Let Me Do Sobriety My Way
While I may not be your definition of sober, I am mine. So stop telling me that I’m dry, addicted to chocolate or need an exercise intervention.
I quit drinking in 2009 without the help of AA or rehab. There was no intervention, medical crisis or new low that finally spurred me to action. I got sober as I had gotten fucked up—alone, under my own power. Three weeks into my sobriety, a survey I took at a public health clinic flagged me to an outreach program, Project Link, and they hooked me up with an addiction specialist at Weill Cornell Medical Center. I've attended counseling sessions there for the last couple of years and my relationship with my doctor has been a huge help to both my sobriety and my overall happiness but we've been clear the entire time that I own my sobriety—it is my creation and I define its parameters. I got myself sober and I alone am ultimately responsible for keeping myself sober. I feel good about my sobriety but I don't necessarily feel pride about it. As my parents pointed out to me when I was a little kid, you don't get extra points just because, for once, you did what you were supposed to do.
Maybe a month after I stopped drinking, I took a job as night manager at a bar on 14th street, a bar I had drank in, fallen asleep in and gotten tossed from. It was a decision that everyone questioned, myself included. I took it for two reasons. First, I reasoned that alcohol was everywhere. “Avoiding temptation” was an illusion: there was a liquor store across the street, a bodega next door, my roommate's beer in the fridge and Listerine in the bathroom. If I wanted to drink, I was going to drink. Second, I didn't have another option. I needed that fucking job. It wasn't “sink or swim”—swimming was the only option I had. I worked there for two years and though I was sorely tempted many times, I never drank.
I’d been sober for more than a year before I admitted to anyone that I was an alcoholic and sober for two years before I submitted the general public to that ugly news. Initial reactions ranged from actual tears of gratitude and relief to the girl at the bar I was managing who looked at me slyly, swaying on her heels and said, “So what would happen if you took just one sip?” and tried to push her drink into my hand.
When others learn you’re an alcoholic, you immediately become a victim of the information shrapnel they’ve passively absorbed about the disease.
After their first splash of surprise (or lack thereof), I had to accustom myself to my peers viewing me through the distorting lens of alcoholism. My experience has taught me that most people—even intelligent, worldly people—have bad data about alcoholism. When others learn you’re an alcoholic, you immediately become a victim of the information shrapnel they’ve passively absorbed about the disease. They don’t see you, a specific, unique person burdened with a wily, tenacious affliction. They see Andy Capp, Charles Bukowski, Anna Nicole Smith, Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, any character from any pre-1990 Tom Waits’ song, after school specials, a faulty decision tree that always returns to alcohol, their drunken aunt/uncle/mother/father/whatever. Every sentence you utter, even the minutest gesture you make, is filtered through volumes of self-help literature, hours upon hours of well-intentioned talk shows and second- and third-hand paraphrasings of the aforementioned.
In my three-plus years of sobriety, friends, enemies and strangers alike have offered me their unsolicited, uninformed, condescending input on my life: I'm not an alcoholic because I was able to quit on my own without AA, I'm not sober because I don't go to AA or work the 12 steps, I'm not sober because I infrequently indulge in psilocybin mushrooms, I'm a “dry drunk” because my soul is not infused with God's healing light, I've become a caffeine addict/a "chocoholic"/an exercise addict/a sex addict, just exchanging one addiction for another.
Part of this is my fault. Usually, when we make the big declaration—“I’m an alcoholic”—we often leave off the last, most important part: “…so I’m going to stop drinking and work very hard to make lasting changes in my life. Some of them may seem bizarre or ill-advised to you, but I ask you to be patient with me and supportive of me because it’s not going to be easy.” I got to the first part when I was 17—piece of cake! It took me 15 years of hard drinking to get to the crucial second part. But lots of people will be tempted to pathologize your every move once they know you are an alcoholic/addict. Some of them will just be pricks with massive problems of their own. They will also be people you love and people who love you, making your tough situation even tougher by inexpertly expressing the ways in which they care for you.
So let’s go point by point. Just as alcoholism existed before AA, alcoholics have stopped drinking before AA existed. It strikes me as bizarre that my disease can be reverse-diagnosed by its "cure." The only other instance of this I can call to mind is the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century where a suspected witch was subjected to the “ordeal of water”—repeatedly held under water for increasing amounts of time until she proved her innocence by drowning. (The few who survived were clearly witches, so they were hanged.) Oh, there's also House, in which a maverick pill-popping doctor subjects patients with bizarre ailments to a battery of increasingly unorthodox and dangerous cures. Folks, that's a TV show. It's fiction.
I know that I'm an alcoholic. My family and my friends who have known me for 20 years recognize that I'm an alcoholic—they knew long before I did. It's taken a lot of humiliation, soul-searching and grim self-evaluation for me to admit I am an alcoholic—first to myself, then to my inner circle, then to the world at large. Please don't further demean me by telling me it's not real or pushing me for proof.
There is no empirical data which proves that AA helps alcoholics get sober or stay sober. Yes, you can cite story after transformative, inspiring story, as can I, but that's all anecdotal evidence. AA is a secret society with no accurate active member count and no measurable success rate. An article in Wired on the organization’s 75th anniversary reported that, from the best information available, AA doesn't work. Multiple accredited sources report that AA members fail to stay sober more often than they succeed. Does AA help at all? Wired reports that it does and I believe that it does. Wired also reports that group talk therapy like the sharing that occurs in AA helps people recovering from cancer and pathogen-driven diseases like tuberculosis. My takeaway is that it benefits people suffering from a hardship to congregate with other people suffering from the same hardship to talk about their experiences. As such, I support AA as one potentially useful tool but it’s not one that works for me. In no way is AA or the 12 steps the alpha and omega of recovery its strictest adherents would have you believe.