Everybody Knows: 10 Lessons from 10 Years of Sobriety Without AA

By Mishka Shubaly 05/28/19

In early sobriety, someone told me that since I’d gotten sober without AA, I wasn’t an alcoholic, and that since I didn’t go to meetings and ate the occasional mushroom, I wasn’t sober.

Image: 
Mishka Shubaly, reflecting on 10 years of sobriety without AA
It’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to get mad, it’s okay to mourn your old life and fear the future and hate yourself. Soak your pillow every chance you get. PC: Gareth Jarvis

On May 26th, I celebrated ten years of sobriety. People have found my story noteworthy because I got sober without rehab and stayed sober without AA. I don’t understand my story to be a unique miracle; in my travels in the last ten years, I’ve encountered a lot of folks with similar experiences. But I struggled in early sobriety with no roadmap for recovery. Much of what “everybody knows” to be true about alcoholism, getting sober, and recovery simply did not apply to me.

Here’s what I learned as I forged my own path and created my recovery. Whether you’re deeply immersed in sobriety, newly sober, considering getting sober, or just feel like the structure of AA isn’t serving you, I hope this will help. 

1. You Don’t Need to Be an Alcoholic in Order to Stop Drinking

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But when the monolithic sobriety support group that eclipses all others has "alcoholic" in the title, it’s a small logistical leap in the mind of someone reluctant to quit drinking.

“It says ‘Alcoholics Anonymous,’ and I’m not totally sure I’m an alcoholic, and everybody knows that AA is the only way to get sober so… let’s do shots!”

After 17 years of problem drinking, I still wasn’t certain I was an alcoholic. I’d filled out questionnaire after questionnaire — haven’t we all? Sure, there were a few warning signs: I’d blacked out repeatedly and I’d pissed the bed repeatedly and I drank alone and I sometimes drank in the morning and my life had become an uncontrollable mess… But there were still a lot of loopholes. Several times, I had been able to quit drinking for a week or a month or a couple months; once even a year. I didn’t drink at work or show up late or call in sick. Sometimes I was able to have one drink and go straight home (usually when I was already so hungover I felt like my heart was going to stop, but they didn’t ask for those specific details in the questionnaire). 

For simplicity, I’ve winnowed all those questionnaires down to one question: Would your life be better, easier, more manageable if you stopped drinking? If the answer is yes, then stop drinking, just for a month. If you can’t do it, then yes, you’re an alcoholic and you need to stop drinking. And if you can, why not just go another month? And then another? Once you’ve been sober for nine months, then let’s tackle the scary question of whether you’re an alcoholic or not. I think I’d been sober for nearly a year before I could cop to that ugly word and by then I was so entrenched in sobriety that there was no turning back.

2. AA Does Not Define Alcoholism or Sobriety

In early sobriety, someone told me that since I’d gotten sober without AA, I wasn’t an alcoholic, and that since I didn’t go to meetings and ate the occasional mushroom, I wasn’t sober. This neatly dismissed my life-defining problem, my hard-won solution, and the humiliating, laborious hell I had endured in order to find a solution to my problem. I wish I’d had the confidence to respond with one word: bullshit.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines alcoholism as “addiction to the consumption of alcoholic drink; alcohol dependency.” It defines sober as “not affected by alcohol; not drunk.” Dependence upon AA is not specified as a requirement for alcoholism. Nor is there any mention of attendance at AA as a necessary qualifier for sobriety. Another secretive society that tries to own both the illness and the cure is Scientology, which is to say these tactics are the mark of a cult. If you have accepted that you’re sick and you recognize that you are getting better, do not let anything slow you down.

3. If You’re Waiting to Hit Rock Bottom, You’ve Stumbled Into Something Worse

“Everybody knows” that an alcoholic has to hit bottom before they’re ready to quit drinking. A friend once marveled to me that I plowed through life-changing experience after life-changing experience without changing at all. Similarly, I endured low after low without making any corrections.

A staple of my childhood cartoon viewing was The Mighty Hercules, a low-budget animated series created in the 60s that played early mornings on public access TV in the sticks in Canada where I was born. Nearly every episode revolved around the evil wizard Daedalus nearly destroying Hercules before he put on his magic ring and… listen, it hasn’t aged well. But the show was my first introduction to the concept of a bottomless pit, this horrifying sensation of falling for all eternity.

That bottomless pit is where I found myself in early 2009. The Handsome Family neatly capture the alcoholic’s escapist conundrum in the final lines of their song “The Bottomless Hole”:

And still I am there falling, down in this evil pit / but until I hit the bottom, I won’t believe it’s bottomless.

I never found bottom. Mercifully, I had the realization one day that I never would, that I would just keep falling. In terror, I stopped immediately. I never went back.

4. There Is No Singular Epiphany, No Billboard From God Stating YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR LIFE

When I quit drinking, I had no inkling that I was quitting for good. I just knew that I couldn’t go on. I put a couple of days together, then a couple weeks, then a couple of months. After ten years, yes, I recognize now that I was quitting for good. But it wasn’t because I knew the next bender would kill me. It was an accumulation of small grievances that, in aggregate, made me want to die. I always had a headache, I never had any energy, I was always nauseous, I had exhausted all excuses and apologies beyond reason, I had no prospects, I knew my drinking life was unsustainable, and I couldn’t see a future. You can waste your entire life waiting for that crystalline, cataclysmic epiphany. Instead, I made a big change for small reasons and discovered a new life.

