I am also losing my fear of being alone, and enjoying my own company again. It was, as they say, an inside job. And it’s not over.
One of the things I have learned is that I love, respect, and am grateful to AA, even though I found it considerably more difficult to come back as a “relapser” than it was being a member in good standing. But I thank God AA was there for me when I had nowhere else to turn, and welcomed me with open arms, and showed me that people really can be happy sober – and far happier than before. Even if they’re still a little crazy… but we love that. Ha! And I learned that the “big book” provides clues about or outright prescribes every single spiritual remedy I’ve learned to practice. I just needed some professional help to put it all together. Deep and consistent therapy has helped me uncover some deeply-buried core beliefs and outdated survival strategies that I needed to discard in order to really grow and thrive. And I got a start on a satisfying spiritual life that relieves my inherent sense the world is just NOT OK unless I put something in my body to change my perception.
Since my relapse, I have also learned that there’s a lot of variability between treatment centers and modalities, just as there are between AA meetings. You need to find the ones that suit you. I have experienced treatment that really helped me, and treatment that did little if anything at all, other than restricting my substance intake while on the premises. Fortunately I was able to spend an entire year getting sober again without working full-time, exploring and adjusting, and returning to treatment after every subsequent relapse. My “teachable moment” would have probably passed me by had I not persisted in seeking recovery. I knew I had a sober life to return to and that I wanted it and could do it, so I persisted. Had I NOT known that, I might have given up for a while, or forever.
My hope now is to be able to help other alcoholics and addicts realize they CAN get sober, and be happier than before (absolutely fabulous in fact), and lessen the fear and ambivalence every one of us feels before parting ways with our best friend and companion, whatever substance that might be. I would also like to help beginners make the most out of the limited time they may have to undergo treatment, and/or in a 12-Step program. After 13 years in different modes of recovery, I have a lot of stories to tell. And I would very much like to pass on some of what I have learned, here in my blog and website, and practicing consulting one-on-one. Feel free to contact me at any time – I am here for you. And I’m telling you, this is a trip worth taking, no matter how impossible it may seem at the outset.