Long Read: My Story of Recovery

It took multiple bottoms and a lot of suffering before I was finally able to get some lasting sobriety. Today, life is beautiful.

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It took me a long time and many vain attempts to finally get sober. By the time I began my journey into long-term sobriety at the age of 48 I had spent 24 years – literally half my life – trying to get sober.

Growing up I often felt out of place. My parents were much younger than those of my friends and we didn’t have much money. My dad had long hair and a beard. He was a rock bassist. Once, on the bus, a kid asked him if he was God. My mom was very attractive. I know that because men were always hitting on her in front of me. We lived in an apartment. My friends lived in houses. Their dads were bald and wore ties. I always had what I really needed but I often felt less than others. I was an underachiever in school and socially awkward. My parents had been separated a lot and finally got divorced when I was in third grade. I didn’t think I took it all that hard but there was a period when I was having a lot of temper tantrums and getting into a lot of fights. My report cards always said something about my “lack of self control”. I just didn’t know how to be, if that makes sense. My parents loved me, though. I know that. My mom used to make up songs about how much she loved me. Everyone has some stuff to deal with growing up and that was some of mine. 

Drinking took on an important role in my life at an early age. I was 13 or 14 the first time I drank, and I got very drunk.  During those first times the world became magical. Things were funny and fun and light. I felt funny and fun and light. I was able to entertain and amuse people. I remember large groups of people laughing at things I was doing and saying. I had a new king of courage that I had lacked before. I was able to talk to girls and found that some of them liked me. As a teenager I wasn’t drinking daily by any means but I was starting to have some consequences. I never got caught but I was already driving drunk. Once I went to a high school basketball game and made a scene in front of the entire gym, including the principle, who was a Catholic priest. Shortly after that I made a decision to leave that college prep school my mother had worked so hard to get me into and finish my last year in public school. My grades were miserable. No one tried to talk me out of it.

In college I matured in a lot of ways but my drinking also reached new levels. I was an excellent student for the first time in my life and made a lot of friends. My dad had taught me a little bit of bass and I played in bands. I fancied myself a rockstar there on that small college campus, and I engaged in rockstar antics. My drinking then was full of bravado and trouble making. I was always seeking attention and some came from unwanted places. I got my first arrests – for drunk and disorderly conduct (several times) – and over time the school performance which had provided some stability started to seriously degrade. I stayed on for graduate school and within the first semester I was experiencing some of the symptoms of full-blown alcoholism – the fear of running out, the powerful feelings of being unable to stop once I started, drinking a lot and not getting drunk, drinking a little and getting wasted.

But the worst symptom of all was the loneliness, the kind the Big Book describes as a loneliness such as few will ever know. It was summertime in a college town and almost all my friends – what friends I had left as I’d lost quite a few – had graduated or else were traveling abroad, or working at other places, or back home with their families. I was alone and emotionally and mentally dependent on alcohol, which rarely provided the sense of ease and comfort it had in earlier times. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of being so completely attached to something that no longer provides pleasure or support. I still had a thesis to write but my funding was exhausted and I had no real reason to stay anymore. I also had an outstanding warrant out for my arrest, for a no-show at court for charges of public intoxication. I had been too hung over to get up and get there. Naturally it made sense to leave town and that’s what I did, moving from Ohio to Virginia to stay with my then girlfriend, now ex-wife, K.

I later learned that my move was an example of what is sometimes called a “geographical cure“, an almost always vain attempt to escape one’s alcoholism by escaping their current surroundings. But like the old saying goes “wherever you go, there you are“ and my alcoholism was right there with me.

Within a few months I was given an ultimatum about my drinking: quit or leave. I had been warned by a friend this would happen and it did. Shockingly, I did manage to quit, through willpower and marijuana. I stoped drinking for six years and honestly my life did get better. But while marijuana didn’t turn me into the maniac that alcohol did, it did consume me. I smoked it chronically, losing any motivation I had and becoming very boring. I was irritable and sullen when I was without it. 

When I started drinking again six years later I didn’t think of it as a relapse. After all, I had never acknowledged myself to be an alcoholic. I’ve never done the 12 steps or even been to a meeting. I had been told a few times over the years that I was an alcoholic, something that had made me very upset and angry. But I got any of that out of my mind just as fast as I could. No, I remember distinctly how I started drinking again, how it all made so much sense. Having never completed my masters degree and having abandoned any ideas of becoming a professor, I had spent the last six years cooking professionally. And of course when one cooks gourmet food one must also have some nice wine with dinner. Besides, I reasoned, it had been six years since I last drank and I was much younger and wilder back then. I had matured a lot. K agreed that we could try again, and we had a couple glasses of wine with dinner that very night. I remember it well. With that first sip of wine one part of me said “hello old friend, how I’ve missed you“ and the other part of me was scared, very scared.