5. Cry As Much As You Can

Quitting is hard. Jesus, before you even get to quitting, life is hard, mornings are a hell both reliable and surprising, working for a living is a sustained slow-motion nightmare. Quitting drinking is admirable and you should not be expected to suffer in stoic silence. It’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to get mad, it’s okay to mourn your old life and fear the future and hate yourself. Soak your pillow every chance you get. Eventually, you’ll run out of tears. You’ll cry yourself dry and you’ll have to get on with the living.

6. Quitting Drinking Immediately Makes You a Hero, But It Doesn’t Immediately Make You a Good Person

In early sobriety, I was lost. I was depressed, humorless, anxious, silent as a stone, exhausted and insomniac, quietly fuming and easily enraged. I imagine my friends hoped I wouldn’t relapse… and also prayed I would so they could bear to hang out with me again.

Be generous and forgiving with yourself as you ride out these extended unpleasant withdrawals. Be forthright with your peers if you can, and ask them to be generous and forgiving with you. Getting sober is to be admired and supported even in the ugliest phases. In the first few days, the first few weeks, even, let it be enough just to not drink. The rest will come, in time.

7. Emotions Are Temporary

The word “emotion” is comprised mostly of “motion,” which is to say emotions are always in flux, storming into us with no warning and often retreating as suddenly. I had poison ivy often as a kid and I learned that cold water temporarily lessened the itching, but if I could submit myself to a blazing hot shower and moments of torturous itching, the heat burned the itch receptors out and then I’d feel no itching at all, sometimes for hours.

In early sobriety, I was subject to unexpected attacks of fury or terror or paralyzing sadness. Fighting the feeling only prolonged it, sometimes for the entire day. Sitting in it, marinating in the negative emotion —actively trying to get as mad or scared or sad as possible for as long as possible — burned through it quickly and released me.

8. Every Illness Is a Physical Illness

Mental illness lives in the brain… but the brain lives in the body. If you deny a schizophrenic water, dehydration will end their life before mental illness can even damage it. I once made the mistake of posting a Bill Philips quote on my Facebook — “Food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug in America, and exercise is the most potent yet underutilized antidepressant” — and watched my feed catch fire, my friends suffering from mental illness protesting that they didn’t need to go for a walk in the woods, damn it, they needed their pills, and how could I diminish their suffering?

Mental illness is real. But if you smoke cigarettes, pound coffee and soda and energy drinks, eat Burger King and Sour Patch Kids and lie on the couch in front of the TV all day, you won’t need mental illness in order to feel insane. I have clinically diagnosed anxiety and depression. When I got sober, I treated it with anti-depressants… and exercise and sunshine and tons of fresh fruits and vegetables and vitamins and lots of water. I’ve been off meds for years now, but I think getting a clinical diagnosis and a prescription for psychiatric medication were integral to my early success. If you need medication, by all means, take your meds and feel proud for practicing self-care. But caring for your body — exercise, sunshine, sleep, fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of water — helps everything.

9. Getting Sober Doesn’t Have to Mean Being Reborn; Reinventing Yourself Is Optional

I wanted to quit drinking for years but I feared AA and “inspirational” sobriety so much that I was willing to endure the worsening horrors of my alcoholism. When I finally stopped, I certainly didn’t feel like an image on Instagram of a sun peeking through clouds. I felt shell-shocked, with no idea who I was. Could I still laugh at dick jokes? Could I still resent America and fear capitalism and think the world was basically full of shit? Could I still play in fun, dumb, dead-end bands and listen to the Murder City Devils and flip off assholes who cut me off on the BQE? Yes, yes, yes.

Sobriety doesn’t come with mandatory enrollment in some flowery cult of positivity. Making the decision to quit alcohol means that and only that, everything else is optional. Sobriety and long-distance running helped soften my dead-end nihilism and my contempt for humanity but that’s because it was a change I elected to make. After ten years of sobriety, I’m healthier and happier and less self-loathing but still largely the same cynical prick I was before, because that works for me. 

10. There Are No Straight Lines in Nature, There Are No Straight Lines in Recovery

In my ten years of sobriety, I’ve infrequently used marijuana, mushrooms, DMT, MDMA, prescription painkillers, etc. Pot has always felt like a flawed way to unwind, usually just a waste of time. CBD, on the other hand, has been tremendously helpful for managing pain and getting to sleep at night. Mushrooms have been integral to my sobriety, and I honestly believe they’ve made me a better person. DMT was painfully intense and deeply transformative, too complex to describe as “good” or “bad” but I’m grateful to have done it. None of these substances have ever made me crave alcohol. Painkillers have gotten me through muscle spasms and surgery and MDMA has provided great connection with people I care about, but neither has felt particularly therapeutic and both have left me depressed and craving alcohol at times.

Though some of these experiences have not supported my sobriety, none of them have compromised my sobriety. I am a pure alcoholic and I know one drink would be my undoing. But as my sobriety is solely my creation, I own it. I define its parameters.

Two months after my “official” sobriety date in 2009, I flew out to Colorado for three days to play a music festival. I got drunk before my flight and stayed drunk the entire weekend. I blew an important show, I embarrassed myself in front of a woman I’d had a crush on since we were kids, and I threw up scotch out of my nose on the street. I drank on the flight home but when I woke up the next day, I went right back to sobriety and haven’t taken a drink since.

When I tried to write about this episode in The Long Run, my first narrative about getting sober, my editor took it out. When I wrote it into a book proposal, my agent took it out. When I wrote it into my memoir, I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You, my editor took it out. People love this bullshit Hollywood narrative of “hopeless alcoholic hits bottom, has a lightning bolt epiphany, and goes forth to never drink again.”

Fuck that. Getting sober is a messy process. Stick with it, it’s worth it.

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Mishka Shubaly is a bestselling author and a barely-selling songwriter. Find his work on Amazon. Find him on Linkedin or Twitter.

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