Ten Years

It’s a long list. Each day for the last 3653 days, someone has said or written something directly to me or merely within earshot that served to guide me through one more day sober. One more sober day. I have thanked some members of that list in person, but some others are individuals whom I met once and they guided me through that day and then moved on. It’s a long list.

The individuals who have offered their wisdom more than once, some have become friends. Others have died, some have moved away. Not to go all “In My Life” on you.

I do not claim to remember every morsel of wisdom that I credit as that day’s bit of help for me because I am not Proust and I am not a diarist and many days I would not know wisdom even if it was offered to me wrapped in a box and labelled “Wisdom for Mark.” (Everyone loves presents!) My life as a sober member of society is proof enough for me that help has been offered and accepted each day for what is now, as of today, ten continuous years of sobriety.

Now, help and wisdom and friendship were offered to me each day for the years before recovery, of that you can be certain. My life has been crammed full with brilliant people, people with a native talent for friendship, and others who were in touch with their inner lives in ways that baffled me until I came into recovery. Too often, I responded to brilliance with confusion, friendship with a unique recipe of adulation blended with coldness, and emotional maturity with insecurity.

In other words, I could not hear the help and the friendship because I was trapped in my own … me.

The origins of alcoholism as a condition in society have been the subject of study for centuries: many people have answers, many others have questions, and it seems like too often the answers and the questions rarely line up. The origins of alcoholism in an individual seem to differ from one alcoholic to the next; thus, my story may resonate with a person who reads this, and it may not for another.

I think I was born an alcoholic in the sense that from childhood I seemed to always want to feel different from how I felt: sad, I wanted to not be sad; happy, I wanted to be happier. There was always an “-ier” or “-er” that I felt was needed in my inner life. I do not know if someone had said something like the above to me when I was a teenager if I would have understood it or if I would have quietly rejected it. If someone had told me when I was a teenager that I have the power to manage my emotions, because all human beings have that power and it is a skill that can be cultivated, I probably would have rejected that thought.

When alcohol came into my life after my freshman year in college (later in life than some stories I hear), I had in my hands the power to feel different from how I felt, and in an instant. I said to my first-ever drinking companion, “This is going to be a problem,” which was less an expression of prescience than my attempt at a one-liner (the friend knew this was my first time intoxicated). It got a laugh.

Alcohol gave me the power to escape in plain view of everyone, which is a devious magic trick. The trick was executed so well for so long that some friends only learned that I had a problem with alcohol when I got sober.

Alcoholism is a disease, a psychological and physical one, in which a craving for alcohol supplants all emotions, becomes its own emotion, and that emotion of craving directs all actions. All addictions seem to share this simple, self-centered rule and to draw vitality from this circular emotional logic.

The solution is simple but difficult: for me—in particular for me; I write this for no one but me, and what works for me may not work for others, but it seems to—for me it involved rejoining a life already in progress, doing for others, doing things with others, and, worst of all, taking notice that I am not the center of the universe and that all of you are not my creations or figments of my imagination. The trick was to get me to want this, to notice that I did not know this or that I had forgotten all this. I did not know what I did not know ten years ago today.

I did not drink every day and night for the years that I drank (twenty-three in total), but for the final five-and-a-half years, I did drink every day or night.

Many years ago, maybe sixteen or seventeen years ago, I attempted to contact my future self, the 2020 edition of me who has been sober for a while. This was before that last five-plus years had started, so what I felt that night as a “bottom,” an emotional ebb from which I could not find a way back, was perhaps not a bottom.

I called the Alcoholics Anonymous hotline in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I resided at the time, and a kind person listened to me for a bit and then he told me he would get me in the morning and bring me to a meeting. Of course I did not go. Perhaps it was a cry for help. Perhaps it was research. I was drunk when I called, of course, so the fact that he was not rude to me and did not hang up or tell me to call when I got sober (which were things friends had said and done on the phone over the years) meant that recovery with the aid of similar people to me made sense the day I left a hospital after an alcohol withdrawal seizure many years later.

I understand now that I needed to drink every drop that I drank, that I needed to experience the emptiness that I experienced in order to embrace the fullness that life offers every second of the day. I needed to reach that place in which one feels the thought that there must be a different way to life.

In recovery, Step One is to admit “we were powerless over (whichever substance or thing or action)—that our lives had become unmanageable.” When I called that hotline, I was on Step Zero: I knew my life was something of a wreck already, even with a good job at that time, but … I knew little else. I felt that my life was wrong, somehow, that I was in the wrong life, but I could not pinpoint the role drinking played in this disaster as it unfolded, because drinking was the only thing that offered relief inside the disaster. Step Zero represents a terrible cycle: my consumption of alcohol may be related to my life’s troubles, but alcohol is the one thing that relieves the emotions related to those troubles. Some spend decades in that cycle.

In recovery, I live a life that I experience instead of one I endure. Life in this decade has given me things that the alcoholic version of me may have wanted to add an “-ier” or “-er” to enhance or minimize, but now I face them (or try to) on their own merits: love, a break-up, financial difficulties, my hair turning gray, professional successes and setbacks, medical diagnoses, the beginnings of many beautiful friendships, the death of my father, and the deaths of friends.

In this decade, I have attended a couple dozen funerals of individuals whom I met in the local recovery community who died of their addictions. A few others have died sober. They are all on that list I mentioned.

Many of these things, the losses especially, the old me would have drank over. The difference between me as an active alcoholic and me now is not one I can identify other than the person I try to be now is one who asks for help and who offers it. One day at a time, I am imperfect and awkward and haughty and full of myself … and sober, which gives me the opportunity each day to build a better edition of me than the one I was yesterday.

And so many people continue to guide me. It’s a long list.

* * * *
Thank you for your indulgence in reading such a personal column.

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