This post was originally published on June 2, 2015.
One of the things that still makes me uncomfortable when I tell people that I’m sober is that a lot of them respond by telling me how “brave” or “courageous” I am or congratulate me on my sobriety as if I had won an Oscar or something. Which, as one guy in my recovery circle likes to say, is “like congratulating someone for running out of a burning building.”
I know they mean well, and it’s usually either medical staff (who are taking my history) or women who I date (who not so coincidentally often seem to have had a drunk dad/ex-husband/boyfriend). But they almost always have that reverential look on their face that is usually reserved for someone who reads to blind children or donates a kidney to a stranger. I don’t usually have the heart to tell them that it wasn’t virtue that got me sober, that it was mostly just pants-shitting fear.
Of course, I react this way in part because even at 11-plus years sober, I still field compliments like Superman treats kryponite. But it also feels kind of dishonest to feel good about being congratulated. The truth is that getting sober wasn’t so much an act of courage as it was finally realizing that unless I did something drastic, I would be stuck in a shithole existence until the day I died—and when I did croak, everyone would know that I was a drunken loser.
Fear is also the only reason that I didn’t smoke or inject coke like the rest of the guys on the house-painting crew that I worked with at the end of my run (half of whom are now dead from booze, drugs and suicide). I was afraid that if my heart exploded, people would know I was a drug addict, too. How’s that for twisted alkie pride?
Thankfully, I became so terrified of being thought of as pathetic if I did drink myself to death that I actually did something about it. Fear became the great motivator because, without it, I never would have done anything that actually got me sober, like going to meetings every day, joining a group, getting a sponsor, taking commitments or—God forbid—pray. But people strongly suggested that I do those things and, if I wasn’t so scared of picking up a drink or a drug, I never would have done any of them. So much for my courageous decision.
I stayed sober on fear long enough to let the rest of the AA program kick in. I was actually way more frightened of relapsing than anything that life was throwing at me in early sobriety.
But that was the getting sober part. The actual staying sober and being in recovery part? That’s where I have to admit that it does take a little bit of courage. Or as the patriarch of my home group likes to say in the safety of the men’s meeting, “It takes a special type of balls to stay sober.” Once I knew that drinking and drugging weren’t options anymore, that’s when I really had to start showing some courage, because with no place to run every time I wanted to check out, I had to grow the fuck up.
So when I got divorced, got fired from a job, my brother drank himself to death, my mother got Alzheimer’s, I broke my leg and subsequently went broke, or even the first time I got dumped sober (a real invitation to a bender for me in the past) I never thought seriously about drinking. But I did have to start accepting life as it really was, not how I wanted it to be. And that was tough.
Every time something bad happened, something in my life had to change and it was usually painful. When I got divorced, I had to learn how to deal simultaneously with guilt and abandonment; when I got fired from that job, I had to finally accept that I don’t really fit into a corporate structure; when my brother died, I had to become my mother’s caretaker, no easy job for a self-centered fuck like me; and when my mother went into the nursing home and no longer knew my name, I still had to show up, because that’s what decent people do for the ones they love—even if it totally sucks. And I couldn’t have made any changes in the way I think (read, grow up) if I was still getting fucked up.
A lot of good things came out of the bad things, too, especially when I fractured my leg and went broke. I was terrified of trying to make a living full time as a freelance writer, but when I broke my leg, I didn’t have a choice. And when the leg healed, I found out that I could survive on writing. I’m not rich, but I’m awful happy and self-employment has a lot of benefits.
When I decided to write about this topic, I went online to see if I could find any words of wisdom to help me out and I came across this line by E.E. Cummings: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
I still have a long way to go, but I couldn’t have started to develop any real courage if I wasn’t too terrified to drink anymore.