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What Happened.

17 April 2012

Yesterday I wrote about my early drinking, and my basic drinking behaviors: lying, hiding, vanishing, resentment and narcissism. Today, I want to write about what changed. How did I go from being a drinker to being a non drinker? What does it mean to stop? This is, essentially, the most vexing part of the problem for non-drinkers. For both those who love an alcoholic – or those who are stuck with one – and for alcohol researchers. What makes a person decide that they want to stop drinking?

The science of addiction is getting better. Alcoholics used to die, all the time, when they were deprived of alcohol or tried to quit suddenly and cold-turkey. Alcohol dependence is a physical condition. Withdrawal can include seizures, and cardiac arrest. Detoxification from chronic alcohol abuse is something that should be undertaken, generally, in the care of a physician. Additionally, there are various medications which are supposed to help with cravings once detoxification has been accomplished. We understand more and more about the alcoholic brain.

But there is no therapy that can make an alcoholic want to quit. No medicine that can make an alcoholic choose to enter treatment. Choose to seek out AA*. Courts often sentence drunk drivers and other sloshed defendants to AA. I see them in meetings a lot. Few and far between are the people who end up sticking around and getting sober. Though I do know a very few people who came into the program that way and stayed to develop long term sobriety (what the medical community calls “sustained remission”.).

*I do not pretend that Alcoholics Anonymous is the only way to achieve sustained sobriety. However, it is the way that has worked for me, and so most of my observations come from that perspective. When I am asked to help others achieve sobriety, that is the way I direct them. I can only report my own experience, which shows that the program of AA works for those willing to work for it. I have, in limited ways, interacted with other programs, and I have not found anything I would give credence to.

No. The only things that I have ever seen work consistently, that reliably (though certainly not universally) drive alcoholics into recovery are grinding humiliation and excoriating emotional agony. We talk about “hitting bottom”, which I mentioned yesterday was poorly understood by the world at large. Generally, a non-alcoholic asked to describe hitting bottom will talk about sleeping under bridges, being forced into prostitution, killing people, developing alarming facial hair, etc.. And I have met people who have done all of those things. In fact, I have friends who have most of those things. But that’s not what hitting a bottom is.

Hitting a bottom is an emotional condition. It is described in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” as “pitiful, incomprehensible demoralization.” And that’s as accurate a description as I can give. We choose to seek sobriety, I chose to see sobriety, when I could no longer tolerate the life I was living. When anything at all would be preferable to the daily humiliation of extracting my hidden bottles of vodka, pouring out half of a 20 oz bottle of diet sprite and filling it back up with vodka and sitting in the bathtub with a crappy Da Vinci Code knock-off and wondering if today is the day I’m going to pass out in the water and not wake up. We can live a surprisingly long time like that. For me, the conversation with our marriage counselor finally cracked the shell on my ego. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t lying anymore. I hated what I was. I hated how I chose to live. I recognized it as a choice.

I saw that the thing so toxic to me was not the alcohol. It was the lying. This was the key for me. The cascading comprehension that alcohol was not my problem. My problem was that I didn’t want to confront myself. I didn’t want to live among my own thoughts and mind and self. And that alcohol had allowed me to do that. And it wasn’t working anymore.

And so, shortly after that conversation with our marriage counselor, I went to my wife, in our living room, and finally was honest. I simply said: “It’s every day.” The way she crumpled up was one of the most painful and horrible sights I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to write about.

She told me to leave. She told me to come back sober or not at all. I left. I went to a hotel. I went to see Wes, who had run the alcohol program that I attended when I was negotiating the judicial system in Illinois. I had passed that program with flying colors. When I stepped into Wes’s office, my hand was shaking. It was about 11 in the morning. I was wearing red sweatpants. I told him: “I’m not in trouble with the law. But I think I’m in trouble with alcohol.” And Wes said: “GREAT!” I don’t remember what else we talked about. I remember trying to make a crude joke comparing alcohol to sex.

I didn’t end up working with Wes. In fact, I’m not sure I talked to him again until a couple of years later. What I took from that conversation was that I was really and truly and alcoholic. That I had absolutely no ability to control my consumption once I put any alcohol into my body. And that I was truly and nobly fucked unless I did something drastic to change. So I went back to my hotel. And a googled “Alcohol recovery”. And I called the first phone number I saw.

The phone was answered by a really friendly guy named Jay. Jay talked to me for a long time. Jay had been sober 4 years himself, which was an incomprehensibly long time to me, who could not imagine a day. Based on that conversation, I made arrangements to go to that rehab, out in California. It was absurdly expensive. A few days later I drove to the airport several hours before my flight. I sat down at the bar. I had four 22 oz beers, followed by two double shots of Knob Creek bourbon. I told the bartender: “I just had my last drink.” She looked at me having heard this shit before, and said: “Mmmmhmmm.”

