This post was originally published on February 20, 2015.
For a very long time in my drinking and drugging career, I clung to the notion that, yeah, while I definitely needed to stop drinking and taking drugs, I was in no real hurry. Because if I knew anything about being sober (which I didn’t), it was that it was definitely going to suck. I knew that in AA they tell you that it’s just a day at a time, but I also knew from the first time I came in (and didn’t stay sober), it really was forever. That sounded like a death sentence or at least the death of any semblance of fun in my life, anyway.
How could I sing with a band anymore, I wondered, forgetting that I had been kicked out of my own rockabilly band for being a drunk and that my punk band played out about once a year. How could I have drunken sex with strange women I met in bars? Even though I was monogamously married and hadn’t been with anyone but my wife for a dozen years. How could I write or be creative? Even though the only writing I was doing was signing the back of my paycheck at my shitty house painting job, and the only creative thing I was doing was thinking of new ways to lie about my fucked up behavior.
But getting sober? I just knew it would totally suck, because I would no longer be able to do the awesome things I wasn’t doing anymore anyway.
It’s what I now call the “The Big Lie” and it was what kept me from sobering up until I was beaten to within an inch of my life (always the best way to get sober). I once heard somebody say at a meeting, “I have a very clever disease, because it tells me lies and it speaks to me in my own voice.” That’s exactly what was happening to me for a very long time.
To be fair, I did have some evidence that being sober would suck. I had stopped drinking for various lengths of time at different points in my life, but I was always on the marijuana maintenance plan and never in real recovery. While my life improved, simply by not being sick or having the shakes in the morning, it still pretty much sucked.
Pot wasn’t really a solution. I wasn’t one of those bakeheads who could just toke up, go hang out with people and party without drinking, because it made me paranoid to be in public. The truth was, I had no real social skills when I wasn’t drinking. So, mostly I would smoke weed after getting home from work and just watch TV and eat tons of stoner treats. I didn’t meet many women that way (this was before I was married), and the need for companionship (alright, sex) always got me drinking again. By the time I was married, at age 40, I was drunk straight through until I got sober at 47. I had no frame of reference what it would be like to even be sort of sober.
So, as my life got worse and worse, I literally got sicker and sicker with cirrhosis. I didn’t know I had it at the time, because I was afraid to go to the doctor. The thought persisted: I know I have to stop drinking, but will life be worth living if I do? Killing myself didn’t really seem like an option, but as my friend says of his final days of using, “If someone wanted to push me in front of a train, I wouldn’t have done anything to stop them.” Getting sober seemed that dismal.
What I failed to realize—and this is what’s truly at the heart of the Big Lie—was that my life already sucked. It sucked in ways that I could not even comprehend because I had accepted the suckiness of my existence for so long (what they call in AA, settling for less). Every morning when I woke up I had the shakes and needed to get booze in my system—which meant waiting for a liquor store to open. I frequently shit myself, because, like a lot of late-stage alcoholics, I rarely ate and had no control over my bowels anymore. I was always broke because I drank in bars and did coke every day and I was spending time with people I would never have been around sober. They were the only people that I could feel better than because I could tell myself I wasn’t as “bad” at them. I’m sure they hung out with me for the same reason. That’s just the mini-tour of Suckville.
To be fair to myself, I really didn’t know that it could be any better. I honestly thought I had to live like that, because it was just the price I had to pay to keep boozing and drugging. In a sick way, I thought it was better than the alternative, because truthfully, living sober was way too fucking scary. The thought of AA’s total abstinence and “life on life’s terms” ideas had absolutely no appeal for me. If I didn’t have an escape route from everyday life, or more accurately, a way to feel comfortable in my own skin, I didn’t want any part of this AA bullshit.
When I did actually put down the booze and drugs that last (and I hope final) time, I can’t exactly tell you that I felt good, at least not for a while. That makes the Big Lie really easy to reinforce, because no matter how sucky your life is when you’re using, the initial part of getting sober doesn’t seem much better. That certainly was the case for me. But my main point is this: Getting sober totally sucks. Being sober does not and it’s way better than the alternative.
When I first stopped drinking, I had the shakes for days, didn’t really sleep for a long time and felt good for about an hour a week. But it slowly got better. Eventually the good days outnumbered the bad. As I continued to work a program, (don’t drink, go to meetings, join a group, get and use a sponsor, do the steps, help other people) I can honestly say I rarely have a bad day now. Lots of shit has gone wrong. My brother drank himself to death, my mother got Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know who I am, I got divorced, I broke my leg, went broke and I’ve been dumped. But none of those things happened because of my drinking and drugging. If I picked up a drink when the shit hit the fan, I wouldn’t have been be able to effectively deal with any of that shit.
Although I had some awesome times drinking and drugging, it wasn’t that way for the final dozen or so years. Given my long-term demonstrated track record with booze and drugs, I know it will never be good again. Since I got sober, I haven’t been arrested, hospitalized for addiction, shit my pants, stole money, had the shakes or drunk Listerine and the amount of apologies I’ve had to make has gone way down. So, in comparison to my drunk and high life, my sober life is quite fucking awesome and not anywhere near as boring as I imagined. In fact there aren’t enough hours in the day to do what I want to do.
I think the problem is when we think about getting sober, we’re always comparing the best times we had using to the worst times being sober. If you’re reading this and thinking of taking the leap, try to think of the reality of your active addiction rather than the fantasy. Remember that getting sober may totally suck, but being sober sure beats shitting your pants.