It took several years for my life to fall apart. As in the early days of college I had some structures in place to help keep me functional even as my drinking progressed. K and I were married now and had two kids. I got a professional job. We bought a house, had a home. I even became a deacon in a church! But for a real alcoholic normal life can rarely be sustained for long. Oh the irony – what began as a glass or two of fine wine with dinner became hiding in the garage chugging rot-gut wine out of one and a half liter bottles.

I began doing a lot of secret drinking.

Incidents of embarrassing myself and my wife at social functions became more frequent. Sometimes I would congratulate myself for having only two drinks at a  happy hour with colleagues only to come home and drink myself to oblivion. During that time I discovered that a morning drink could help with an unbearable hangover and that another drink as soon as I got home from work could temporarily relieve the increasingly intense anxiety I had begun to suffer. But of course the drinking was causing the same anxiety it was so briefly relieving, along with the depression that would become my persistent state.

The extent of my drinking became harder to hide as my judgment degraded and I made more and more bad decisions in my personal and professional lives. My marriage, which had been on shaky ground for months, was moving towards an official separation. My kids were at summer camp and my wife was staying with a friend as I had became increasingly difficult to live with. I was again plagued with feelings of the most intense loneliness, a persistent feeling of impending doom, a looming and inescapable darkness. Finally everything came to a head when I totaled my car, crashing into a fire hydrant and getting a DUI. It was 9:20 in the morning and I was on my way to work. My mother traveled from Ohio to Virginia to take me to my first AA meeting. I was 42 years old.

When I got to AA the first thing I noticed was how happy everyone seemed, how much lightness there was about them, how openly they talked about the things that it happened to them and the things they had done. There was also a tremendous earnestness about them and the seriousness about spirituality. I desperately wanted to be sober and I got a sponsor and began to work the steps. My life got much, much better. But by the insidious and twisted logic of alcoholism the sanity and health resulting from not drinking can themselves convince the alcoholic that maybe his drinking wasn’t so bad after all.

I spent the next six years in and out of AA. I knew that I was an alcoholic and yet still want it so badly for it not to be true. I wanted the sanity and serenity that came with being sober but still wanted to do the things I had done when I was drinking. The pull of my old ideas was strong. Incomprehensibly, ever since I had first come into AA, part of me thought of myself as someone who was sober, someone who is sober but still drinks sometimes. The alcohol mind is prone to such absurdities and to such a mind alcohol is indeed cunning, baffling, and powerful.

A pattern emerged where I would drink a little bit in secret for some period of time. And then when things invariably turned very bad I would go to a meeting and admit my relapse but pretend that it had been one night. This happened over and over again and the intervals between secret drinking and things getting really bad got shorter and shorter. I was plagued by two distinct and contradictory delusions. The first was that somehow, in some way I would someday figure out how to drink like a normal person. In the second, I knew would never be able to drink successfully but believed that I could nevertheless get away with it “just this once“ and then get sober again in AA when things got bad.

All the same old feelings came back stronger than ever – the guilt, shame, and remorse, the persistent despair, and that intense, unbearable loneliness. Finally after a period of five days drinking without stop, without breathing a sober breath, I had a moment of clarity. Drunk on a sunny Sunday morning I knew I was on the verge of losing everything and that I could no longer take AA for granted and assume that I would make it back to get sober again. I realized that I might die first. I was given the gift of desperation.

That evening I went to a meeting. I had continued to drink that day and I was still drunk when I got there. I caused a scene. It was a step meeting with a mini lead and the speaker was someone I knew, though not well, from previous years in and out of the rooms. I asked him to be my sponsor. He told me to call him the next day and we could talk about it. 

The next day, convinced that I was sincere, TK agreed to sponsor me, but also reminded me that he’d be leaving the country for a remote island the following day and would be unreachable. He asked me to pick someone with good long-term sobriety to whom I could be accountable and to call that person every day in the meantime. I called Walt that day and repeated what TK had said. Walt agreed to talk with me but said that he thought I should call three sober alcoholics a day. This was not the kind of action I was accustomed to but I agreed to do it and I did. I was willing  – finally – to go to any lengths to get sober. I went to meetings every day, on most days more than one. I joined a home group that met at 7:30 AM every single day and I started going daily before work. These actions alone helped to change me in significant ways. I started talking to people after meetings, getting encouragement and taking advice. My sponsor and I met once a week and read the big book word for word, doing the steps exactly as outlined, writing where it said to write and praying where it said to pray. I called TK frequently, seeking counsel. I continued to call other alcoholics, too, sometimes to talk about things I was struggling with, sometimes just to say Hi. 

