This post was originally published on June 2, 2014.
Something I realized after being sober for a bit: nobody has ever given me worse advice than I’ve given myself. Thankfully, when I came into AA (the second time), I got a sponsor and help from other people who had been around long enough to keep me from relying on what I like to call my “alca-logic.”
It only takes being in meetings for a while to realize how broken decision-making is for many alcoholics and addicts. And I’m not just talking about while we’re drinking and using. The horrible decisions I made while under the influence—say, choosing to drive home after 27 beers and some shots because the cocaine “straightened me out,” trying to initiate sex with co-workers or blood relatives or peeing in the middle of a very busy wedding—are things that lots of earth people (non-alcoholics) do when they imbibe too much (okay, maybe only the crazy ones). But for alcoholics, that ludicrous decision-making process seems to linger way past the time when booze and drugs have left the system. For some, this can last for many years—possibly for life; still, from what I see, this is mainly true in early sobriety.
Some of this has to do with the basic nature of the alcoholic/addict—denial, extreme self-centeredness and immaturity for starters—but some of it also seems to just be an innate ability to examine all the facts that come up with a spectacularly ridiculous solution to a problem that probably wasn’t all that complex to begin with. If you listen to enough people share their tales of early sobriety, it becomes really clear why we’re urged to get sponsors, even temporary ones, when we first come in. My all-time favorite example of alca-logic came from a relatively young guy who was celebrating his 20th anniversary. He was what I’d call a “catastrophic drunk”—the type that T-shirts that say “Instant Asshole—Just Add Booze” are made for. He had drunk himself out of an athletic scholarship, jobs, relationships, family—pretty much everything—by his early 20s. When he got to the program, he went to a lot of meetings but didn’t get a sponsor; he was also, like many of us, not very good at asking for help or running things by people.
So when an old-timer suggested that it might be time to get a job when he was 90 days sober, he copped a squat on a park bench to read the paper. That’s when he stumbled upon an article that described a booming economy—in Japan. So he decided to move to Japan, despite the fact that he didn’t speak Japanese and had never even eaten sushi. Because he was terrified of flying, he started drinking on the plane to calm his nerves. And he stayed drunk for two years, becoming homeless in a foreign country, before miraculously getting sober again with the help of a fellow American AA in Japan (an equally great story).
I’ve heard other variations of this tale—like the lonely alcoholic who moved to a third-world country in search of a bride and became drunk and homeless there for a few years. But perhaps what’s most amazing about these ludicrous stories is that I identified with them—not with the actual details of what these guys did but with the warped reasoning behind the decisions.
Case in point: when I was about nine months sober, I came to the conclusion that it was time to get a divorce. I was still very shaky in sobriety, up to my eyeballs in debt from paying a DUI lawyer and from financing my drug habit with credit cards and had limited income in my job as a freelance house painter. Even though it clearly wasn’t the best time to strike out on my own, I just knew I had to get out. Why? Because I was “in recovery” and my wife was also having credit card issues that she wasn’t dealing with. Even though she had a great six-figure-plus career and didn’t really need to do anything, to my way of thinking this situation was completely intolerable and grounds for divorce. Luckily, my sponsor just laughed and said, “Why don’t you wait until you’re a year sober and then we can talk about it?” And I did, and in hindsight, I see how potentially disastrous that decision would have been (although we did get divorced five years later).
When alcoholics learn to start showing up for work, we can usually do whatever we do better than we had been doing—some say far better than non-alcoholics (all that extra energy has to go somewhere). But that same sanity doesn’t always transfer to our relationships, particularly romantic ones. So we get this false sense of security that we’re firing on all cylinders when we’re really recovering from the equivalent of a traumatic brain injury. And when you take the booze and drugs out of the system, there’s nothing to slow down those crazy racing thoughts (I call it ADD—that is—Alcohol Deficiency Disorder) so many of us just act on them.
That’s why, when I was getting sober, it was suggested to me that as soon as I had a great idea, I should lie down. There are no great ideas that a good night’s sleep won’t either improve or reveal to be insane in the light of day. The other good idea for dealing with my good ideas is to run them by a sponsor or really, anybody that isn’t me. In sobriety, self-sufficiency is absolutely not an admirable quality. You just might end up homeless in Japan. Or, arguably even worse, Cleveland.