Who the Hell Gets Sober at 18?

By Audrey Fox 10/25/15

Anyone who needs to. Like me.

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Larry Clark's Kids
Larry Clark's Kids

Of the many misconceptions regarding alcoholism is the notion that this is an elderly rain-coated man’s disease; of addiction, perhaps a slightly more glamorous bent, maybe a young starlet fallen in with a “fast crowd” tattooed and generally musical. But what of a perfectionistic former honors kid from a stable two-parent home? For as much as we may wish otherwise, experience has shown alcohol and substance use disorders to be non-discriminatory, and as an individual caught in its dragnet, I am one of the fortunate few who managed to get, and more challengingly stay, sober young. 

I reached a point described in AA literature as “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization”—and that turned out to be the greatest gift I’ve ever received.  

Over the years I’ve met many people who have long-term sobriety initiated in adolescence, and some who got clean at even younger ages than I. The barriers to maintaining sobriety at any age are high and abundant, though individuals in early and late adolescence experience a set of pressures if not particular to their age group, experienced perhaps more acutely without broader frames of reference inherent with simply living longer.

The predominance of what I heard from people who weren’t in recovery were variants of the above implicit biases, to the effect of “How can you be sure it wasn’t just a phase?” and “Oh wow, was it really that bad?” I felt a perverse need to justify and over-explain precisely how bad it had gotten, lending to hyperbole and imbuing every anecdote with an earnest gravitas. To my mind at that time, the details of my bottom seemed somehow insufficient in face of this scrutiny, and so: my 36-hour blackout would become a 48-hour blackout; the black eye imparted to me by the drug dealer to whom I was indebted wasn’t impressed upon me in a crack house (but it was like, really dirty); and coming-to on the E train platform without shoes, had to involve its two-plus hours of Queens-bound delays, as though being shoeless and not knowing how and being on your way to Queens weren’t sufficient indications of unmanageability. (I’m only 92% serious about the Queens part—big ups, Queens, you’re beautiful.)

I fell in with strangers, regularly awoke in vomit (mine or others, who knows? What fun!), and may or may not at one point have been wheeled down University Place in an office chair in a certain stage of undress—though my since-rejuvenated sense of dignity would still like to cling to plausible deniability on that one. It was a weird night…and as with most of my nights (and days, at that stage), a very drunken one. While the details of my progressive decline may sound very similar to college-aged shenanigans, the difference lay predominantly in my relationship to alcohol. The litmus test was not in the amount I drank or how hard a drug I used, or even whether I could stop for a set period of time—it was that no matter how much pain alcohol and drugs caused me, no matter how big of a mess I made while I was on them, I would somehow curiously forget (and very quickly) my intended-as-permanent resolve to never pick them up again. Eventually, possessive of this type of “built-in forgetter,” I reached a point described in AA literature as “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization”—and that turned out to be the greatest gift I’ve ever received.  

Fortunately this sense of despair and other components of the significant body of evidence pointing to the severity of alcoholism’s progression within my life, marked by numerous repeated suicide attempts and unshakeable depression, outweighed their insistence, which proved only nearly as insidious as the disease itself. With sufficient counterpoints and strong encouragement to remain in the day, I incrementally managed to build some sober muscle, and my once-innate need to over-flex its bicep progressively eased into a quieter self-assurance based in taking right actions to remain in recovery.

Arguably the biggest freedom we are afforded through the language of 12-step programs is permission to remain in the day. I am not, nor have I ever been, required to commit to a lifetime of sobriety. While I once thought that there was no point in doing such a mass of often excruciating spiritual and emotional work without warranty for guaranteed permanent sobriety and never-ending happiness, I later recognized that this was a trademark of all-or-nothing thinking. I certainly flailed and railed against suggestions, but once I realized that my hesitancy to take action was really only hurting me, and that the pain of the pain itself was greater than my fear of the change, I became increasingly willing to stay in the pain for less time. As the amount of love and attention I received became more and more positive—less focused on externals, more affirming of non-sexual character traits—the more I incrementally began to actually believe that I was worthy of healthy relationships. I was able to wet my feet with service, practice some social skills, and began amassing proof that people may well like being around me sober, without having ulterior motives beyond enjoyment of my company. 

