This post was originally published on January 21, 2015.
From the time I was in my early 30s, right up until I got sober at the age of 47, every January was going to be the year that I actually put down the booze and drugs and got my shit together. And every year, it would be the same story: I’d stop drinking for a little while, sometimes until the Super Bowl, and then I’d somehow forget what a complete fucking wreck my life was when I was using, pick up a drink and go on a booze-and-coke-fueled bender for a few days. And that shit would just continue until I crawled to the finish line after Christmas and took the same empty pledge again: This is the year.
Except it never was.
I was reminded of this the other day when I noticed that the meetings that I regularly attend have been awfully crowded lately, with lots of new faces. And I’m guessing that many of those people are here because they made the same New Year’s resolution that I made for all those years. As the month goes on, I suspect an awful lot of them will forget about the pain and just pick up the toys again.
Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” And while most of what he said in his career was much funnier, it’s probably the wisest thing he ever said. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to get in shape, get sober or become a Jedi Master—you’re going to have to actually start doing something. And it starts by going where the people who know how to do it are and actually listening to them. So if you want to stop drinking, go to 12-step or SMART meetings or an IOP or a therapist or a sober shaman or something—just fucking go. Sitting at home by yourself trying to not think about drinking and drugging doesn’t tend to work for all that long.
If you decide to go to meetings, try going every day. It’s strongly suggested that you start by attending 90 meetings in 90 days, which (understandably) completely horrifies newcomers. But as I heard when I first came in: “Did you drink every day? Then go to a meeting every day.” I did drink every day, usually for about 12-14 hours, with many of those hours in some shithole bar, so I didn’t have the bullshit excuse of not having enough time to go to meetings when I decided to get serious about being sober. I needed a lot of meetings to change my thinking and to remember how much my life sucked when I was drinking, because I have what they call a “built-in-forgetter” that tells me that I wasn’t that bad. And when I leave a meeting, I can actually do something productive, which wasn’t usually the case when I left a bar. Staying sober is hard. Meetings make it less so.
But here’s the thing: meetings are not like movies, where the action only happens once the story begins and stops when the credits roll (or the Serenity Prayer is over). I was completely out of my mind and couldn’t wait to get to a meeting when I was first getting sober, because I didn’t know what the fuck to do with myself. So I went early and talked to people, and then I stayed late and asked people questions, like “Do I have to believe in God?” (No, btw). People took the time to talk to me and it was so much better than being with my crazy-ass self. Sometimes I think I’ve learned more about alcoholism in parking lots after meetings than I have in the actual meetings themselves. Another suggestion I took was to hang out with people after meetings, go out to eat with the group or get some ice cream with some members. It kept me out of my head and more importantly, out of bars and crack houses.
One of the best analogies I’ve heard about why new people should join a group early on comes from wildlife documentaries, the ones where the lions pick off the stragglers from the wildebeest herds. Addiction is like a lion; it looks for the vulnerable and pounces. By joining a group and getting to know people, I didn’t have to fight off the obsession to drink on my own, because I could tell people how I was feeling and they’d tell me how they got through it without picking up a drink or drug.
And I didn’t just put my name on a piece of paper when I joined my group. I took a commitment to set up the hall, which may not sound like much but it made me feel like a part of the group and also made me accountable—something I never was when I was drinking. It was a nice and simple job, but was about all I could handle since I barely had two brain cells to rub together when I first got sober.
One of the hardest things for someone in early sobriety is the desire to hang around with the old friends in the same places where you drank or did drugs. “But I’m only going to drink ginger ale,” you say. I have a friend who describes his attempts at continuing to hang around with his old mates at his favorite watering hole this way: “It was Pepsi, Pepsi, Budweiser, shot of Jack, fight, handcuffs and court case. And it happened that fast.”
One of the things that I realized when I tried that strategy in the past was how fucking boring my kind of barrooms (i.e., shitholes) and my friends who hang there (drunks and addicts) are when I’m not drinking. There really isn’t much going on besides the drinking and the coke, and the drinkers either repeat the same stories over and over again or just seem ridiculous after they start getting hammered. I always thought I was missing something if I wasn’t there, but it turns out that the only thing I was missing out on was real life because I was spending so much of my time glued to a bar stool.
Of course, no one has to stay out of places where they serve booze forever. I go to a lot of comedy clubs and nightclubs to hear bands as well as parties now that I’m alcohol-neutral (though I’ve got no reason to go to a crack house). But in the beginning? I would have had a hard, possibly even impossible, time staying sober if I kept hanging out where there was plenty of booze at my fingertips.
There is a tendency for people making New Year’s resolutions to get sober to try to completely make over their lives, so they also add in quitting smoking, running marathons and going back to school all at once. See if you can focus on just not using for a while, and everything else will fall into place. Getting sober takes a big commitment, and if you want to give yourself the best chance, you might want to just focus on one thing at a time.
Oh and if you want to stay sober, here’s a tip that’s pretty full-proof:
You can’t get drunk or high if you don’t have the first one.