This post was originally published on July 15, 2014.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that many people have a tendency to get clean and sober and then say to themselves, after accumulating a short period of time, “Okay, I’ve got this shit under control—now let’s move on to my real problems.” So they go back to school, find a new (and more challenging) job, start training for a marathon or set out to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time (you know how well those work in tandem). The sometimes fatal flaw to that logic is that even when you’ve got a little time under your belt, if you’re still collecting sobriety chips, booze and drugs remain your biggest problem. And just because you haven’t picked up a drink or a drug for 30, 60 or 90 days (or even longer), that doesn’t mean that your substance abuse problems are behind you. Of course, making a plan without considering the (very real) possibility of relapse is typical of early sobriety alca-logic and a lot of people learn this lesson the hard way when they try to reach too far too fast without first planting their feet firmly in recovery.
Not long ago, a guy who was fresh out of (yet another) program asked me to sponsor him, and I tentatively agreed. He appeared to be appropriately desperate (the best way to come into AA), was going to meetings daily, came along to our group’s detox commitments and would call both me and other group members pretty consistently. After about two weeks though, the conversations ceased to be about his alcoholism and increasingly became about what a hot commodity he had become among recruiters vying for his talents as a highly compensated IT guy.
Which would be fantastic—if he hadn’t spent the last 18 months living in four separate residential programs or been fired from his last job for serving jail time (for taking cops on a drunken high-speed chase). He got the job, and 30 days after that, he hooked up with his ex (whom he met in detox and who was again living in a women’s halfway house) and soon went off the radar. I checked with a friend today who had stayed in touch with him and the results were both sad and predictable. He’d relapsed, has had multiple hospitalizations since and my educated guess is that he doesn’t have either the job or the girl. (I called him and left a message, by the way, while writing this.)
So how do we avoid the “I’m all better, let’s get going” trap of early sobriety?
One of the truly fantastic suggestions that I heard when I first came into the rooms was this: “Don’t try to fix everything at once. Just concentrate on getting sober first.” And what the person who told me that meant was that if you focus all your energy on trying to fix bad relationships with your kids, parents or romantic relationships, choose to finally deal with long-standing financial or IRS problems, decide now is the time to get a new job or radically improve your look by spending all your time at the gym or any number of other major issues, you’re probably not spending enough time on your recovery to actually stay clean and sober. And all those problems will come right back.
Many of these impulses are well intentioned, particularly when it comes to family. There’s something I call Father-of-the-Year Syndrome, where men in early sobriety feel terribly guilty (understandably so) about neglecting their kids while they were drinking and want to make up for lost time. So they hit every Little League game, dance recital and school play and cut way down on meetings (or stop altogether); you don’t need a psychic to guess what typically happens next. What makes matters worse is that just when the kids start to trust Daddy again, he’s off on another run, and it makes them very wary of Dad’s next “recovery.” As I heard an old-timer once say to a new guy, “Stop trying to be Super Dad. You’ve been such a shitty father for so long, trust me, a few more months isn’t going to make much of a difference in the long run. Let’s work on staying sober.”
Same thing with jobs and finances. Some people who got into financial trouble when drinking and drugging will clean up, take a job with a great deal of responsibility and long hours to try to get their financial shit together, cut back on meetings and bang! They pick up a drink or drug, get fired and the cycle starts again. The same thing happens with exercise. I see lots of people try to bike, marathon or Cross Fit their way back to good health when they’re just coming out of the recovery intensive care unit, and they invariably neglect the whole defense against the first drink or drug thing.
Let’s face it: most of us come to these fellowships because we have completely fucked up our lives, and at the center of those fucked up lives is a horribly abusive relationship with booze and drugs. At least it’s that way for the majority of the people in my recovery circles. We didn’t come into AA or NA because we thought it was a good idea or wanted a spiritual journey but couldn’t afford the airfare to Tibet. Most of us showed up because we could not stop (or stay stopped) drinking and drugging on our own. It takes time to learn how to do that, especially if you get sober later in life. But the good news is that all those other wonderful impulses to improve life people have can be part of recovery—after they stabilize.
But for many of us in early sobriety, as soon as we get a little time behind us we honestly don’t think we’re ever going to drink or drug again and so it seems like it’s time to scale the next peak. I remember telling an old-timer when I had about 90 days, “I don’t even feel like drinking anymore.” To which he replied, “Don’t worry kid—you will.” Thankfully, when the obsession returned, I was in the middle of the program, going to lots of meetings and participating in my group. It passed and I stayed sober—something I probably would not have done if I’d tried to take on too many other “fixes” while I was still clearing up.
The second time I came into AA, being overly ambitious was not a problem. It was all I could do to just not drink, go to work and get to a meeting or two every day. I wasn’t trying to write the next great American novel, run for office or cure cancer. And because booze and drugs had given me such a vicious beating, all I wanted to focus on was staying sober. So I kept smoking, stayed in a shitty job that I could handle, ate so much ice cream that you would have thought Ben and Jerry were my sponsors, stayed married and built a decent recovery foundation in the process.
After a year, I started playing in clubs with my band again, and went back into journalism and comedy writing and some performing. After a few years, I quit smoking, got separated and then divorced and started my own little business. And my life has continued to evolve in a (mostly) positive direction since.
Another great suggestion I heard early was this: “Take care of things in the order that they will kill you.” I think AA has a shorter version of that. First Things First.