How I Got Sober: Barry
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How I Got Sober: Barry


For many of us in recovery, there was a well-defined turning point or series of events that transpired that convinced us that getting clean and sober was going to be the only way out of our worsening existence. Sometimes it was cosmic, like the psychic change that can take place when you stumble across an irrevocable truth that tells you that you can no longer go on the way you have been. And sometimes it’s physical, like being sectioned to a psych ward or sent to jail. But for a large number of us, like my friend Barry D., there was no specific turning point—just a slow evolutionary process that persuaded him that booze and drugs were no longer an option. He is now 17 years sober, and this is his story:

I drank and drugged for about 35 years, the last 15 of which were quite painful, particularly the last few before I finally came into recovery. During that 15-year period, I wanted to stop (or at least moderate), but couldn’t abstain for even one day. I clung to the notion of being a “functional alcoholic” because I wasn’t getting arrested or going to detoxes, but I was absolutely miserable during that time period. A friend took me to my first AA meeting when I was 50 years old. I immediately found hope, and continued to come to recovery meetings, but I couldn’t stay sober. For one thing, I spent a lot of time trying to “figure out” this disease, and to figure out this thing called AA. This went on for the next three years: I would go to lots of meetings, get increasing amounts of sober time, but I would eventually relapse. And I believed this happened for a number of the same reasons that many of us encounter.

Although I don’t consider myself an intellectual, over my years in recovery I’ve noticed that intellectually oriented people can have a really difficult time getting sober in AA, and I believe that for me it was one of the obstacles to my getting clean and sober. I think the reason behind it is that so many of us have successfully solved a whole host of problems by being clever, charming or relying on some other quality that allowed us to succeed. We’ve built our lives on successfully getting out of trouble and solving problems using those qualities. So when faced with a problem like addiction, I thought, “I’m gonna figure this sucker out.” That’s where my self-loathing really started to progress, when I began to think, “What’s wrong with me that I can’t figure this out? I want to stop, so why do I keep waking up hungover?” Also, in the early stages of recovery, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how AA itself worked, and I now find that both of those exercises were a complete waste of time.

All humans—not just addicts—remember pleasure. It is part of our genetic code that has helped us survive all these centuries. We’re also programmed to forget pain. It’s a great system for everyone, except for an addict like me. When I wanted to drink and do cocaine, I could only remember the pleasure of the high and forg4et the excruciating pain. And I would forget the consequences. It was hard for me to remember just how bad it was when I was using.

In my early years (when I was not staying sober), I was comparing and not identifying with people that I considered to be far worse than me. One day I said to my sponsor, “I haven’t been to detoxes. I haven’t been in car accidents. My story’s not like these people’s stories.” And he replied, “If you want, you can quantify the number of arrests, the number of DUIs, the number of jail bids and the number of detoxes—you can quantify all that shit. But the one thing you cannot quantify is the pain.” After that, I would be in a meeting and look around and think to myself, “Son of a bitch, everyone in this room has experienced enough pain to get in the door.” Our stories are different, but pain is what we all had in common. But if I didn’t have the detox experiences, what’s my pain? Then it hit me, “Holy shit! It’s the self-loathing.”

So it wasn’t a single event, although I can see now that my surrender—my desperation—was the result of those 15 years of hating myself more and more while my drinking became worse and worse. For me, there is no greater pain than that of self-loathing.

So my turning point came when I stopped trying to figure out the disease and AA, stopped comparing and started identifying and replaced that euphoric recall with the realization that my drinking and drugging had horrible consequences. I still encounter euphoric recall from time to time, but I’m now better able to recognize the absurdity of my disease and quickly recall the pain—and the consequences.

About 17 years ago, I finally started taking some of the suggestions that I had been eschewing. I joined a group, hung the banners, made coffee, extended my hand to the newcomer and shared my story. I had heard the slogan, “Right Action is the Key to Right Thinking” and that resonated with me.

I discovered that it really is all about the action. It’s not a theory that had to be studied. All the literature and all the cognitive re-structuring like “One Day At a Time” and “This Too Shall Pass” were useful, but it was the action that brought about the change for me. There are a lot of ways to get sober and there are a lot of ways to get sober in AA, but it wasn’t until I focused on taking action and doing the next right thing that I could get and stay sober. It made no sense why it worked then and to this day it still sounds a bit illogical. But it works.

One of the great misconceptions I had about getting sober was that if I did, I’d never have fun again. But I knew that I had to get sober, and because I was in so much pain, I was prepared to never have fun again.

But I was wrong. I’m having more fun than I ever thought possible. And I now remember the fun.

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About Author

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.