I got on the plane on the 15th of February, 2008. I immediately regretted that I didn’t have any cash and couldn’t get another drink. I got off the plane. I was picked up by a really friendly guy named Andy. He took me to the rehab in a Mercedes. We chain-smoked the whole way. We actually had to pass through a DUI checkpoint. I was taken in by a group of people. A really sweet and pretty young woman. An affable but competent physician. I was given an Ativan the size of a Tootsie Roll. And I went to sleep for three days. Apparently, at one point, I swam into the kitchen at 10 pm and asked for scrambled eggs. I got them. It was that kind of place.

When I unfogged from the benzodiazepines, two basic aspects of the rehabilitation became very clear. First, they were not kidding around. They recognized that this is a life and death struggle. But they also realized that a lot of people who go to rehab expect the rehab to fix them. There’s not a lot they can do for those people. Second, the rehab was based on the program of Alcoholics Anonymous (though it was not affiliated with AA… no rehabs, institutions, facilities, hospitals, etc., are.). They took us to AA meetings six days a week, and the day they didn’t, Wednesday, they hosted one.

We had six or so hours of group therapy, classes, and one-on-one counseling every day, and an AA meeting. It was a gorgeous facility, white sheets and billowy curtains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I spent six weeks there. My wife and step-son came out and visited me in the middle. She was angry. He was sad. When my time was up, I went home. I was 42 days sober. Terrified. Confused. I had gotten my job offer while I was in rehab. But luckily, because of institutional vagaries, I couldn’t actually take the position for six months.

But I had a plan. I would go to ninety meetings in ninety days. I would reconcile with my wife. I would get a sponsor. I would work the 12 steps. I am a child of the ivory tower. I don’t need to reinvent things that I already know work. I knew that there were millions of people who had gotten sober by using the AA program. So I would do that. I got a sponsor. He never called me back. So I dumped him and got another sponsor. Mickey. Mickey is still my sponsor today. I picked him because he was the sincerest person I’d ever met. He very clearly, when he asked me how I was, wanted to know the real answer. A couple of years later, he told me that when I asked him to be my sponsor, he figured I’d be drunk in a month. We laughed about that.

And I did those things. I reconciled with my wife, and we had a pretty good year, year and a half after that. I went to my meetings. I did the steps, one by one, just how they are in the book. I’ll probably write more about them. I do specifically want to address the spirituality aspects of them at some point, for a couple of reasons. One, they’re very poorly understood outside AA (the third person ever in AA was an atheist, and there are many atheists and agnostics in AA today.), and two, spirituality is a stumbling block for many in early sobriety, and I don’t believe it needs to be.

But fundamentally, that’s what happened. I was able to address my alcoholism by realizing in a very fundamental way that alcohol was not my problem. I was my problem. I was trying to use alcohol to anaesthetize myself against confrontation with my real self, my own mind, my own thoughts and desires and understanding. And it worked for a long time. Until it didn’t work anymore.

And that realization, coupled with intensive work on understanding myself, why I drank, and what I was trying not to see, has led to the most amazing outcome: I have no desire for alcohol. I don’t miss it. I don’t crave it. I don’t need it. If you’re not an addict, I can basically promise you that you have never wanted anything, except perhaps oxygen, the way I’ve wanted alcohol. It is a fire in the pit of your heart, a feeling like a fruit-peeler is being raked along your bones. And I have not felt that since the twelfth day of my sobriety.

As I’ve said before, sometimes I miss the way I wish it could be. I wish, sometimes, that I could be one of those people who sophisticatedly has a glass of Shiraz at a dinner party and entertains everyone with my ‘most interesting man in the world’ gig. But I was never that guy, no matter how much I wish I were, or I prefer to remember it that way. I am a drunk. When I put alcohol in my body, I drink until I cannot drink anymore, and then I pass out. But today I have a choice.

I had come to the point in my life where I had no choices. I could not drink anymore. I knew that. But I could not fathom a life without drinking. And so I needed intercession. And I got that through the rehab I went to. Not everyone needs that. I don’t know if I truly needed it or not. But I’m glad I got it the way I did.

Today, life is a wide open plateau. Sometimes terrifyingly wide. But I think that in that way, I’m no different from normal people. And that’s just it. Today, I get to be ordinary. It’s such an astonishing privilege to be ordinarily sober. Ordinarily employed. Ordinarily alive. All this enormous space to live in. All this enormous life to live.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. furtheron permalink
    17 April 2012 10:26

    Again stunningly like my own story… I went to see our Occupational Health people at work, one of them in particular had helped me a lot after 9/11 (I was in NYC that day). She laid some offers out – one of them a rehab and I took that one.

    One thing – 9 months it took me for the compulsion to lift but hey that was just me – others get it day one – I’m glad I stuck it through though as you say now I can be ordinary…

    Also the lying, I lied to you, to him, to her, to everyone but mostly to me – and that is still the most difficult one to fix

  2. g2-64b7ff43a0015f8b17fcd238950f6808 permalink
    17 April 2012 15:38

    You’re doing such a great job telling this story. It’s like being at an open A. A. meeting. Except that you’re more articulate than most people.

