That's what most non-alcoholics say when I mention that I haven't had a drink since December 1995. The other thing I hear sometimes is, "That must take a lot of courage." Or, "you mean you don't drink, EVER?" I always smile, because I am not a brave person. What it took to get and stay sober is the help of other people. Like survivors of the same plane crash, we help each other to shore. The stronger ones help the weaker, the old help the new. An no, I cannot drink safely, so I don't drink. Ever.
I also get asked, "What's the hardest thing about sobriety?" I think the anticipated answer is something like, "Going to family events where everyone is drinking." And that was tough for the first year or two. But now, with a little more perspective, I believe the toughest thing has been realizing how many of my problems were/are NOT so easily blamed on my drinking. They are, in fact, part of who I am, even without a drink.
For example, I long assumed that the reason I had trouble with office jobs was that I was perpetually a train wreck before 11:00 a.m. Yet when I got sober, I found it no easier to sit in a gray-walled cube all day, staring at a computer. Yes, it was easier to GET to the cube, and to do it punctually. But the day-to-day business of it was still like rolling naked in iron filings. It was an unfathomable disappointment. I even went to a shrink because of it. "Teach me some tricks," I said, "to get me thru the work day." "Tricks?" said my shrink. "There are no tricks."
She did send me for a variety of psychological tests, administered at a local university by a guy young enough to have been my son. "Well," I thought, "at least at the end of this I'll have a diagnosis." I was hoping for ADD. But at the end of 3 days of testing, he said, "You suffer from anxiety and depression." "Jesus fuck, kid," I said, "I know that. Isn't there a syndrome, an acronym, a pill?" "No," he said.
So, there it was. I was in my own stew.
In 2004, after the loss of our twin boys to a severe preeclamptic episode during the 24th week in utero, and even more psychotherapy por moi, I thought I would lose my mind. I kept imagining those two tiny babies on a raft at sea, tossed by angry waves under a black sky. Or toddling thru the woods alone and lost. And me, helpless to get to them. Sometimes, these thoughts would hit when I least expected, and I would have to pull to the side of the road, weeping. I prayed but it did no good.But I kept going to my shrink. And I kept talking.
And I realized a few things. First, that despite being told that my recovery from alcoholism depends on my spiritual well being, I am not a spiritual person. For years, I was told to pray to a "higher power of my choosing," but all I could muster was beggary, flattery, or rage. And the God of my upbringing was no help. He seemed to have a drinking problem himself. Just a mean old drunk with a bucket of lightning bolts and no heart. An evil clown waiting around the corner to whap you in the face with a custard pie. No help whatever.
I did at least decide to stop fetishizing over thoughts of suicide. An old high school pal had told me: "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't quit the game." He was talking about the way high school rigged the game against us, but it applied here too.
I'll say one thing for aspiritual recovery (I prefer "aspiritual" to "atheistic"), it's very freeing. No more begging or cajoling. No more lugging virgins, kicking and screaming, up to the volcano's rim, only to toss them in and return to the village to find nothing has changed. Pain happens. Joy happens. Be kind. That's about it.
Years ago, while quite drunk, I wrote down three lines, typed them on a small piece of paper, and folded it into my wallet. They are:
1. Admit that all is flux.
2. Love and be loved fully.
3. Lengthen your line without shortening the line of another.
For my money, you can keep your Ten Commandments and your weeping Jesus on his landlocked mast, those three say it all.
So, what has been the hardest thing about sobriety? Learning that the things I do best, the things I truly love doing, even on my best day, have little or no real value (monetary or otherwise) to others. And knowing that's just who I am. The music I enjoy, the authors I read, are largely unpopular. I leave my car unlocked because nobody would steal it, or my CD collection. I don't dance, I don't understand what an mp3 file is, and I think most TV programs are for subnormals. I'd rather talk to a wino than a preacher. Half of the best moments in my life have been spent alone. I like to sit traveling backward when on a train. I dislike shopping. All the tattoos I have, I've designed myself. And I'm fairly decent on the harmonica.
You never know what you'll see in the street. I remember years ago, when I was newly sober and working downtown, I saw these two women--mid 30s, clearly office workers on lunch break--staring at something on the sidewalk. A baby bird. Bulging eyes still closed, mouth open. "Aww," said one. "Poor thing," said the other. Then they walked on. I looked up and saw the nest wedged behind a drain spout. As I stood there, something in me broke. I said, "Not this bird. Not today."
I went inside, told my boss I needed the afternoon off and grabbed an empty cardboard box. I scooped up the tiny bird as carefully as I could, found a payphone, and called a local nature center that saved ordinary garden animals like squirrels and sparrows. They could take the bird, they said. So I boarded a bus for the 9-mile ride from the city. The expressway was closed so the bus took local streets. The air-conditioning was blasting. I'd lined the box with paper towels but the bird still seemed cold. By the time we got to the road where the nature center was, the bird did not look well.
