The Author of Sobriety's Greatest Memoir Comes Clean
Sobriety finally got the memoir it deserved with the release of Sacha Z. Scoblic's Unwasted. Here, she talks about spirituality, giving up drinking buddies, and how to combat temptations on the road.
Sacha Z. Scoblic isn't your average addict—nor is she your average person. First off, she's a contributing editor at The New Republic and the articles editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. But fierce intelligence isn't her only gift; in my opinion, she's the first writer since Jerry Stahl to make hilarity out of addiction while never losing sight of the seriousness of the disease. If you've read Unwasted—and you should—you already know quite a lot about Scoblic's sober life. But we wanted to delve a little deeper—and luckily she was willing.
Were you always open about your alcoholism and sobriety?
I wasn’t always open about it. I was reasonably—and I think justifiably—terrified of what people would think, particularly my co-workers, who at the time were all (1) editors at Reader’s Digest, not exactly the cultural touchstone an addict wants to expose herself to at first; (2) much older than me, and thus, to my mind, probably less progressive about addiction than I was; and, worst of all, (3) big drinkers themselves, as epitomized by the sloshy corporate retreats I suffered through.
I fundamentally misunderstood addiction when I got clean. I thought you had to be so physically compelled to drink in order to be an alcoholic that you’d have the shakes and wake up needing a drink.
But about a year into my sobriety, former Congressman Mark Foley went to rehab after hitting on boys and Mel Gibson went to rehab after an anti-Semitic rant. And I had to write about it. Because it made us addicts look bad! I mean, unless Gibson’s rehab included a mind scrubbing by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he wasn’t going to solve his bigotry at rehab—a bigotry that no one who saw Passion of the Christ was surprised to find out existed. Meanwhile, Foley went to rehab for alcoholism because he was a pedophile with an image problem. And I’m fairly certain that most alcohol treatment centers don’t zap you with 500 volts every time you paw through a copy of Boy’s Life. I’m a journalist, professional commentator, chatterer. I saw a need begging to be addressed: telling the truth about what it means to be an addict. That article was the first time I came out publicly (with the words, “It’s hard out here for an alcoholic”). Dozens of articles, essays, and a book later, it was the best decision I could have made.
Has anyone said to you, “My God, I had no idea you were that bad”? Or, conversely, “Oh, come on, you weren't that bad"?
The vast majority of the time, the reaction is: “My God, I had no idea you were that bad.” It’s for a number of reasons—everything from “But you’re so young” (I’m not) to “But you don’t drink that much more than me.” And at first, I would have agreed with them. I fundamentally misunderstood addiction when I got clean. I thought you had to be so physically compelled to drink in order to be an alcoholic that you’d have the shakes and wake up needing a drink. And I didn’t feel like that—yet. I also thought, since I had a job and a cool apartment, that I wasn’t an addict—yet. As though I had to work up to it. But I did secretly drink more than those around me. Also I didn’t realize that snorting crystal meth so I could stay up drinking longer was its own Yeah, you’re totally an addict indicator. I’m just glad I stopped before the shakes came, before the career was trashed, before the physical compulsion took me further down the rabbit hole. And surely it would have.
When I first went to AA, I thought they might say, “Oh honey, you’re not an alcoholic. Call us when you’re in the gutter.” Now I meet sober people who read my book and are like, “Damn girl, you partied way more than me.” So I’ve begun to see that addiction has many faces. For a long time, I thought I wasn’t an alcoholic yet. But the truth is: I was an addict the whole time.
Have you heard from any former drinking buddies—say, Tessa and Jack—about their reactions to the book? Do you think people need to give up the old pals when they clean up?
I let many of the people featured in the book read their sections before I ever turned them in to my publisher. It was perhaps the scariest thing I have ever done. “Jack” was horrified by what I had written—not because it was untrue, but because I had viewed our entire relationship through the lens of booze. Every memory I put on the page was related to excess. He, on the other hand, had memories of me as a great friend—not a great friend he drank with, not a great friend he partied with—just a great friend. But that’s what an alcoholic I am. I did view our relationship differently than he did. That was a huge and heartbreaking epiphany for me. I guess the good news is that his reaction gave me the opportunity to apologize for that and for a raft of other shitty things I did. He’s an exceptional person, and I am glad we are tip-toeing our way back to one another.
But that friendship is unique. And I can say this: I cannot be around people who use hard drugs. Period. End of story. No matter who they are. It just scares the shit out of me. It reminds me of my most terrifying moments and close calls—so many of us addicts have those near-misses that helped propel us into treatment but are haunting to look back on. I also can’t hang out with someone if they are drunk. I can handle people sipping their wine at dinner, but when I see someone do shots or fetishize liquor—Omigod you guys! It’s called a “Tree Hugger”! It’s Midori with a cinnamon stick! Get it?! (I should probably patent that)—I have to leave immediately or else dissolve into a massive alcoholic breakdown (cough, cough, start crying and hyperventilating). So, to the extent that one has buddies like that—doing drugs, getting wasted—yes, I think you may have to drop them. Maybe others are more constitutionally hard-core than I am, but I can’t be around “friends” like that.
How have your relationships changed since you’ve gotten sober?
They have just about all gotten better. With the exception of any user friends as described above, everyone I have a relationship with now is, well, authentic. And conscious. How many times have we addicts hung out with sketchy, dangerous people (or been one?!) just because they offer us free booze or drugs or whatever? Now, when I spend time with someone, it’s intentional, conscious—not because I just randomly ended up hanging out with people I never would have in the cold, hard light of day because Dude, the bartender is going to let us stay after-hours!
But my most important relationship has been a revelation: I am now married and I marvel at the beauty of a drama-free, secret-free relationship.
You write in the book about the friend who had you over for dinner parties where she cooked food in alcohol. I’ve known sober people who go to restaurants and, no matter what they order, announce, “I’m allergic to alcohol so I just want to make sure that nothing I order will have alcohol in it.” Do you do anything like that? Do you also avoid vanilla, mouthwash, etc.?
Well, I definitely don’t pronounce myself an alcoholic and grill the waiter for 20 minutes. But, sure, if I think what I’m about to order might have alcohol in it, I’ll ask. I mean, a lot of people don’t drink for all kinds of reasons, from religion to pregnancy; and I’m sure the waiter doesn’t give a fig what my story is. Ultimately, I don’t see asking about alcohol in dishes as any bigger a deal than a vegetarian asking if there’s meat in the soup. It’s only a big deal if you get in your head about it.