  3. 17 April 2012 15:40

    The WordPress comment software really takes the anonymity thing seriously. I can’t get it to stop filling my name in with weird long codes.

  4. inbabyattachmode permalink
    17 April 2012 18:57

    Thanks for sharing your story in such an articulate way! I work on addiction in animal models and it’s all the individual stories like yours that make me realize what a devastating disease it is.

  5. 17 April 2012 21:52

    Thanks so much, everyone. And, inbabyattachmode, feel free to comment/correct/contribute to anything about the science of addiction. I welcome expert review!!

  6. 24 April 2012 21:23

    Wow–powerful stuff. I like to hear these stories because I am reminded of the miracle that sobriety can be.

  7. 90 days permalink
    15 July 2012 20:03

    This post is the reason that April 17th is my sobriety date. Instead of picking up the next drink, I picked up the phone. I don’t know how my story would have unfolded if you hadn’t decided to share your story, and if I hadn’t read it, but I’m glad you did, and I did, and I’m grateful for every day since, and those to come. I hope someone else might read this and find the courage they need too. Life is so much better. Thank you.

  8. one year permalink
    18 April 2013 01:27

    I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude. I’m still here. I am so glad we are friends. So glad for so many things.

    I remember sitting at home after talking with you and before my first meeting, with a fridge full of booze, thinking that I wasn’t going to get a better chance than what you’d just shared with me on the phone for an hour (or more). I remember thinking that if I took a drink instead of taking the help, I was in real trouble.

    I was in real trouble, but there was a way out. Amazing.

  9. two years permalink
    17 April 2014 12:55

    It is a miracle that by sharing our stories, it is possible to see a way out. Thank you again for your courage in sharing yours, so I could find my way out. I came back to read this post again, because this was my turning point. The last two years have held so much more than I could have expected.

    Thank you for being such an important person in my life, and thank you for my sobriety.

  10. three years permalink
    17 April 2015 13:42

    I keep coming back here on my anniversary to remember with gratitude the day things changed for me. Now, I have people I sponsor in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I do service. I continue showing up. I never know what is ahead, but I do know that as long as I continue to put more distance between me and my last drink, there is hope. Thank you for writing your story. Thank you for being there when I needed it.

  11. Four years permalink
    17 April 2016 21:17

    Today was a glorious day, filled with joy. Another anniversary. I have been very mindful of the contrast between today and this day four years ago, where I was on the day I first read this post, you first helped me to find AA, and my life changed. The days before that were dark. That day was hell, to say the least. Today was a miracle. Thank you for passing it on. Thank you for all your good wishes today. Thank you for helping me find a better way to live.

  12. five years permalink
    18 April 2017 10:13

    Yesterday was five years. If feels like a chunk of time. It feels like something substantial. It’s a good start. I went to work, had dinner with a sober friend to celebrate, went to a meeting, my sponsor came to see me and brought me flowers. I was surrounded by people I love who love me. I no longer have to be alone. I can show up for other people. I’m looking forward to a fancy schmancy celebration, because this does feel like a milestone, and I’m so glad you will be there. I am grateful for five years of friendship. The more years go by, the greater the likelihood that something terrible would have happened if I had kept drinking. I’m grateful for my sobriety. I’m grateful for my life.

  13. six years permalink
    17 April 2018 20:48

    Another anniversary, and I am so grateful. You know that the first half of this year saw a lot of challenges in my life. 2017 was a marathon of tragedy, heartache, and grief. But I never needed to take a drink, and I have the gift of knowing that a drink will only make things worse. I know that I can face whatever comes sober, and that I need to be sober to face whatever comes. Life is full of gifts today. That’s not how it looked when I was drinking. I am so grateful to be sober, and so grateful for our friendship.

  14. seven years permalink
    18 April 2019 08:34

    Coming here on my anniversary is a way to remember what it was like on that first day, and the miracle that can happen when one alcoholic reaches out to another. Yesterday was seven years. I was in a meeting the other day that has the promises on a poster on the wall. I can genuinely say they have all come true in my life. I know how to handle things that used to baffle me. The problems I have are a higher class of problems by orders of magnitude. I have accomplished huge, complicated projects without drama or panic. The past year was full of positive change and I was able to meet every new challenge with relative calm and serenity. We say in AA you will have a life beyond your wildest dreams. It’s not that I couldn’t have dreamed the life I have now. I am living the life I dreamed. It’s that I never dreamed I would live it without anxiety, stress, and drama. I never dreamed the person I would be now. For a long time I thought I would never live my dream.

    I leave these little messages in bottles here to remember, to thank you for being there when I needed help, and in gratitude for our friendship. But mostly in the hope that someone with 0 days of sobriety might stumble across this post and see that life can change. We can get better. We do it together. There is hope.


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