Scared Straight: How My Fear in Early Sobriety Evolved Into Lifesaving Discipline

By Christopher Dale 04/30/19

I was free from myself. And this freedom was a direct result of being completely mortified at having put myself in such a precarious, powerless position. It was the most honest fear I’d ever felt – and the healthiest.

Man sitting, smiling, reading a book, self-discipline in sobriety
By the time my fear began to waver and wane, I had a few months and a few steps under my belt. I was on my way. Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

The date was October 12, 2011. It was my second morning of sobriety, the first that I’d woken up in my bed rather than jail. Two days earlier I’d sideswiped a cab, blind drunk, and kept going. Cops frown upon that.

For some time, I’d been building toward a last straw scenario – a no-doubter dealbreaker to finally cost me my marriage and (yet another) job. The dead silence with which my spouse departed for work that day spoke volumes, and God knew how I’d keep my suburbs-based job without a license to drive there.

As it turned out, I still have both – the wife and the job – today, seven-plus years into recovery. And what I’ve realized is that the unprecedented fear I felt that fall morning was key to sparking my long-term sobriety.

Recently in this space, I wrote a piece about how, for all its faults, AA groupthink can help newcomers develop much-needed discipline, as it encourages a standardized structure recommended for recovery. Meeting, sponsor, stepwork, repeat.

But for me and for many, there was also a second, more self-sufficient catalyst to recovery: fear. Fear that you’ve already done enough to be doomed; or if you haven’t, you can’t stop yourself from making it worse still; fear to do anything at all because you’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can’t trust yourself to do anything, at all. Fear not only of consequences, but of self.

Sometimes it truly is darkest before the dawn. This seemingly debilitating state can, ironically, lead to lifesaving discipline of a sort we alcoholics and addicts had thought far beyond our grasp.

Freedom in Fear

Despite the divorce/firing 1-2 combo I felt certain was coming, that second sober morning I felt free – and not just because I was no longer behind bars.

Rather, my freedom was twofold. First, what’s done had been done and I couldn’t undo it. So although I was scared shitless of how my marriage and career could both abruptly end, I was free from worrying about whether I’d do something to warrant those outcomes. Been there, drank that.

More importantly, I was free from myself. And this freedom was a direct result of being completely mortified at having put myself in such a precarious, powerless position. It was the most honest fear I’d ever felt – and in hindsight, the healthiest.

Starting that day I became deathly afraid of my erratic, addiction-driven actions. All the vows of abstinence inspired by a worsening set of consequences and hangovers had accomplished nothing. The 7am “never agains” had become the 4pm “once agains,” again and again.

I simply couldn’t trust myself to make decisions, and I knew it. And considering its origin – the brain of a nervous wreck, two-day-sober insane person – my next thought was illogically logical:

“Then stop making fucking decisions.”

This, of course, was easier said than done, and in fact sounded suspiciously similar to many former miserably-failed declarations of self-restraint. This time around, the only fresh variable was the agoraphobic, fetal-position-caliber fear permeating my body, with an assist from a stupefying fog familiar to those of us who also suffer from depression.

I was scared. I was stunned. And I had to be at work in 45 minutes. My uncle gave me a lift. In the car ride over, one thought reverberated in my head:

“Just get to work, do your job, and come right home.” It was all I could handle that day. It was also the genesis of an invaluable recovery tool: keep it simple.

From Fear to Powerlessness

I got to work and back that day, and the next. I managed to walk myself to an AA meeting a half block from home. That weekend I shadowed my miraculously still-there wife like a toddler would his mommy.

My daily deeds had dwindled to a precious few, and fell into one of two categories: everything I did was either obligatory (work, AA meeting) or subjugated, meaning it was accompanied and determined by someone else (my wife, an in-the-know family member). If that sounds pathetic… well, it is. But it worked.

This decision-free existence, I’ve come to realize, was a real-world Step 1, whose dual recognitions of powerlessness over inebriating substances and life unmanageability are, I believe, near-universal to recovering alcoholics and addicts regardless their particular method of sobriety.

What ensued was a lifestyle minimalism in which my days were rigidly pre-planned, and I still had enough of my secret ingredient – fear – to prevent any deviating from this preset course. A typical day looked something like this:

Wake up, get dressed, coffee, breakfast. Board the first of three buses (New Jersey’s transit system leaves a lot to be desired) for work. Work. Eat lunch – bagged and brought, because the fewer times you walk out of your office, the smaller the chance you’ll walk into a bar.

Work again. Three buses home. Gym or AA, time and rides permitting.

During this time I was never on my own in private for more than five minutes if at all possible. Being (amazingly still) married was obviously a key factor here; as someone who spent early sobriety in a self-constructed cage, I still have no idea how anyone gets sober while single – that feat would have meant too much me time to accrue clean time.

During this period it was crucial that I built a solid sober foundation. For me, that meant making meetings, getting a sponsor, and making an honest start on the 12 steps; I strongly encourage those in other recovery programs to dive into the prescribed action plan for newcomers.

How to Build a Foundation in Recovery, Quickly

The point – the universal goal – is building a foundation of recovery as expediently as possible. Because fear, like our once-vivid memories of alcoholism’s harms and humiliations, fades over time. I didn't realize it, but I was in a race against the clock to develop reliable recovery tools before my stubborn self-will—in the form of the idiotic notion that I was prepared to once again make my own decisions—returned in brute force.

Luckily, we only need to win early sobriety once. And in this perfect storm of circumstances, I was just scared enough and stiff enough for long enough to eke out a victory. By the time my fear began to waver and wane, I had a few months and a few steps under my belt. I was on my way.

Inch by inch, the closed door of my life began to creak open. I started to take little excursions by myself, informing my wife precisely where I was going and when I’d return. I dared go out for lunch at work from time to time. I went to the trigger-laden New York City by myself for a doctor’s appointment. And finally I passed the biggest test of all: getting my driver’s license back and, with it, all the potentially disastrous decisions that come with the open road.

Not surprisingly, none of this success was the result of any grand master plan hatched by a raw, frightened newcomer. This was far more fortune than forethought. Regardless, it’s the results that count - both for me and, I hope, for others just beginning their journey in recovery.

If you’re reading this as a scared-witless newcomer, take the advice of someone whose experience was accidental but nonetheless useful: Make the decision to stop making decisions. There’s plenty of time to get your life back. Now’s the time to save it.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.