At my home group everyone with less than a year was invited to give their day count and I did that at every meeting until I picked up my one year chip. I was becoming part of a community. One of the biggest changes I made was to start going out to dinner and coffee with other alcoholics when I was invited. I had always worried before that the waitress would know we were in AA and that I’d be embarrassed. I found that not only was I able to receive help but that I was able to help others as well. I started to pray and meditate every morning and every night, and even though I wasn’t even sure what I thought God was, I did my third step with the whole of my being.

I wrote my inventories and took a hard look at myself. I learned that the lives of others didn’t revolve around me and that everyone has struggles. I prayed for those against whom I held resentments and found that the way I felt towards them changed. I made amends, became committed to helping other alcoholics. I began to experience a psychic change. I’m still experiencing one.

An important part of the psychic change was to stop feeling ashamed of my alcoholism and especially to stop feeling ashamed of my sobriety.

Just about a year after my sobriety date, a woman whom I had met some months before and to whom I was very attracted came to a meditation group that I regularly participated in. I’d been going to the group for nine months and had never seen her there. Afterwards I reached out to her and we talked about getting together for coffee or a walk. I was very excited. But a few days later she told me she’d thought about it, that in just a few months she would be leaving for a year in Indonesia, and that she didn’t think it was a good idea after all . I was very disappointed but I didn’t try to talk her out of it or change her mind. I simply said that I was disappointed but that I understood and I wished her well. A couple weeks later she came back to meditation and we talked again and ended up having coffee after all. Shortly after that we went out to dinner and while she was looking at the drink menu she asked me when I was going to get to drink. I told her that I was in recovery and I had been sober for almost a year after years of struggling. This was the first time I had said this on a date and I look back on it as an important milestone. As it turns out, H regarded this news with admiration. We continued to date knowing full well that she’d be leaving at the end of the summer and we fell in love anyway, knowing that the future was absolutely uncertain. Over the following year I visited in the fall and Hannah came back in the winter to see friends and family and then I visited Indonesia again in the spring. We lived our own lives where we were but kept in touch on an almost daily basis. Late that spring Hannah was accepted into a PhD program in Pittsburgh and invited me to go with her. The prospect was both thrilling and terrifying. My kids were in college, I’d been living in Richmond for more than 20 years, I felt secure in my sobriety, I worked a job that was easy to do remotely, and I was ready for change. Part of me thought that the idea was crazy and that was not an unreasonable thought. But – and this is the most important thing – I felt secure in my sobriety and in the protection afforded by a community of sober people in AA and in the knowledge that whatever happened I would be OK. In my life this is the most powerful first-hand experience I’ve had with the third step. I was fully aware that things might not work out and willing to accept any outcome.

Today Hannah and I are married, we’re about to go spend eight months in Indonesia together, and we’re trying to start a family. I pray and meditate every day. I have a strong community of people both in and not in recovery. My recovery is known to our many normal drinking friends who are not themselves in recovery. I do things that would have seemed absurd to suggest that I would do seven years ago – I go to the gym, I do yoga, I do rock climbing, I’ve been to eight countries in the last four years alone. I never thought I would get married again I never thought I would have children again but here I am. My life is amazing and like nothing I could have imagined. My sponsor likes to say “if I had settled for what I thought I wanted, I would have sold myself short”. This is how I feel about my life and this is how I feel about my relationship with God. I don’t know what God is but I know that God is somewhere in all the beauty and wonder of a life I couldn’t have possibly planned for myself.

There have been times over these six plus years of continuous sobriety when I have felt envy on seeing someone who came into the program with me thirteen years ago celebrating an anniversary, thinking that could have been me with eight years, or ten, or thirteen if I had been able to get sober the first try. But while I wouldn’t wish the suffering I experienced during those for six years on anyone, they weren’t wasted on me. I learned a lot about sobriety in those years of coming in and out, a lot about what doesn’t work, and a lot about what I need to do if I want to get and stay sober. And what I’ve learned is that half measures availed me nothing. For me to stay sober I have to be all in, my recovery has to be the number one most important thing in my life. I had heard many times that I would lose anything I put before my sobriety and I now know that to be true. I understand now that sobriety is what makes everything good in my life possible, above all the good and loving relationships I enjoy with my family, my friends, and my community. My life is amazing today because of those relationships and because of the gratitude I have developed as part of this program. For the first time I feel at home in the world and in my self. Life is full of beauty and wonder. The sober life, for me, is nothing like the drab bore I thought it would be and which I resisted for so long. For me the sober life is, above all, an adventure.

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