When I sobered up twenty-five years ago, I wasn’t ready for the new life presented me. I was out of joint, sick, and without one lick of self-awareness. Some of this can be a blessing. Had I known what the future held for me, particularly the amount of work I would have to do on my past, I might never had made it.
When the end came, I was simply ready to be unsick. I didn’t understand what “healthy” meant, but I wanted an end to the pain. A few days after putting down that last drink, I became unsick. It was a new feeling to me, to see the day and the life in front of me without the lens of a hangover for the first time in over nine years. I was 27 and had been drinking regularly since I was eleven. By the time, I was 18, I was drunk every day. Every damn day. Hangovers ruled my mornings, jitters the afternoon. It was only with the coming of night that I felt the relief that only comes to an alcoholic with enough to drink, get drunk, and pass out.
I can’t say I loved being a drunk. Of course, at first, the feeling of drunkenness overjoyed me. I felt like another person. I was no longer the fat kid. I felt articulate, smart, accepted by my peers. These feelings were fleeting, as soon as the drink wore off, I became my old self, and I didn’t like that self. I hated that self. I always needed more drink to feel different, better, and more fit for a life in the wider world.
After a couple of years, however, life turned sordid. My apartments rotted in their buildings. I sustained a life, but just barely. I often went without a car because car money cut into my drinking money. Isolation was my lot in life. I quit drinking in bars. It was less expensive to drink at home alone. At one point, I decided not to have a phone. I had no one to call.
Putting down the drink was hard at first. I wanted to drink. I sought the kind of escape I related to the early days of drinking. I had lost that escape over time and just became miserable, in love with the idea of escape, of the process of passing out, but unable to relive the euphoria and lack of inhibition that came to me in those first days of drinking when I was just a kid.
I wasn’t unsick long before I came to see a person I didn’t recognize. I was the fat kid again but I didn’t identify with that kid. I lost my ability to articulate myself—as least as much as I thought I expressed myself eloquently. I didn’t feel a part of the world around me, but this wasn’t new to me. Years of drink had isolated me from my peers. I didn’t go about in regular society. In fact, the last three years of drinking, I drank almost exclusively alone.
Then, being unsick wasn’t enough. I seemed to be going nowhere. The relief I felt in the first days and months of being sober faded. I had to do more if I was to live happily. I didn’t even know what that meant, I just knew I wanted it. I wanted to be happy.
But I didn’t know myself. Which person was I? The drunk who retreated to dark rooms to complete the process of blacking out and passing out? The guy who felt such relief at giving up drinking? I knew, somehow, that I had a good heart. But I fumbled at being generous, compassionate, and loving.
It was then that I confronted my past. I wouldn’t long stay sober unless I dealt with my past. I made an inventory of all the wrecked cars, relationships destroyed, money stolen, liquor filched, and lies told. The list went on for pages in my journal. How would I approach the people I’d done wrong? How would I replace wrecked cars? How would I even find some of these people, people who had long given up on me and ran to escape my self-destruction?
I grit my teeth and went at it little by little. I called old acquaintances. I went to employers to tell them of my stealing and offered some restitution. None took me up on it, there was no way, they said, to account for cash but in goods bought and sold. What would they do with a cash payment?
Only a few people were so hurt that they turned away my calls and visits. Many people disappeared from my life forever, and all I could do was to try to be better with people in the future.
Somehow, I turned all the destruction to good. I realize now that all those cars, people, stolen things and money lead me to where I am right now, writing an essay about getting and staying sober.
I still get a twinge of embarrassment from time to time. I remember something in the long past, a work uttered in anger, an awkward moment, an inappropriate action or thought. Moments of unspeakable torture of others and advantages taken crop up from seemingly nowhere. I think to myself, well, that’s long ago and no one would remember it. Then, I realize that unless I’m willing to face the consequences of my actions, words, and thoughts, I will not be happy.
In the end, I still don’t know what happiness is. I feel it, I think, in isolated moments. I continued to make mistakes in sobriety. I didn’t become a social butterfly. I made people uncomfortable with my words and actions. I was awkward and untoward sometimes. I still go through periods of deep self-loathing and doubt. I punish myself for being me. Overall, however, the work of sobriety pays off in good, healthy relationships. I am only unsick part of the time. Otherwise, at least from my perspective (which changes) I’m healthy in mind and spirit.
I live with my past every day. There is no way to go back and un-wreck a car or restore a bitter, broken relationship. Sometimes, I can only make the best of a bad job.