You’ve seen it countless times in sci-fi movies: an alien quietly assumes the identity of someone’s significant other. They’ve perfectly replicated the human, right down to every scar and wrinkle, but the spouse slowly gets suspicious. Something’s not right, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. Maybe the husband doesn’t style his hair like that, or the boyfriend doesn’t like coffee ice cream. It’s always some tiny detail that betrays them as an imposter in the end.
Not too long ago, this was my actual life. I wasn’t visiting from a distant world and inhabiting someone’s body, but I may as well have been. I occasionally saw the realization flash in people’s eyes, “Something’s wrong with Paul.” Alcoholism had sprouted inside me like an extraterrestrial spore. After a while, I simply wasn’t the person anyone knew—let alone the man my wife married. Until sobriety, the sum total of everything I lived for was in my recycling bin on Monday mornings, emptied out at an embarrassing, almost epic volume.
Strangely, after treatment, things somehow got worse. I became a complete stranger to everyone when I stopped drinking. It was the small, imperceptible things that alcoholism had either added or whittled away that people suddenly noticed when the vodka was gone. Those little things added up to big changes in my personality. My wife didn’t know she’d married an alcoholic and, thanks to delusional thinking, I didn’t think she had, either. She didn’t sign up for mood swings, disappearing acts, lies and disappointment. And she sure as hell hadn’t buckled up for the sobriety rollercoaster. With each sober day, I wasn’t just putting distance between myself and the bottle—I was putting space between my wife and I. We were completely different people than when we’d met. Differences were slowly filling the bulkheads of our relationship like water in the walls of a sinking ship.
A childhood friend of mine is fond of saying, “Paul is dead—and you killed him.” I guess this is (all at once) a compliment, a Beatles in-joke and an unsettling commentary about how everyone around me has been forced to reconcile what’s gone and what’s gained through my sobriety. No one quite knows what to do with me. I’m worse than a character who’s been re-cast in a TV show’s eighth season—I’m the same actor playing the same role, but nobody’s showing me the script anymore. It’s awkward for everybody. It’s tragic how my triumphs are things normal people do on a daily basis. Normal people show up to work for long, unbroken stretches of time without taking sick days. Normal people are present for their children and actually listen when they speak. They make promises and actually follow through, without expecting everyone to applaud when they do.
No matter how destructive or careless or risky I used to be, I left an impression—and others were circling that impression like cats bothered by a piece of furniture that had been moved. My friends and family might not exactly be grieving the loss of who I was, but they can’t ignore the changes. I have to remember that my sobriety doesn’t just directly affect me. I’m constantly surprised by how not taking a three-hour nap in the afternoon can impact people. They still expect me to be passed out, wide-mouthed on a couch during family gatherings.
Who am I? Hell if I know. I simply am. I just keep doing things instead of saying I’ll do them, which is its own victory. But getting sober didn’t really push the hard-reset button on my life and wipe the hard drive clean. It wasn’t that easy. I’m always asking myself: Why aren’t those friends talking to me anymore? Why aren’t my wife and I getting along? Why are some things actually worse? I suppose the fact that I’m asking myself questions shows that I’m actually present enough to look around the wreckage of my life and take stock. I’m sure it’s remarkable for my parents to have their son back. But is some part of them still mourning the last ten or fifteen years where they were getting the 23% version of me? Still, being sober doesn’t mean I’m automatically the best version of myself. Far from it.
In a lot of ways, it’s so much easier to handle letting go of drinking than it is to constantly re-introduce myself to my friends and loved ones. I may be able to go to wedding receptions without making a beeline to the bar, but I find it impossible to navigate the shifting sands of people’s expectations of me. It’s pretty well-known to everyone that I’m a recovering alcoholic. I use it as a social bulletproof vest to keep myself accountable. Still, nobody wants to hear about how amazing sobriety is and how different I am. And I don’t want to be That Guy. I’m not better than anybody else; I’m just figuring out how to live a solid, sober life.
I have to remember that I’m as much a stranger to others as I am to myself. My sobriety is early and thin, like the first freeze of a lake. People take tentative steps out onto it, listening hard for cracks. Nobody wants to get swallowed up whole by a false sobriety the same way they were swallowed by my drinking. All I can do is respect where everyone’s coming from with my alcoholism. I’ve put them through a lot. I can’t just suddenly go from slurring my words at my kids’ daycare to becoming the sober Kool-Aid Man, breaking down walls and shouting AA catchphrases. If I behave like I’m an entirely new person, I’m disrespecting everyone I harmed and ignoring everything that happened.
There are days when I wish I could blame my behavior on an alien—hell, it might be simpler for others to understand—but being a stranger to others right now is good. It’s a stark reminder of how far I’ve come. I need people to look at me as if I’m a blank slate. I was out of control when I was drinking, now I’m in even less in control of how people perceive me as a sober guy. I’m hopeful that someday everyone around me will realize this is who I genuinely am. A person coming to terms with decisions that weren’t entirely his own and searching for any remaining signs of alien life deep inside.
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