I understand your complaint and why you would feel guilty about it. It’s tough not to feel empty when we achieved all we once dreamed of. I find myself at ends with my middle class life that’s do different from the life I once knew. I have comfort, enough money and food, a reliable car. But I feel adrift and without purpose.
I remember the first days of sobriety with some fondness. Things seemed so simple. Don’t drink. Go to meetings. Pay the rent. Eat food. The complications of mortgage, insurances, and taxes, as well as relationships with family and work that matters didn’t exist. Choices were straightforward.
Even my surroundings were simple. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment without much of a profile except that it was clean and didn’t have bugs. The place was on the second story of a six-plex and built very much like a shotgun shack. It had oak floors and the look that only comes from quickly slung cheap matte paint. The front room opened into a dining room at the back of which was a narrow kitchen next to a small bedroom. It was a straight shot from the front room to the bedroom. I guarantee that an armed burglar who climbed through the front widow could put a slug in the back wall of the apartment.
It was a humble place. I possessed almost nothing. I had a small writing table, a 12-inch black-and-white TV, and a beach chair. My bed was a mattress set on the floor of the bedroom. I was into birds then and had a couple of cockatiels and finches whose cages I put up for the night in a large closet in the dining room. Sometime after I moved into that apartment, I scavenged a five-foot ficus tree from the curb and set it in the middle of the living room. I had nothing to hang on the walls.
Relief, plain and simple, suffused those first months of sobriety. I had few complaints and felt as if a great weight had been lifted from me. At the same time, I found time on my hands. I read a lot and dove back into school with an angry furor. After homework and study, I spent a good deal of time writing. I propped my notebooks up on the wide sill of the back window. In the early evenings, I would often make myself a cup of coffee and sit down with a pen. The window looked down the fence line of the backyards along the block. Underneath the oaks and elms that filled those yards, I could see the back doors and kitchen windows of the houses.
I remember writing in my notebooks—who knows what, those notebooks are gone now—and watching the lights come on in the houses as evening fell. I liked seeing people making dinner and doing dishes, putting out food for the dogs, and bringing in the laundry as night fell. There was something immensely comforting about watching regular people doing ordinary things. There was an almost magical quality to the dimness under the trees and the warmth of the lights coming on the in the windows.
At the same time, choices were easier then. I had nothing to defend, nothing to save. I had not accumulated material possessions. I’d built no career or job. I had no reputation to defend. I was a new person starting very literally at zero. And even if the scholarship gave me a subsistence living, it was a damn sight better than the life I had been living.
Besides, I was no longer sick all the time. What an experience to wake up in the morning and just feel awake! For the previous decade, I woke up every morning with a hangover. Meeting the day without stuffy sinuses, a headache, and a pit in my stomach was a revelation, and one that I still feel so many years later.
But it’s all bullshit. Everything I just wrote about that time is euphoric recall. Things were hard after I sobered up. I wanted chaos and disorder but could not live with it any longer. I missed mayhem. I was a kid in a man’s body. I had no coping skills. I threw them away when I quit drinking. Everything was new.
And then there were really tough things about living then—food, clothing, and shelter things that you have to take care of no matter how you feel about anything. I could barely make the rent from month to month on a scholarship that I’d gotten out of sheer luck. The school awarded the scholarship to anyone who applied and had a 2.5 GPA. I happened to hear about it and, despite the desperation that alcoholics experience in the last days of their drinking, I filed the right papers in time. That scholarship saved me. Had I not received it, I’d have been begging for dimes on a street corner. I’d been fired from my last job and was so drunk and sick as to be unemployable.
I can’t tell you I pine for those days again because outside of what I’ve just described, I was scared all the time. Without alcohol or drugs to blunt the effects of my own inner failings, I experienced every emotion and setback on raw nerves. I was often angry and wracked with doubt and self-loathing. The failed schemes, hurt people and ruined relationships, wrecked cars, things I’d stolen, and ways I debased myself haunted me. While I could finally find restful sleep, my embarrassments often woke me and kept me awake in the night.
While I some things were simpler when I first sobered up, those things soon disappeared. I was sober only about four months when my girlfriend called and told me we were pregnant. Sobriety took on a whole new meaning and whole new responsibilities. The innocence of the newly sober disappeared. Life was on me in full.
I write all this only to remind you and me that we have it easier now than ever, and that’s what bothers us the most. After living for so long in crisis, we do not know how to live without it. Like you, when confronted with a day or week without anything important to do, when everything is running smoothly and seemingly of its own, I’m miserable. The difference today, however, is that I no longer feel like I have to push the detonator. Too many people depend on me for me to get back into my old ways. I don’t want to drink but I sure would welcome the chaos that came with it from time to time.
So, kick back, old friend. Don’t make any life changes right now. You will find things difficult again soon enough. Then you will feel like you’ve come home.