I feel a strong need to underscore all of this with the disclaimer that this was all extraordinarily, dazzlingly ungraceful, staggered and pocketed. None of my personal growth or perspective has ever been on a flawlessly smooth uptick, however the important piece seems to be that growth in sobriety has a general upward trajectory, and the blips we take as they come. Though the gentleness requisite of that acceptance-informed approach only came with time, practice and surviving life’s bumps and bruises. The beautiful piece of growing up in Alcoholics Anonymous is a strongly supervised and supported adolescence—and simultaneously, the painfully unavoidable piece is that, it’s still an adolescence. 

My prevalent perception was informed by a strain of perfectionism only an overachieving alcoholic would easily identify. It carried all of the hallmarks of classic perfectionism, yes, with the riders of debilitating fear of asking for help and a presumed expectation of others that I always know everything at all times. I was the type of person who, from youth, took great pride in being referred to as “precocious,” “mature” and “an old soul.” So, to get sober and be tasked with identifying all of my mistakes, admitting them, and amending those behaviors—not only in the past, but on an ongoing basis—seemed not only impolite to my WASPish sensibility, but moreover positively humiliating.

The experiences I had and the lessons I learned did alienate me from the majority within my age group, making connection with non-sober people in their late teens and early twenties a bit difficult despite my longstanding preference for older adults. The implicit disconnect, naturally, being that the stories of my mistakes were ones for which I was entirely conscious, lacking alcohol to scapegoat, making myself entirely responsible for every misstep and mistake I made. Show me any person, teenaged or otherwise, who’s leaping at the opportunity to squarely accept responsibility for every action they’ve ever taken, and unchecked most might rightly call them a liar. And yet, this proved one of AA’s most valuable paradoxes—that freedom was to be found in personal responsibility, and its inherent amelioration of ongoing anxiety related to avoidance of said responsibility.

This value, as significant as it is, at a point seems insufficient without finding ways of incorporating into one’s recovery things that one enjoys. At a point, I realized that I didn’t really know how to have fun without drinking, and if I’m honest it’s still something I have to practice. I have, however, also outgrown a lot of my preemptive self-judgment for the things I do enjoy, with my version of fun tending toward rousing games of Sudoku—advanced levels, thank you very much—and completing the Sunday Times crossword in pen. But, if that’s not quite your speed, or your interest set is not that of a prematurely geriatric 26-year-old, I’m assured innumerable other options are available. As my grandmother always used to say, “if you’re bored, you’re boring,” and at a point being bored in sobriety seems to become a decision to prioritize comfort in familiarity over expansion and discovery.

Several seeming pitfalls presented themselves, some of which I retrospectively realize were external, and the majority projections of internal expectations, maladaptive coping mechanisms and cognitive distortions. I didn’t know how to identify or unlearn those until I had engaged in years of therapy, though there are many 12-step slogans largely equivalent to basic principles of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and its more well-known and commonly practiced cousin, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. While no 12-step program in and of itself endorses or opposes clinical psychological or psychiatric services, my personal recovery would not have been sustainable without seeking and implementing outside help. Or if it had been, perhaps it might’ve been a bit more miserable—one of the upsides of maintaining sobriety is that, contingent upon ongoing upkeep, I won’t necessarily have to have occasion to find that out. 

Incumbent upon my eighth year of sobriety and entering my mid- to late-twenties, the grip with which I hold recovery has grown less tenuous, and a growth in faith has allowed for the reins to rest. 

Audrey Fox is a writer who lives three-quarters of the year in Brooklyn and summers in their mind. Audrey last wrote about gay pride, sober.

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