Settling into Long-Term Sobriety.
For the longest time, really up until about four years sober, I liked to think of myself as remaining in early sobriety. That felt important. By feeling like I was early in my sober life, I guarded it very carefully. I learned as much as I could about being sober and staying sober. I did the things that I knew I would have to do to maintain my defenses against alcohol. I worked very hard, and learned from everyone I could to develop my tools.
I learned how to avoid trouble by steering myself clear of tempting situations. I learned how to guard myself emotionally and set boundaries. I learned, crucially, to not be afraid of offending or insulting people if I needed to leave a situation. Going along to get along is a fabulously dangerous behavior for newly sober drunks, and I’ve seen it derail and kill people.
These days, I’m much more comfortable feeling like I’m establishing myself as a long-term sober person. I’ve been blogging about my recovery now for seven years. Which means I’m approaching eight years of continuous sobriety. And through adhering to the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ve managed to make my life a conscious, deliberate process of living.
It’s been hard work, but well rewarded. And I see that echoed over and again in the fellows and friends I have in the program of AA. Little is more rewarding than seeing new and bewildered people, in terrible pain, gradually rise from the sloughs and establish themselves into a life of sobriety and purpose. I see it constantly. And it thrills me every time I do.
Today, I have good grasp of my tools. When I go out with friends and they drink, sometimes I look briefly at that glass and wonder how it would feel to pick one up. But it doesn’t tempt me. I don’t crave. And I know how to keep my addiction at bay today. By accepting it, and myself, for the truths of what we are. By surrendering to the immutable conditions in which I persist. I am an alcoholic. I will always be an alcoholic. And being an alcoholic is not a terrible thing.
In fact, for some of us, being alcoholics is wonderful and strange and enlightening. I have learned things about myself, and about others, and about connections and communities that I think I could not have learned any other way. I have come to understand what is meant by a “grateful alcoholic”.
I am grateful to have come into remission from my alcoholism. I am grateful that I am no longer welded to the bottle, sick and miserable and useless. I am grateful that I am capable of participating in society. But that’s not all it means to be a grateful alcoholic. I am grateful to be an alcoholic. Because, through my sickness and recovery, I have learned how to live in a way that I think very few people have the opportunity to learn.
Recovering from the depths of alcoholic desolation, and the work that must be done on one’s self to initiate and maintain that recovery, is a kind of emergence that is, even for those among us who are not believers in deities, spiritual. I have no other word for it. It’s not magic. It’s not supernatural. It’s simply a kind of spiritual nourishment. Something good for the mysterious places in the human heart.
Now, in long-term sobriety – or at least medium term – I am capable of accessing the resources I built, the energy I invested, the efforts I stockpiled to confront and surmount new challenges. These resources I might not have had if I had never been forced to confront my addiction.
I’m fond of saying that wealth is built through labor. And the same is true, I think, of spiritual wealth. I have invested years of hard labor in my heart and spirit and mind. I have had to, because I had incurred deep debts through my addiction. But I have paid my debts, or most of them, anyway. And I am now able to collect the dividends of all that work.
That is no excuse to stop working. It is all too easy to squander amassed fortunes – of any type. But I have settled into a life of steady but slow progress. And that’s a good life. I have a good life. And I think it’s a better one than I’d have had if I had not been an alcoholic. And so I’m grateful. I am in remission from a generally terminal illness, which could (and often does) relapse. And yet I’m grateful. Because today, I’m sober. And sane. And happy. Because I’m useful.