Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. Try moving from New York to rural Japan. For three years. With your wife and son. Then live to tell the tale.
“Sounds like a geographical cure to me,” a friend said. Her lopsided smile and knowing nod radiated smugness. I was newly sober then and about to move from my Midwestern hometown to live in California with a woman I’d only just met. Everything was going to be different. More importantly, I was going to be different. So yeah, I was pulling a geographic. I was moving to a different city with the expectation that all my restlessness, irritability, and discontentment would be relieved. Nobody approved, but I did it anyway. And yes, it was a disaster. And it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
It wasn’t always fun, but it was better than the kind of not fun I have when I don’t try anything.
A few years later, with my new sponsor in San Francisco, I was contemplating a move to Mexico. He told me to go. “A geographic won’t cure alcoholism, but nobody said you can’t go where you want to go. Life your life!” And so I went, and went, and went. Mexico, Canada, Egypt, Syria. I slept under bridges in Seattle, I painted houses in London, I crashed parties in Paris. I found meetings everywhere I went. I stayed clean and sober, but every time my restlessness caught up with me, I moved on until moving wore me out. Eventually I settled down, for a while. I got married, I had a kid, I bought an apartment. After over a decade in one city, my life got bogged down when I lost a job and I began to feel that restlessness again. It showed up like an old friend who just got out of jail and comes knocking to talk about old times.
My wife is Japanese and she was finding it too difficult to get our son to speak his mother’s tongue. She was working long hours keeping us fed, and I was going stir crazy just taking care of our kid with no job. I began to dream of an easier, simpler life. A life where I wasn’t me, basically. We volunteered on an organic farm in Japan where we could work for room and board.
The place was full of misfits. There were Buddhist monks who didn’t fit in at their monastery, kids whose parents didn’t know what to do with them, and my family. I enjoyed working in nature, eating healthy food, and being away from all worry about career and bills back home. I decided that the life of an organic farmer was the life for me. The rhythm of nature would replace my cycle of worry. My wife was ready for something new, and so I applied for a job normally offered to recent college graduates. I was accepted into a program that puts native English speakers into Japanese schools and placed in a very rural setting far away from any city. My hope was to find a farmhouse, learn Japanese, and begin a new life altogether without a look back. My wife smiled at the idea, and said, “Let’s just try it for a few years.”
So at the age of 40 I got rid of everything I owned and moved with my wife and son to a small town in the Japanese countryside with a three-year contract to teach English.
Of all the moves I’d made, this was undoubtedly the toughest. Even though I had 25 years sober instead of five, I found this new geographical cure in Japan the toughest to adjust to. Maybe because I was older, maybe having a family raised the stakes, maybe living in Japan is just harder than backpacking as a twenty-something around the world. But it was tough. I stayed dry at least, and on a good day emotionally sober to boot, and I learned a few lessons about how to keep the plug in the jug when there are no meetings around, nobody speaks your language, and if you took a drink the frogs would keep chirping in the rice fields and the neighbors wouldn’t bat an eye.
I discovered that a lot of conditions which are simply a part of being an alcoholic are magnified by living in a foreign country. For example, the feeling of being terminally unique. In the town where I lived, I actually was extremely unique. There was nobody else like me. I got long stares at the grocery store, children stopped and pointed at me on their way to school. Every conversation began with, “Your nose is so big!” All the feelings I’d trained myself weren’t real back home became real in Japan. It’s hard to feel like a worker among workers, ‘another bozo on the bus,' when you clearly are not.
I could never just blend in. I was reminded of my alien status whenever I had a strange conversation in Japanese, which is to say several times a day. In the US if I had a weird exchange, I could usually tell immediately if it was me or the other guy who was having a bad day. Not so in Japan. One day, for example, on a walk to work I was asked, “Where do you sleep?” Did he mean which room of the house? Did he mean where did I live? After I parsed the words, I still wasn’t sure how to answer.
People asked me perplexing questions, stated things in weird ways, and basically baffled me constantly. None of it alone was bizarre, but it seemed like almost every encounter was an obstacle that it wouldn’t have been anywhere else I’d lived.
I ate in a restaurant dozens of times over the years, and was always asked by the same waiter, “Chopsticks OK?”
I had to run every conversation over in my mind and ask, “Was that weird because my Japanese is so bad? Or was it weird because that man doesn’t like foreigners? Or was that man actually just weird and he would have been weird to anyone?”
The uncertainty and constant misunderstandings magnified my alcoholic suspicions that I don’t belong and will never fit in, that there’s something wrong with me. My usual tools, like regular AA meetings where I could meet with people who understood me were not available.
There was a weekly meeting a few hours away, but it was very hard to reach and the last bus out of town left right after it ended. If I missed that bus, I’d be stranded in town overnight and miss work the next day.
One thing that really helped was my weekly Skype session with my sponsor. Checking in with him was invaluable. He reminded me that I wasn’t alone. Another thing that helped was getting a sponsee over Skype and working with him once a week.
Japan has a group called Dan Shokai, which is a kind of stop drinking society. The group met in my town, but they didn’t speak any English and I felt very out of place there. I told them I was in AA and they said AA was too strict for them. I laughed at that one. I’m still not sure what they meant. They wanted me to bring my family to the group, and they had a leader. I only went once. They weren’t bad people, but it wasn’t for me.
I had to accept that virtually all the things I liked to do back home were no longer available. Learning how to have fun and find hobbies are a huge part of sobriety. It took me years to develop interests back in the US, and suddenly they were all gone. I had to stop mourning them and find new interests. Spending as much time as I could learning about local customs and skills was crucial to my mental survival. I immersed myself in local activities. This is maybe the most important lesson I learned, and the most difficult.
Finding new hobbies is tough. I tried the first thing that came along, some papercraft hobby for old ladies, and hated it. My first reaction was, “That sucked. I guess I just can’t have hobbies.” My sponsor told me, “You’re going to have to kiss a few frogs before you find a prince.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t have a hobby, I just didn’t like shaving pastel chalk onto construction paper. It seems obvious, but I needed help with that.
Even something I might eventually enjoy takes a few attempts before it starts to feel worthwhile. For a guy who found instant fun in a bottle, the idea of working so hard to have fun is one of those terms of life that is almost impossible to take. But I did.
I began taking flute lessons, I rented a patch of land for gardening, I spent time with local chefs learning how to harvest bamboo shoots and cook regional food. I did this to try take my mind off of myself all the time, to try to have fun. It wasn’t always fun, but it was better than the kind of not fun I have when I don’t try anything.
I turned the flute practice into a meditation and I read page 86 from the Big Book before I played every morning. That helped. I smiled my way through the weird conversations, I bowed and I bowed. I tried not to take offense, or punish myself every time there was a misunderstanding.
It was a rewarding three years, but it was not easy. I developed migraines from the stress, and I never learned much Japanese. It only took a year for me to give up my dream of being an organic farmer. The truth is, farming is hard work and the rhythms of nature offer just as much to worry about as city living. Also, I was still me, and when I realized Japan wasn’t going to fix that, I fell out of love with that plan.
So, we saved money and after three years returned to the US. My son did learn Japanese and my wife had a great time. “I knew we’d stay three years,” she said. Now I can play a little flute, and I can cook a mean bamboo shoot rice. I didn’t drink through any of it and if I can do it so can you.
Chad Lance is a pseudonym for a writer back in New York.