How I Got Sober: Johnny

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How I Got Sober: Johnny

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This post was originally published on August 5, 2014.

Sometimes when I tell my story from the podium, I joke that I did it the easy way: I drank long and hard enough to nearly drink myself to death. And there’s more than a grain of truth to that, because while it may not really have been the easy way, for an astonishingly arrogant drunk like me (given that I had no longer had anything to be arrogant about and very few things in my life to even be proud of), it was probably the only way. Because it wasn’t the dying part that would have bothered me; it was the realization that I might never be able to actually stop drinking and would have to continue to live that shithole existence for the rest of my life that finally made me willing to surrender.

My transformation began on April 13, 2003 when I got arrested for a DUI, but it took nearly five months and a lot of resistance on my part before I could actually get and stay sober for more than a few days. I had started drinking early on Saturday morning (because I had to—I was a chemically dependent “maintenance drinker”) before getting fairly hammered early in the afternoon at a local dive. I was going to see some punk bands later that evening, so I went home and slept it off before going out for the evening. I woke up drunk and went to the show, but could only manage a few beers because I still felt loaded and didn’t want to get fall-down drunk in the club.

Driving home, I was taking a few big pulls on the Sunday pint stashed under my driver’s seat when I noticed a police car coming towards me from the other direction on a wide parkway. Using my finely tuned paranoid drunk logic, I somehow determined that he knew that I was drunk (from 200 yards away), so I made an abrupt right hand turn—onto a one-way, dead end street. This Bond-ian escape move definitely got his attention, so he banged a U-turn, flipped on the blue lights and pulled me over. After smelling the booze on my breath, he asked me to step out of the car and recite the alphabet, which I did surprisingly well (and without singing it). He next asked me to do the “Walk the straight line” field sobriety test. My answer still surprises even me.

“No,” I said flatly. “I’m drunk. Why don’t you arrest me?”

And he did. I didn’t know at the time why I said that, but I now believe it was the beginning of my surrender. We went to the station, and I blew a pretty standard (for a drunk) 2.6 on the Breathalyzer. I was booked, and my very unhappy then-wife bailed me out at 3 am. I would love to tell you that’s when I saw the light, went to detox and stayed sober, but I had a long way to go before I was done. The next day, after picking up my car, I drove to the same bar that I got hammered at the day before and had three or four stiff ones, because I had to stop the shakes and the liquor stores weren’t open in Massachusetts on Sundays then.

At my court appearance, I pled guilty (another surrender) and was sentenced to four AA meetings a week, plus random urine tests and Breathalyzers. That meant I could no longer smoke pot or take drugs without risking jail, which also meant that for the first time since Nixon was president, I would have to be totally sober from everything. Assuming I could just put the booze down.

Which I couldn’t.

This was how I found out that I had lost the capacity stop drinking on my own. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, as suggested, but I went to them drunk, which was not suggested. I got a sponsor (it’s a lot easier to ask when you’re drunk). I also went to drunk school (alcohol re-education for DUI offenders) drunk. The only place I didn’t show up drunk was at my probation officer’s office, which was hell because I was going through withdrawal and had to sweat it out until I passed the Breathalyzer each time. I went to spin-dry detox twice and drank almost immediately after discharge both times (once five minutes after leaving); my probation officer told me that if I went back again, I’d have to go away on a state-sponsored vacation.

It was clear to everyone but me that I was going to have to do something different, since my way was absolutely not working, but I still hadn’t surrendered. So over the next few weeks, I got to find out what “darkest before the dawn” really means. I was driving drunk to meetings, terrified of being pulled over and going to jail (God forbid I take the bus); I stopped chasing real booze with Listerine and switched to straight Listerine (26.9 percent alcohol in the original non-minty blend), so cops, my friends, and folks at AA “wouldn’t know” I was drunk; the levels of despair and self-pity sank lower and lower and I found myself listening to songs like John Lennon’s “Mother,” loaded, with the headphones on while my poor wife looked on in horror; AA’s were still telling me to “keep coming back” but the enthusiasm in their voices was beginning to wane as I continued to show up smashed at meetings; and the fear that I would never get sober grew to the point that the booze wasn’t really shutting off my head anymore. Which was just where I needed to be—that “jumping off” point that many drunks have to reach.

During this time, a now sober former drinking buddy who knew I was struggling asked me if I was praying. “Of course not,” I snorted.

“Then I can’t help you,” he said.

“Go fuck yourself,” I replied with my prototypical alcoholic arrogance. And I kept drinking.

I remembered this conversation a few weeks later, and desperate, raised my hand at a meeting far from my home. “I can’t stop drinking, and someone told me to pray, but I don’t know how,” I said with near-complete defeat. This was another surrender for me, because I hated asking for help.

A couple of old timers came up to me after the meeting and one of them explained how to pray. “Just say, ‘Please help me stop drinking’ first thing every morning, kid. You don’t even have to say ‘God’ if you don’t want to. Just ask.”

And so it began. It didn’t work right away, and things actually felt worse. But I kept showing up at meetings, kept praying (less and less sarcastically as time went on), and on September 9th, 2003, something definitely changed. For the first time in a very long time, I woke up and knew I didn’t have to drink.

I did though, downing a half pint of Listerine before a beginner’s meeting and a nip of 100 proof schnapps on the way home, but that’s because I was worried that I might have a seizure. That night, my wife came home and asked me, “You didn’t drink today, did you?”

“Yes. I did,” I admitted, for once choosing not to lie. “But I’m not going to drink tomorrow.” And I didn’t and haven’t since that day. I didn’t have any seizures, either.

For a long time, I never mentioned the prayer part of my story for fear of driving away newcomers that might be turned off by the whole God Thang. Now I see it as irresponsible not to include it.

I think I was afraid that I would have to turn in my membership card to the Royal Order of Quasi-Intellectuals if I admitted that I prayed. But now when people judge me for praying or believing in something other than my own self-will, I usually just consider the source.

For me, the equation is simple. I surrendered. I prayed. It worked. A-fucking-men.

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Johnny Plankton

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.

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