Putting Sobriety First.
I heard a phrase over the weekend, told to me by a friend who is still brand new to sobriety (Around 55 days. Great Job! You know who you are!) which I immediately loved and am still amazed that I hadn’t heard before. I connected to it instantly, because it had that simple ring of truth that seems to strike some resonant fiber deep inside. It was simply: “Anything I put in front of my sobriety, I’ll lose.”
That is absolutely true for me. I have to place my sobriety first. Above my job, above my family, above my relationships. Because if I don’t, as time goes on, I will lose those things if I don’t. The only way for me to be fit to engage with other people, with friends, with family, with co-workers, is to be a sober person. The moment I drink, my world contracts to a tiny place. Generally a bathtub. I’ll sit in a bathtub with a lousy novel and a bottle of vodka, and that’s where you can find me. If I drink, that’s where I’ll die, most likely.
But it’s more than that. Because I don’t have to drink to be restless, irritable, and discontent. I don’t have to drink to ruin my relationships and be unpleasant and objectionable to other people. All I have to do is let my own nature of selfishness and self-centeredness take over. I only have to start caring about myself more than I care about my companions and co-workers. My sobriety is far, far more to me than just my abstinence from alcohol.
Twelve step programs are called “programs” because of a phrase in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It describes the steps themselves, when they are explicitly laid out, as “suggested as a program of recovery.” That’s why we call AA “The Program” when we’re using shorthand, or in company that might not understand or simply need to know that we’re in recovery. Many people are surprised to learn that of the twelve steps, only the first step, and the last step, mention alcohol. And the last step only mentions it in the context of talking to other alcoholics.
The rest of the program is about how to repair our lives, given the deplorable state we find them in when we first seek recovery. How to recover from our utterly hopeless states, and resume a life that resembles one of usefulness and sociality. And about how to maintain that life once we’ve achieved it. Sobriety is, for me, and for the great majority of the people I’ve met in recovery, not really about alcohol. Because our problem wasn’t really about alcohol.
My real problem is that somehow, because of genetics or environment or both, I developed in such a way that I had an enormous amount of psychic pain, rage, shame and fear that I didn’t know how to deal with. I couldn’t confront. I couldn’t resolve. In combination with that, there was something about me, probably genetic, that made me respond differently to alcohol from most other people. Alcohol lit up my reward centers like the Vegas strip. More than anything else I’ve experienced. And it made me forget about all that rage and pain.
More than anything else, alcohol was a pure and easy escape from the things that I couldn’t bear to feel. The problem is, it stopped working. Because I grew tolerant. And so much more was needed to drive the wolves back into the shadows. And as I drank more and more, my life became less and less livable. And so I needed to drink more to forget it.
The program allowed me to stop the cycle. By giving up on my attempts to control my feelings with alcohol, I was able to address them in a healthy way. And I continue to be able to move forward in my life with a system for the management of my life. Because, I’m not much better at managing my life now than I was when I was a suicide drunk. But now, I don’t have to be the manager. I have a program. I have a sponsor. I have learned to rely on people who have gone before me, who’ve solved the problems I’m confronting now.
In short, I’ve become social. I think these are things that normal people learn to do in normal ways all the time in life. Look at the community of scientists on twitter. We help each other naturally, providing advice and guidance. Opinions are presented as opinion, generally. We want the best for each other. We cheer success and console failure. It’s a special place. And I think it’s probably mirrored in dozens of venues, all around the world.
But I never knew how to participate in such groups. Because my pain and rage and fear made me anti-social. And I tried to treat it the normal ways. For a long while I was religious. For a long while I went to psychotherapy. These things served me to some extent. But they couldn’t address my core issue: I was in agony. And I was treating the agony with alcohol.
I put so many things ahead of my sobriety, because I didn’t have any sobriety. And I lost them all, or was in the process of losing them all. When I engaged with the program, I began to learn to retain the things that mattered. To abandon the things that didn’t. To engage with social groups. To participate in life.
I can still lose all of that. Immediately and irrevocably. And I don’t have to drink to do it. All I have to do is to start putting them ahead of my sobriety. Because if I drift from the program, from admitting it when I’m wrong, from making amends, from introspection and accountability, I will, inevitably, resume my anti-social nature. And eventually, I’d drink.
I maintain my sobriety so that I can be useful in the world. I write about my alcoholism so that my life can be about more than alcohol. I put sobriety first so that I can do all the things that I cannot do otherwise. I learned how to be social late in life. Things others learned when they were children baffled me for a long time. I’m starting to get it now. I just need to remain planted in the middle row of the garden. In the sunlight. In the rain.