Letting Go

By Ruth Fowler 06/05/11
For some sober addicts, leisure sans stimulants is next to impossible.
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I did a lot of things because I was meant to, because it’s how kids had fun: roller discos, sleepovers, parties, horse riding, tap dancing—even eating chocolate I didn’t really like, because kids like chocolate. It’s one of those universal truths that, as a weird, introverted kid, I absorbed, digested and assimilated until it became nearly true—but not quite. I think when you find happiness difficult, there’s a certain guilt associated with the lack of it, and as a child I’d emulate the emotions I knew I was meant to feel by gauging people’s reactions. That kid smiled, I’ll do the same. Mom and Dad look excited—this gift is meant to make me happy: smile. Smile smile smile.

But I didn’t know what pleasure was. I could do productive: get good grades and study and be the best at something, but everything else had the sour taste of futility. I just didn’t get hanging out with kids skating round a damn rink, talking about boys or clothes or makeup. There were other ominous signs of things to come: the fact that, as a skinny kid, I could eat an entire box of cookies in one sitting. As a slim teenager, I starved myself. As a college student, I exercised obsessively, sometimes waking up at 4 A.M. to get three hours in before school started. Normal people feel pain and pull their hand away from the fire. I’m the type of person who’ll hold it there, watch the skin blister, blacken, crackle, burn—and I will do that in preference to hanging out, shooting the shit, doing the things normal people are supposed to do for recreation.

And then I discovered drinking, and then I discovered drugs, and that seemed to fill in the disconnect and offer some relief. Finally, I got sitting around talking to people about bullshit. I got wasting time, not obsessing over work, or being thin, or being the best. Drinking and drugs never made me feel special—they just made me feel normal, and gave me a break. It was the only time I could ever just do nothing, and not feel guilty about it. I could smile and laugh and have it be about nothing.

Years later and I was working in a Manhattan strip club to pay the rent, drinking massive amounts every single night. In the gaps between working and drinking, I’d write frenetically and do yoga. But then there would be the times when I wasn’t drinking, wasn’t writing, wasn’t doing yoga, and I’d be drifting, purposeless, lost, devastated, dying a little bit inside because here was life, and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I’d make sure the gaps between drinking, writing and yoga got less and less, until eventually I had to decide whether to live or to drink, and I chose to live. And the problem I’d had as a kid that I’d so effectively dodged for all these years came back to haunt me.

Being sober meant having free time. And that was, for me, the most painful thing about it. From a scientific point of view, there’s endless research linking addiction to dopamine and serotonin levels in the body. This basically all boils down to the fact that at the height of their addiction, addicts can no longer have fun or experience pleasure other than through the chemical high provided through alcohol or drugs. It’s a chicken-and-egg question though, regarding what came first: were our serotonin systems fucked before the crack, or after? Was our dopamine deficiency present as a kid, or only when we started using heroin intravenously? I’ll let science answer those questions. What I’m concerned with is the person in recovery: newborn, raw, mewling, and completely lost in a world where the regular person functions without a bottle or two of wine to make them more social, minus coke to simulate the pleasure of a high, sans Vicodin to take the sharp edges off living.

I don’t do leisure, unless it comes in a bottle, powder or a pill. I do productive, so I became productive about getting better. I exercised and I ate right and I read the Big Book and I went to meetings and I...still wasn’t having fun. I did even more yoga, glugged down homeopathic remedies, read self-help books, and I still wasn’t having any fun. So I worked 12-hour days, and my career started to take off, and I still wasn’t having any fun.

Pleasure, fun, happiness—it still seemed elusive, enticing, slippery, insubstantial. It still seemed something for the normal people, with their barbecues, their sports games, their favorite TV shows, their moderate drinking, their gossiping about their normal lives. My happiness, my release, was sitting at the bar stool, ordering another drink, waiting for the guy with the mini-Ziploc in his pocket. Screw gratitude lists. Raindrops on roses weren’t making me happy, God damn it.

I stopped believing any true sober enjoyment of life was actually real. Fun was something fabricated by the bad-breathed asshole who’d been sober 20 years and bellowed across at you in meetings, “Bored people are boring people,” his man boobs jiggling in indignation because you had the precious gift of sobriety—and it kind of sucked. And yes, I know people with the opposite problem. Who find that off the crystal or the dope, nothing gets done, and all they do is lie on the sofa and watch Ice Road Truckers or play video games or masturbate. I sympathize with you. I really do. But I don’t relate. 

It changed. Life changed. It was after a mini-nervous breakdown when a guy I’d been mildly infatuated with turned out to be a lying creep. It was after a job fell through, and I had to hand my car in for repossession. It was after a month in my home country, in the rain, surrounded by a bunch of heavy boozers, sleeping on friends’ sofas, my panic stations rising to near-suicide levels. It was after I’d been working 12-hour days for two months on a screenplay which then got picked up by a big producer and it looked like my life might not be such a failure after all. It was when I returned to Los Angeles, still sober after minor tragedies and small victories, after nearly freezing to death in London.

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