How I Got Sober: Joe

How I Got Sober: Joe

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Many alcoholics who come to AA don’t get sober the first time, often going out and coming back until they either get sober, go to jail or pass away. Although there are plenty of people who stop drinking without going to AA, Joe is one who believes that he could not have otherwise gotten it. When he speaks of his experience in AA, he often says, “The first time I came, the second time I came to and the third time I came to believe.” This is his story:

I got sober in 1988 at the age of 34, but I had to really take a beating before I actually stayed sober. My first exposure to any kind of treatment came in 1980 as a result of an unfortunate version of a Christmas story. On Christmas Eve, I had drunkenly slipped on the ice and smashed my head on the ground. I must have been out for a while because when I woke up in the hospital, I was also being treated for frostbite. The people at the hospital undoubtedly pegged me for an alcoholic, because during my stay they wheeled me down from my room to what I would later recognize as the detox unit. They had me watch this grainy old film with lots of car crashes, which I gathered to be some sort of movie on the hazards of drunk driving. Oddly enough, nobody ever asked me, “Do you think you might be here as a result of your drinking?” Instead they just wheeled me back to my room without saying anything to me. It was pretty surreal.

When I was discharged, I went back to the room in Cambridge that I was renting, and the guy who owned the place told me, “You know you’re an alcoholic, right?” But it just sort of flew over my head. I recall my only reaction as being, “So?” I probably should have been insulted, or maybe taken it to heart and done something about my drinking, but instead I just continued what I was doing because being called an alcoholic didn’t mean anything to me. Eventually he kicked me out and I moved back to my old neighborhood in Boston.

Years later, on the eve of the first Patriots appearance in the Super Bowl, I OD’d on whiskey and was taken to the hospital. The nurse asked me if I was trying to kill myself, and I said, “Of course not.” But in hindsight, I’m not so sure. They sent me to a really shitty detox where they convinced me to go to a 28-day treatment program, an argument that was aided greatly by the fact that I was in the process of losing my apartment anyway. After that, I went to a halfway house in downtown Boston where they made us go to AA meetings.

At the first meeting I went to, I ran into my old landlord, who was also a former drinking buddy of mine but was now sober. He told me to meet him at his home group the next night, and I did. It was one of the largest meetings in Boston, and it was in the days when everybody smoked at meetings, so the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see from one side of the hall to the other. After the meeting, he convinced me to join the group, which is not something I ever would have done on my own, because the meeting was huge and it was way too intimidating. Besides, I was not exactly the joining kind.

This group went on a lot of commitments to detoxes, and he suggested that I meet them the next night to go to one. The meet-up spot was a roast beef joint that I was very familiar with because it was in the middle of all the drinking establishments in the neighborhood and stayed open well after the bars closed. I also went because I honestly didn’t have anything better to do, because I was living in a halfway house and was broke. But it was there where I started to learn what AA was all about. I liked going around with the group and going to meetings, but I wasn’t totally buying into the whole AA thing. I still didn’t really understand how serious my drinking problem was or why taking suggestions would be of any help, so I started drinking again after about four or five months. I would pop into a meeting every so often, but I didn’t stick with it or stay sober.

I came back to AA a second time, and this time I lasted a little bit longer—maybe six or seven months—but I still wasn’t convinced as to the seriousness of my problem, so I started drinking again…with the usual results. When I tried to get sober again, I picked my birthday as my intended sobriety date, checking into detox in July, but I found I couldn’t stay sober after I was released. I went to a few more detoxes, but ended up back at the same detox on October 1st, 1988, which is my sobriety date. I remembered the staff, and they were so nice to me that I actually started to listen; something must have gone “click” in my head this time.

When I got out of treatment, I didn’t go to go back to my old group, because I felt like a two-time loser and was embarrassed. But I went to an open speaker meeting—where groups visit other groups and speak for the entire meeting and it so happened that people from my old group were the guest speakers that night. One of the speakers was Tom, a guy that I first came in with, and he told me after the meeting that he was celebrating his one-year anniversary the next night, and asked me to come meet him then at his group. I went to the anniversary, and when I did, nobody gave me crap for the relapses, which is what I had feared. Instead they seemed happy to see me, and convinced me to re-up, which I did. Re-joining that group was the best decision I ever made in AA.

But the group had changed. Most of the old-timers had left to form a new group, because they didn’t want to hear the younger people talking about drugs anymore. At their new group, they put up a sign that said, “We don’t talk about booze here.” But even with the old-timers gone, the group still did things the way they always did, and that was carry the message to other groups and detoxes, and do lots of service. And we stayed sober. The group eventually folded as people got married and moved away from the area, but most of the core members are still sober over 25 years later because of the solid foundations that we built together as a group. I then joined the group that the old-timers had formed, and they had lightened up considerably on their “no drug talk” stance since then.

After being sober for a while, I went to school and entered the recovery field, becoming a counselor and then eventually becoming the director of that halfway house that I went to in 1986. I’m a big believer in doing service and I’ve always had a commitment within my group, as well as later on with AA on the state level. But I believe that the most important thing that I did for myself when I came to AA was to join that group, because I became a part of something bigger than me. My philosophy had always been, “I got myself into this and I’ll get myself out,” but I would later come to realize that that philosophy didn’t work very well when it came to getting sober.

I still belong to that group, and still do what I did when I first go sober: I don’t drink, I go to meetings (four or five a week), I ask for help and I am of service. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but for me the insanity would be to stop doing what I know has worked so well for so long.

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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.