The Sobriety of Sickness

By Christopher Dale 01/01/18

A flu season homage to the higher power of head colds.

Christopher and Nicholas
Christopher and Nicholas

In active addiction, I used to love getting sick. A bad head cold was among the only surefire ways to curtail, however temporarily, my obsession with alcohol. It was vacation via incapacitation: I didn’t want to drink because I didn’t want to do anything.

For me, colds were one of those oddball contradictions to which only fellow addicts relate. We might be the only category of people who function better with the flu; we may be stuffy, coughing and miserable… but at least we’re not drunk and high. We couldn’t breathe through our noses, but could at least catch our breaths against the onslaught of our progressive, incurable and unarrested disease.

Only when I finally stopped drinking did I fully appreciate how insane this was. Like many in early recovery, I enjoyed a fright-fueled enthusiasm that saw me pour all available energy into getting and staying sober. It was the sort of dedicated discipline that only the desperate possess – a careful intensity that was disorienting, frenetic and altogether beautiful. Six-plus years later, I often wish I’d bottled some of that magic.

Somewhere between a thorough and fearless moral inventory and making direct amends to all (OK, most) persons I had harmed, I got my first sober head cold. Ingrained by years of disease-driven insanity, my initial reaction was one of respite. “Oh good! I’m getting sick.” I was due for a break.

In short order, my thought bubble lost a letter and an exclamation point: “Oh God… I’m getting sick.” Like the vast majority of humans on planet Earth, I’d come to realize that head colds suck.

Someone who was burning the candle at both ends to stay employed, married, and most importantly sober suddenly lost his spark, his fight. Immersed in a program of action, the silence of inaction was deafening. I was feverish, achy… and alone with my thoughts. It was hell.  

In Health

I got sober at 32, leaving just enough wiggle room to accomplish some of life's more time-sensitive gifts. For one, I got in the best shape of my life; a svelteness (OK, semi-svelteness) that, given my 240-pound, bowl-of-jelly bottom, may not have been possible had I been much older.

More importantly, I got sober in enough time to repair my marriage and, from there, have a child with my same-aged wife, who gave birth the day after her 37th birthday. Our son, Nicholas, came in the nick of time.

Along the way, I've been blessed to restore relationships, enjoy a promising career, buy a nice house, and rescue a beloved dog. I've had the privilege to pursue a passion hobby - freelance writing - and the even greater privilege of sponsoring men while continuing to grow through the 12 steps.

My life is full and fulfilling. It is also extremely hectic. I want for nothing except time; in fact, I'm making up for lost time - and it shows.

Often, it is this sort of daily micro-ambition - this drive to check off every last box on each day's lengthy to-do list - that opens my Pandora's Box of character defects: arrogance, hotheadedness, dismissiveness. I place expectations on how easy or brief a task should be and, when the Universe has differing plans, harbor resentment, grit my teeth and redouble my efforts to complete undertakings I've proclaimed oh-so-important.

It's an altogether arrogant type of ambition, and it isn't pretty. When trapped in this mindset, I start my day in a huge hole. I am part Atlas, part Sisyphus – carrying, uphill, my daily grind’s full load into each of an endless array of endeavors. I am hard on others, even harder on myself.

Something's gotta give. And when you run yourself ragged and have a 21-month-old petri dish at home, that something is often a whopper of a head cold.


As my recovery has progressed, I’ve settled into a détente when it comes to head colds. I’m no fan but, amid my high input/high output life, they’re just a cost of doing business.

And thanks to my son, whose hobbies include touching everything in sight and sneezing directly into my mouth, these days I’m paying that price quite frequently. I’m sick often enough that I can either look on the bright side or look for another family.

Luckily, sometimes this sort of optimism-by-default is enough to open doors to progress.

On that note, one benefit I’ve noticed is that, when sick, I tend not to fret so much about the day’s daunting to-do list. My stunted brain seems to have room only for the task directly in front of me, resulting in a forced compartmentalization. I’m more in-the-moment when I’m ill, mono-tasking in a world that urges multi-tasking. There’s a gratifying calm in that.

Head colds also take the edge off my uber-ambitiousness. Tired and achy, I simply can’t bring myself to care as much, down-shifting my diligently driven existence into cruise control. My body and brain instinctively conserve energy, limiting both concentration and concerns to the next right action. In sickness, there’s an early-sobriety, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other simplicity that is harder to harness in health.

My duty, I realize, is to learn from these virus-induced teaching moments. I’ll probably never be the easygoing sort, but would benefit from taking a few paces toward that ideal. And when refresher courses prove necessary… well. Nicholas will soon be off to the germacopia of preschool. Sobriety is just a sneeze away. God bless you.

Christopher Dale frequently writes on sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, the Daily Beast, and the New York Daily News, among other places.

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Chris & Nicholas Dec 2017.JPG

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.