Buzzkill: Chapter 3

Feeling stuck helped turn me into an alcoholic — and it was happening again while I lived in a sober house.

One of the most important things I learned in rehab is that when I get complacent or feel stuck, I can drink a whole lot of vodka. I become a real mess. Getting clean and sober just wasn’t going to be enough for me. I had to learn how to live a life without substances. Luckily, I started this process in a great place. A sober house.

Living in a sober house was not part of my plan. When I thought of what it might be like, I imagined a run-down house with too many people. There would be garbage everywhere. Fights. And, of course, drugs and alcohol.

So when my counselor in rehab suggested I graduate to one, I scoffed. It just wasn’t even on the table for me. But as the weeks went by in treatment and I heard more and more first-hand accounts of life in sober houses from patients who had been through this process, I started to reconsider. I heard horror stories, of course. Overdoses. Scuffles that escalated into rides to emergency rooms. Slum-like living conditions. I also heard stories about laughing. Lifting each other up. And succeeding. Sometimes, I even sensed nostalgia. Besides, I couldn’t go back to where I had come from. Not yet, at least.

And that’s what really stuck with me. In rehab, I wasn’t really nostalgic for anything. I was just anxious about the future, about what my life would be like without booze. My counselor assured me that she would find me a place where I would have the comfort, safety, and support I need to figure out what I want my life to be like.

The sober house I ended up moving to looks like all the other houses in the neighborhood. It’s on a quiet, residential street on Cape Cod devoid of anything that might give it away. One of the chefs I worked with had lived on that street for nearly a decade. As we got to know each other and he learned more about how I ended up in town — turned out, he had no idea the house was full of fuckups. So for however many years, despite the house being full of up to 12 men recovering from arguably the worst times of their lives, it’s likely been regarded as a house full of un-disruptive neighbors with a perplexing number of vehicles. Huh.

Sober house living is, fundamentally, transitional housing; it’s not meant to be permanent. When I signed up, I hadn’t given a thought about when I might leave. I just knew I needed a safe, structured living environment surrounded by people going through a similar transition. Luckily, the guys in charge carefully vet residents and make their selections based on how we’re recommended and how we might get along and benefit from each other’s personalities.

There were relapses. A few came and went. But we were mostly a solid crew.

By the end of my four months there, I had convinced each of my housemates to take an abbreviated version of the MBTI. Although the science is contentious, it was a fun way to explore ourselves, to ask honest truths about who we are as individuals rather than as generic addicts, and to gain perspective on ourselves now that the drug and alcohol clouds were dissipating. Upon reading the results, I watched their faces light up. The ensuing smiles and slight embarrassment brought lightness to the house that was often muddied by anxieties. It was one of those few moments we were able to focus inward and not see an addict.

Some of the hallmarks of sober houses are rules and structures grounded in, you guessed it, sobriety. The biggest ones are regular and/or random urine tests and breathalyzers, and consistent recovery meeting attendance. These were crucial for my own sobriety for the first couple of months.

But after a while, I started resenting the meetings. I had to keep reminding myself that the program warns about this in early sobriety:

  1. If you don’t want to go to a meeting, that means you should.
  2. If you can relate to only one thing said at a meeting, it was a good meeting.
  3. Meetings will remind you that you are powerless to drugs and alcohol.
  4. Keep going to meetings.

For the first months, on the nights when I wasn’t working as a manager in a restaurant and bar, I went to meetings. It was automatic, no questions. I went to meetings for narcotics addicts, alcoholics, and meetings with a Buddhist approach to recovery. I did not discriminate. I wanted all of the recovery I could get.

But it’s that third point that started to crack my adherence to the mandate for regular meeting attendance. Not only was I selling booze at work all the time and not drinking any of it, but I wasn’t experiencing any cravings or dreams about the stuff. Meds were managing cravings. One-on-one therapy was managing my impulsiveness and how I coped with stressors and traumas. I wasn’t isolating as I did in active addiction. I was sober, and I was beginning to feel powerful.

At first, I thought it was arrogance — something I had plenty of before I submitted to recovery. So I went to meetings, but a little less often. And then I remembered: “Powerful” is one of those primary emotions I learned about in the dual diagnosis program after rehab. (Surprisingly, “happy” is not among them.) It’s neither a positive nor a negative emotion, and I began to understand why: I can drink whenever I want, but I don’t have to. And the best part? I can do other things, like things that add to the quality of my life, that benefit my mental and physical health. I can do things that give me joy.

At some point I had started wrestling myself from addiction and started taking responsibility for my behaviors, and I wanted more. Not more booze or drugs, but more from life. I don’t want to just survive as a sober person. I want to thrive.

When I was forcing myself to go to meetings during that period, I often left wanting a drink. It was a bizarre phenomenon, because I can rationalize the ‘want’ away and it simply becomes a limp passing thought. But I had to ask myself, ‘why?’ I don’t know if it’s because I was getting tired of the same stories and the same chants, or because I was getting tired of the same faces, or what. At the very least, I was bored and didn’t feel like I was growing anymore.

So that’s what I realized: I was feeling stuck. And really, I didn’t want to keep hearing about how powerless I am. I learned that lesson — that when I was drinking I lost, surrendered, or forgot about my ability to stop. But now that I had stopped, that I had come to understand what I did and how sick — physically and mentally sick — I got, I didn’t want to revisit that all the fucking time.

I want to learn more about the ways in which I AM powerful.

At the time I’m writing this, I moved out of the sober house four days ago. I’ve also got five months clean and the will to stay clean. So. To rehab, to the sober house, to the meetings, I say this: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. But I’ve had enough for now.