How I Got Sober: Melissa
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How I Got Sober: Melissa


This post was originally published on March 31, 2015.

This week marks the eighth year of my sobriety. I almost didn’t remember, not because I didn’t know when I’d gotten sober or that the date was coming up but because I didn’t know what the date was on Monday until around 7 pm, when I went to file a story I had been working on all afternoon. (Not having to always know the date, along with wearing pajamas as clothes, is one of the great benefits of freelancing.) I had gone the whole afternoon lost in the world my writing was creating until it was time to send that piece of writing off to an editor. When I file a story, I make a notation of the date in an Excel document so that I can keep track of when I’m supposed to be paid. This is just one of the many systems I’ve developed to keep my life organized and manageable, which reminds me of how different my life looks today compared to eight years ago, when I had no such systems. I wouldn’t have known the date not because I had a flexible job that I loved but because I had no job at all.

When you go to rehab, there’s an intake process where you catalog the various aspects of your life and whether or not you’re managing. For me, this interview was a bit of an awakening. A counselor and I went through my story, point by point— from work and finances, to my relationships and health— listing just how far down the scale my life had fallen. I had quit a job I hated some six months or so earlier with the brilliant idea that I would sell sex for money while I pursued a writing career. Never mind that I had no idea what it meant to be a writer other than the alcoholic stereotype; this is what I wanted to do and so I felt entitled to do it. I mean, if being a writer meant getting drunk and suffering, I was nailing it.

That spring, I scribbled jibberish in journals while struggling to finish my last year of grad school. My thesis was due in May and I had never once met with my thesis advisor. We were supposed to have a team of people we were working with, yet long before this, I had alienated myself from my family and friends, including my classmates, and so one had asked me to be on their team. I had been too embarrassed to ask anyone to let me join. Barely participating anyway, I was seriously considering taking an incomplete and finishing at some later time, which really meant not at all. Who cared anyway? I thought. As far as my health, I was certain I was infested with all sorts of punishing diseases and was probably going to die, either from this or something else. Someone would kill me or I would kill myself. Or there’d be an accident. When I thought of the future, these were my thoughts. I was on a list of medications in an effort to balance my moods. Even in my alcoholic haze, selling sex for money had sucked—it only made the sadness and insecurity worse—and so I’d had the good sense enough to stop doing it around January. By that March, I was living off the money I had saved, a considerable amount, but it was rapidly dwindling. I had no clue what was next.

I went into rehab with the crazy notion that someone might be able to help me. I say “crazy notion” because this is what I thought at the time. I think I figured I would give it a try, only for confirmation that it wouldn’t work. I wanted confirmation that my worst fears were true: I was beyond help. I was different, unique. Nothing could fix me. I was broken and wrong. I didn’t think alcohol was a problem. When it came to sex, I was on the fence. Certainly at one time, both alcohol and sex had seemed like the solution. Alcohol loosened me up. Sex made me feel good, too—and it made me money, which is something people need. I needed money, but it was undeniable that sex work as a solution to that problem had become a problem of its own. I realized that I was acting out a compulsive pattern, and that I couldn’t stop. This pattern of sexual compulsivity was fueled by alcohol. I didn’t know what to do but take a therapist’s suggestion: rehab. A bit extreme, I thought, but okay, why not? It’s not like I had anything else to do with my time but sit around Starbucks pretending to write and wanting to die.

I remember the day I called my thesis advisor from rehab. It was the first time that term I’d reached out to him. I think my project was due in like a week. My thesis advisor had been one of my favorite instructors at the New School. When I still had the wherewithal to participate, I took his elective Saturday morning class in experimental and surrealist poetry. He taught me that literature was the one true expression of the authentic human experience. When all other forms of communication failed, there was writing. I called him on my cell phone from the waiting room. I was sitting in one of those plastic chairs bolted to the floor among people I considered degenerates. It was humiliating to be there, humiliating to have to tell this person I so greatly admired that this was happening to me, that I had a problem, that maybe— just maybe— the problem was booze. It was humiliating, but I had no choice. I needed to let him know what was up.

I wish I could remember any part of the conversation, other than the gist of it. He told me not to worry about the assignment, we’d figure it out. He told me to focus on my health. He might’ve even said something like “First Things First” or “Keep it Simple.” He asked me if I was also doing 12-step recovery. I was. That’s when he told me that he had over two decades worth of sobriety. I was astounded. I had never met a sober writer before (or so I thought). He might’ve told me that he was proud of me or maybe this is just how I felt—not humiliated, as I had feared, but reassured that for the first time in a long time, I was doing something right.

If you count days in meetings, you’ll hear people wish you a long, slow recovery. It’s infuriating, but it’s true; we don’t get better overnight. Rather, things get better slowly. I stuck with rehab, even though I hated it. I went to meetings. Not right away but eventually, I got a sponsor and I worked the steps. That spring, I earned my degree. I graduated with my class. My mom came to my graduation. That meant a lot to me. I had once felt like I had no one but now I had become a part of a community of people in recovery. On my 90 days of sobriety, I got a job. I became a teacher. Eventually, I became a writer. I kept getting sober, one day at a time.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.