I got off the bus, walked to the nearest business, and asked to use their phone. "It's the guy with the baby bird," I said. "I'm as close as I can get. Can you send a car out?" Ten minutes later, a car pulled up, and a woman from the center got out. She took a peek in the box. The bird was still breathing. "Surprised it made it this far," she said. "Me too," I said. She told me to call the next day for an update. Then I walked the 2 miles home.
The next day I called the center. The bird had been assigned a case number. "It's a starling," said a woman's voice on the other end of the phone. "You brought this bird all the way out from the city on a bus?" I told her I did. "I've been that bird a few times," I said. "Well," the woman said, "he's gonna make it." I hung up. Later, my boss asked about the bird. I told him the story. "You saved a starling?" he said, "But they're pests."
Graham always had drugs. Drugs and tickets to rock concerts. He’d show up to work high on acid. “Dude,” he’d whisper, “I’m seeing trails right now.” We worked night shift at a deli, selling beers, smokes, and sandwiches to those unlucky enough to live in the welfare hotel next door on 13th Street. But if anyone needed tickets, Graham was The Man.
The boss, Hersh, was a failed pro golfer who’d bought the place from old Jack shortly before Jack died. Hersh worked days and had usually gone home by the time we arrived. He wouldn’t return until closing, so in the interim we did as little as possible: man the register, sweep, keep the fridges full, roust the rowdy drunks. The deli crew handled the sandwich and grill orders.
“You wanna see Clapton?” Graham said, “I got primo seats.”
“Can’t do it, man,” I apologized. “Drank all my pay.” It was true. Hersh paid us in cash at the end of each week, but allowed each of us to run a tab, which he monitored by keeping a hand-written total on the side of a cigarette carton for each man in his employ. By week’s end, after deducting for my tab, I usually took home just enough for a few groceries.
Graham said there were girls at these concerts, though I only met one. He’d brought her by the deli on his night off. I think he was trying to show her off. But she looked a lot like him: wide hips, frog mouth, small raisin-like eyes lost in a pancake face. She would have passed for his sister. But she seemed sweet and willing. I didn’t ask.
One night Graham came in high, as usual, only worse. Hersh had stayed late to go over the beer order and had found some problems. Nothing really serious, but Hirsh was a perfectionist. He once gave one of the deli guys a half-hour lecture on the proper way to slice cheese in isosceles triangles. Nobody had the heart to tell Hersh that the poor bastard didn’t know geometry. Hersh was a little nuts. Too many years trying to hit a ball into a cup with a stick. So when he geared up for one of his lectures about the beer order, Graham knew what was coming and lost it. The two stood nose to nose, screaming, spit flying in each others faces. The bottom line: Graham was fired. Permanently.
A few months later the drinking caught up with me and I missed a shift without calling in. I knew I was done, and I didn’t mind, except for the lecture on professionalism from Hersh—a requirement before I could pick up my final pay envelope.
Years later I saw Graham again, both of us sober. We sat on folding chairs in a church basement and sipped over-brewed coffee from foam cups. Sobriety was foreign to both of us. And aside from its moments of extreme emotional pain, rather dull. No trails, no rock shows, no women. Nothing to say but “Glad you didn’t die out there.”
O America, mad uncle drunken sailor generous miser mother of corn slave ship aground Patton tank flower pot church spire full of bullets flag waver land of grace spree killer cattle rancher bus ticket burger joint sex shop... Happy Birthday
Each day Paul woke up, kissed his girlfriend Sheri as she left for work, and then weighed his options. But the answer was always the same. So he unhooked her TV, the one Sheri’d bought with night after night of overtime, and walked it down to the pawnshop. “Morning, Paul,” said the pawnshop man. “Morning, Harry,” said Paul. The pawn ticket was filled out, and exchange was made. Seventy-five bucks. “See ya tonight?” said Harry. “See ya tonight,” said Paul. Paul walked the fifteen blocks to his usual copping spot to save on bus fare. He didn’t have to wait long. He bought a few bags of dope, then went back to his place, set aside his for the day, then cut the rest with powdered milk to make up for the difference. One shot now, two for later. Paul got out his rig, tied off and spiked. It was good. Like a warm bath on a January afternoon, the sun pouring in between the buildings. Then he straightened up and went out to hustle. If it wasn’t raining and the cops weren’t trying to boost their arrest quotas, he could have all his bags sold by 4pm. Then back to the pawnshop. “Hey Harry,” said Paul. “Hey Paul,” said Harry. The exchange was made, and Paul walked the TV back to his girlfriend’s apartment and hooked it up. Then shot the remaining two bags. When Sheri got home at 7, he was frying pork chops in a skillet. “Hey, babe,” he said, “how was your day?” “Shitty,” said Sheri, “what’s on TV?” She flopped down on the couch and switched on the set.