Letter To A Young Broke Drunk:

By C. Bowdoin 01/01/18

I thought that I had been doing something wrong – that if I was somehow more truly in recovery, or really worthy of another shot, I’d have arrived already.

A woman writing in a journal, sitting in a cafe
My heart hurts for the girl I was, and as much as I write this for you, I write this for her, too.

So you’ve gotten sober and found yourself in a meeting. If your experience is at all like mine, you may be coming-to surrounded by shiny sober people who’ve got it all together. And if you’re like me, you may be 10-20 years junior to the finance guys, business executives, published authors, acclaimed artists, and famous actors all brushing shoulders with you. With you – a person whom you’re unlikely to be feeling too good about at this point, what with all of the “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization” that tends to precipitate entrance into recovery. You’ll likely hear encouragement from your fellows, maybe by way of the Promises, or a qualification you connect with, or a more practical nod toward getting a “sober job,” all paired to general insistence that all will work out with faith and right action. Further you may be told you will not be the one who has to do the working out of it, no – more cryptically, that it will all be “figured” if you just show up.

While these directions in their varying degrees of specificity may afford a temporary if nebulous sense of comfort, you may be left wondering how exactly to bridge the gap between the showing up and the “figured out” – the work and the rewards. Maybe you’ve heard stories of dazzling ascent from shambles to C-suites, begging phoenix comparisons and accompanying commemorative tattoos. Or maybe you’re surrounded by people whose stories differ from yours significantly in any number of ways. When I got sober I was 18, broke but entitled, and directionally unmoored; naturally, I went to meetings in Midtown East, with uptown-residing stay-at-home parents, corporate types, and industry-varied retirees.

Still a teenager with no income, a limited skill set, and mounting expenses, I sooner-than-later had to leave the city. I moved away and back in with my family. In the year I’d spent away from home I had fallen into active drug use, tanked my GPA from a 4.1 to a 0.59, and alienated my closest friends and family members. I was 19, and deeply ashamed. I completed a semester and a half at a community college there, while working at a discount department store. I worked the 5 a.m. shift 6 days a week and made very little money, but had no expenses. As my shame compounded with isolation and the verbally and emotionally violent arguments with my parents about my abject non-heterosexuality, I grew increasingly depressed. 

Nine months later, I moved back to New York with $300, and no plan beyond intent to live on a friend’s floor. I worked the same job I had back home, just in a different neighborhood. I found it humiliating. My innate sense of classism had never stood in starker contrast than when I worked at those two places, nor had my idea of self-worth as informed by station and class of employment ever been so challenged. 

I was there a month before I moved into a women's residence on the Upper East Side, with a pay-by-the-month rent structure - one of the few such residences remaining in New York City, and most others. My rent was $700 per month; I averaged $189.57 per week after tax. If I had more than $60 to budget for the month post-rent, it was a fat month. I knew another girl who lived there from the rooms; she, too, knew what it meant to struggle.

I couldn't afford to eat and take the subway, so I walked 80 minutes to work at 4 a.m. - with 10 minutes to grab $0.50 coffee from the cart on the corner of 15th & 6th, and make it in for 5:30. I would take the same walk home. A box of protein bars cost $20 and change for 12, and I would ration two boxes over the course of 30 days, eating a bar or less per day if a friend or a date took me out, and saving the last of the month's $20 for cigarettes. If I ran out of food or friends or favors I would buy a silo of Quaker Oats, allowing for a small bowl in the morning and another at night, stretching that for as long as I could. 

I did that for one year, through my second year of sobriety. I went to meetings and I worked and I walked and I felt everything all the time, and all at once. I cried and flailed and shed every air of grace I’d once assumed. I got real, and it wasn’t pretty.

After continued effort I began to enjoy marginal improvements in some areas in my life, but I was still in school and regularly couldn't afford my rent. I worked temp jobs, but they came in irregularly and usually lasted no longer than a week. I have clear memories of the pit boring through my stomach from searching my pockets for cash or change sufficient to cover the month, knowing that there would be nothing there. More often than I would care to admit I considered bridging that gap through less licit behaviors – my first thought was often to engage in sex work; the second would downshift to shoplifting; and the third etc., progressively less self-endangering. I would still agree to go on dates with interested parties with the sole intention of having a meal, and remain unsure as to whether accepting a wad of bills that counted out as several hundred dollars for “cab fare” constituted prostitution. As I write that my heart hurts for that girl, and as much as I write this for you, I write this for her, too.

I was too proud to tell my parents about my circumstances, fearing that they would pity me or worse, think that my diminished quality of life was just desserts for my lifestyle choices. And I didn't want them to know that, though I began as their golden child, I had fallen what felt so far, and become so unrecognizable from that which they'd raised me to be, both as regards the comfort to which I'd been accustomed and the expectations that they had set for me.

I thought that I had been doing something wrong – that if I was somehow more truly in recovery, or really worthy of another shot, I’d have arrived already. I struggled under the common misapprehension that material reward met immaterial progress in direct proportion; that the Promises operated on a prescriptive timetable in tandem with my step work; that achievement and net worth were indicative of personal value and the quantitative importance of my recovery. I had never realized how closely I identified with my circumstances until I was without them, nor had I understood how insecure I was in my person when devoid of physical trappings of success, even those experienced by-proxy through generational inheritance.

Incremental improvements began manifesting in my circumstances, all slowly, and interim to them I was carried by many huge-hearted people whom I continue to call great friends. I worked for several years in non-profit before I moved to private sector. Throughout this period I worked professionally with people in recovery, throughout its various stages as each experienced it. Suddenly I found myself with some trappings of prescriptive adulthood – a salary, health insurance, days off that mean something because now not every day was a day off – a path through. Years later, I’m now studying for the LSAT and applying to law school; a far cry from that constricted view to a future I’d had not that long ago.

Within whichever fellowship you find yourself, there is a common crucible borne of our shared experience – both before the rooms, and after. Despite these parallels, the arrogant doormat mentality characteristic of many active and recovering fellows perpetuates a significant flaw in self-perception – that there has never been a worse circumstance than yours, nor a tougher case, a more broken individual, a less repairable situation.

It can be easy, now established, eased into recovery, and comfortable with my surroundings to pretend that that struggle, shame, and self-centered self-loathing were things that I never experienced. It’s tempting to allow for the supposed smudge-free shining as beacon of recovery rather than the grit of continuing to relate difficulties, financial and otherwise. I share my experience not because it is a past I particularly revel in recounting, though I am now arrived at a place where I feel as though I can respect the determination with which I navigated a few years of some difficulty. I share my experience because it is one of innumerable testaments to the perseverance of the human will, of the ability and drive to withstand, and of the power of interpersonal support within and outside of these rooms. I share my experience to say:

Whatever you are going through, however closely the details do or do not resemble those I've detailed above, is neither predictive of your future success nor indicative of your present value; that whatever you are going through, however messy and unpackaged, is not permanent; and that whatever you are going through, if you stay here, you’ll survive.

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