This post was originally published on May 30, 2014.
Yep, getting sober sucks. But actually being sober? That doesn’t, especially if you stay in recovery for a while. Because, like alcoholism, recovery is progressive. And that’s the good news.
The bad news is how hard the journey to the good part is. I happen to believe that anyone who tells you otherwise either didn’t drink and drug very much or hasn’t been doing uninterrupted recovery for very long. “If it was easy to get sober,” a heroin addict who helped me a lot in my first year told me, “then I’d just get jammed every weekend and start over every Monday. But I never want to go through that again and besides, I might not make it back.”
Still, in order to get sober, stay sober and be reasonably happy, I was told I was going to have to do a lot of things that seemed like they would interfere with my nonexistent social calendar; also I was going to have to feel really uncomfortable doing them without the benefit of something to anesthetize me. As I heard one old-timer say when I came back the second time, “We’re taking away your baby bottle and blanket. It’s time to grow the F up.” For someone like me—someone who hates to be uncomfortable for even one second—this sounded pretty awful. But considering the alternative (certain death from rampant cirrhosis), I didn’t have much of a choice. I had tried a bunch of ill-conceived get-sober plans, mostly of my own design, but they had all worked about as well as the experiments on Pinky and the Brain. But I knew AA had worked for a lot of people, so I became desperate enough to try it again (by the way, this is the best way to come to AA: totally desperate).
First there was the withdrawal, which I did without the benefit of a detox (not recommended for a quart-a-day 47 year-old chronic alcoholic, for medical reasons alone). This meant sleepless nights, constant anxiety and lots of mental confusion. But by going to plenty of meetings, joining a group, getting a sponsor, praying, talking to other alkies and counting up the precious days (what they call “doing the drill” in greater Boston), I got through it without going back to a drink or a Xanax, Klonopin, or Valium (pills I ate like Tic-Tacs when I couldn’t get a morning drink).
After a period of leveling off, the second wave of suckiness hit. I remember an old-timer asking me how I was doing when I was about 90 days sober. “I feel great,” I replied.
“Don’t worry, that’s gonna change,” he laughed.
And he was right. The feelings that I had suppressed for a long time started cropping up like weeds on Miracle-Gro and I was an emotional mess. But by then I had developed some gratitude for the simple fact that I hadn’t woken up with the shakes or puked bile for a few months. I told my sponsor how I was feeling and he told me the words that every recovering alkie hates to hear: “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” And he was right. Anyone who drinks or gets high daily for 29 years isn’t supposed to have a real command of his emotions and even though I felt completely nuts, it was a happy kind of nuts—what they call a “pink cloud” in recovery.
But you know what happened next. About five months later, the pink cloud vanished and I was left with something I did not comprehend: reality. When I told an old-timer how I was feeling (depressed and awful), he replied, “You know what SOBER stands for, don’t you? Son Of (a) Bitch Everything’s Real. But don’t worry, it gets better.” And it did. Lots. Just not very quickly. Which doesn’t sit with alcoholics very well, since we’re not particularly good at delaying gratification for more than say, a minute.
But I remember listening to a speaker tape when I was in early sobriety and hearing this guy with a big Southern drawl say something that has always stuck with me. “The problem with recovery is this: Booze works fast. And recovery works real, real slow.” Which sounds like a pretty raw deal, until you put it in the perspective of something another old-timer (notice the thread of where I’m getting my information?) told me. “Don’t get well too fast, kid,” he said. “You know what they say around here: Too well. Too fast. Too bad.” Years later, I got what he meant. I watched a bunch of people come in, get their jobs, relationships and money back really fast and then not make it when they assumed they were all better and topped doing the drill. Some came back later, some went to jail and a handful OD’d and died. A few of them maybe didn’t really need to be in recovery, at least not then.
But I watched a lot of people who, like me, really struggled, took shitty and humbling get-well jobs and slowly put their lives back together a day at a time. We weren’t always happy but we were usually pretty grateful. So if you’re in early sobriety and you think it sucks, know this: It’s supposed to. But it definitely gets better. I wouldn’t still be here if it didn’t.