Finding The Humor In Sobriety

By Rachael Brownell 09/12/11

When you first get clean, all that relentless merriment in meetings may drive you to drink. But soon you may find yourself roaring with the rest of us.

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The humorous side of recovery

While nothing battles the belief in our inner darkness like levity and ironic humor, the last thing most of us feel like doing when we first get sober is laughing at anything. Besides, most of us share that deep universal fear that if we let our deepest darkest secrets out of the closet, we’ll melt the ears off our listeners and shame ourselves indelibly. And yet it’s these moments of total honesty that many of us remember as major turning points in our recovery. When someone shares something deep, and true, and real, no matter how embarrassing, it manages to transform secrets into light. 

My friend Amy Hatvany, a fellow author, says that it took her a while to “get” the humor amidst the tragedy in the rooms. She remembers her first belly laugh in response to one man’s blackout story: he woke up late one morning to find himself lying in his neighbor’s grass. Groggy and confused, it slowly dawned on him that he was dangling half in and half out of his car, which he’d crashed into his neighbor’s fence. At the same moment, he saw a police officer approaching, so he took immediate action—by stuffing his mouth full of grass since he’d recently read that parsley disguised the odor of alcohol. Amy remembers doubling over laughing “as the room, and eventually the man, realized how ridiculous it was to worry about boozy breath, in view of the alarming state of his car. And now his mouth is stuffed with lawn!” Amy says that after that, she was able to share about and laugh at herself—and, as a result, “secrets I held onto became lighter.” And it was the laughter, she says, that connected her to other people in the rooms.

For many of us, learning to laugh keeps us from dying. If we succumb to the doom, tragedy, and sorrow lurking behind each dark memory, we’ll eventually drown in them, self-obsessively blaming ourselves as the sole agents of our self-destruction. Life is more complicated than that.

Alcoholics can be a pain in the ass when they’re yukking it up over car crashes, divorce, and terminal illness and the fact is that once you’ve been sober for a while, it’s easy to forget that in early sobriety, absolutely nothing is funny, everything is an emergency and you’re twitchy and hateful and craving a drink, a line, a bottle of pills or really anything else. While a meeting, a punching bag, a bad ass attitude, and horrid coffee can help, sharing is often the closest many of us get to letting others see our true selves underneath all the masks we wear—of being perfect, loving, patient, rich, perfectly fine—that keep us drunk and high and checked out. 

Early in sobriety, still cotton-headed, swirling with resentment and rage, and unsure about my alcoholism, I heard a woman with a gravelly voice share about waking up in a stranger’s bed, post-blackout, wondering how she could escape without waking him. She concluded her story and the room erupted in laughter. I cringed with recognition and shame. After all, I knew this story well. I knew about walking out into the sun, deeply hung-over and confused, struggling to find and then start the car for a quick getaway. Her story was so familiar, and yet I truly couldn’t see what was funny about a blackout and waking up with a stranger. Laughing at something so embarrassing? How rude! If you had told me then that it was exactly this gut-busting laughter over shared foibles and follies that would end up making me feel enthusiastic about my recovery, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nothing was funny to me then, newly bathed in the shame of what I had done. And yet I kept coming to meetings and my cold, judgmental, terrified heart slowly softened. I saw hope in other alcoholics’ laughter. If they could laugh at lost marriages, DUIs, job loss, bankruptcy, and death, maybe I could learn to eventually, too. 

How can we laugh about how we used alcohol to soften the damningly dull hours of raising kids? How can we laugh when some of us have lost our kids, marriages, homes, jobs, and self-respect because of our disease? Truthfully, it’s not always easy. A friend of mine, who asked to remain anonymous, volunteered that for a very long time, her deepest darkest secret was that once when she was very very drunk, she gave a strange guy a blowjob behind a bar. To make matters worse (in her mind), she then took home two other men later that same night. Now tell many recovering women a tale such as this and we’ll roll our eyes smile and say, “Yes, and?” or “This is your darkest secret?” Not meaning disrespect, but rather to put our friend at ease that this misadventure or misfortune has not made the earth tilt on its axis or made us stop loving her. Truthfully, many of us have done much, much worse. We can hear each other’s deepest darkest stories and not turn away. But it takes time and trust and lots of recovery. 

Another friend remembers being deeply offended when she first got to rehab and everyone was laughing about their suicide attempts. “I was enraged —not only was I more terrified than I'd ever been but these people had the nerve to laugh about something as serious as suicide!” she recalls. Later, however, she found herself howling with laughter when a guy in her group shared, quite seriously, that he had used cocaine not to get high but just because he liked the way it smelled. 

For many of us, learning to laugh keeps us from dying. If we succumb to the doom, tragedy, and quick sorrows lurking behind each memory, we’ll drown in it, alone in our self-obsession and the full belief in ourselves only as authors of destruction and damage. And this lack of perspective is often directly linked to the need to drug down, drink up, and blot out all the big feelings. In other words, my alcoholism wants me to keep all those behind the bar blow jobs (as it were) to myself and not share them—to drown in the belief that I’m the biggest slut that ever walked the earth and thus deserve to pay. And pay and pay and pay.

In one of the final days of my drinking, my then-husband looked at me and said, “You never laugh anymore.” Easy as it was to dismiss his comment as just another indicator of our deteriorating marriage, I knew he was telling the truth: I was serious as death—a funeral was a laugh-riot compared to me. After only a month sober, a family member observed quite a few changes in me, but this one I’ll always remember:  “You look us in the eyes now,” he said. “You smile.” 

Laughter took another few months. But one day, I heard a woman in a meeting share about filling her traveling coffee mug with wine and stumbling around a local playground drunk while she tried to show her toddler how to go down the slide. And I couldn’t stop laughing because that woman had been me. 

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her sexy boyfriend, her kids, her books and her closet that is no longer full of skeletons.
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