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.

Buzzkill: Chapter 1

On figuring out how to be a sober person after going to rehab for alcoholism.

“I don’t drink.” The words stick to my molars like toffee. I know it’s good, but it’s still uncomfortable. I would have thought four months of sobriety would make it more palatable. But it’s not.

My memory of the year leading up to my admittance to detox and rehab is a cloudy slish-slosh of dangerous depressive episodes, blacked-out days in bed, confusing emotional outbursts, and blurry moments of disappointment as I thought of how much vodka I wasted by puking in (or near) the toilet. It wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t pretty. And yet, for a while, I was pretty sure I had the drinking under control. Rehab taught me otherwise. But no matter how clearly I can remember how horrible my life was while enduring the trifecta of major depressive disorder, alcoholism, and a failing relationship, I still hate my sobriety.

It’s a common feeling. Many addicts go through a period of feeling embarrassed and frustrated when we realize we’re simply not the kind of people who can have one or two drinks, a modest line of coke, or the exact amount of opioids our doctors prescribe. As recovering addicts we think, “Why can’t I have some like normal people?” And this kind of divisive language is pervasive: in the literature, recovery programs, and subsequently in the ways we think of ourselves. Once we decide to get clean and sober, we have to start thinking of ourselves differently because we’re giving up a massive part of our identity. The strange part is even though the activity of substance abuse goes away, we’re told to continue thinking of ourselves as addicts; even though that specific behavior is excised from our day-to-day, it’s very much not verboten and we continue to identify with it because we know that part of us still lies within, dormant and thirsty. So we leave the behavior behind, but continue to carry its encumbrance. It’s a mess.

The hardest part of recovery for me and for many others is learning how to do the thing I hate the most. And when I’m really honest with myself, I know it’s the thing that drove me to substances in the first place: sitting with self.

Even more strangely, when I think of some of the happiest moments I’ve had, when I’ve felt most alive and creative and plugged-in, I was doing something alone — usually at home writing or making art or cooking a recipe I made up, a proper session of self-pleasure, or out on a dinner date with myself — and usually high or drunk. While many non-addicts can probably relate to the easy-breezy effects of substance use, the important difference is that instead of cultivating the healthy behaviors that led to the satisfied feelings associated with producing creative work, enjoying an orgasm, and making genuine connections with friends or strangers at bars, is that I eschewed the work involved with being present to make art, to tend to my physical needs, or to build conversation, and I opted instead for the blinding, numbing feelings I got from the booze. Apparently, that’s how I’m wired.

In a song aptly called “The Fear,” Lily Allen sings — sardonically — “And I am weapon of massive consumption/and it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function.” At some point I resigned myself to that logic, shrugging off the responsibility of being a person in the world and just permitting myself to be an alcoholic. But I’d do little things here and there to punish myself, like not order the chocolate cake because I’d already ordered a martini that cost more than dessert, or I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to answer a call from someone I missed because they’re only going to worry about me in my drunken state. Now that I don’t drink, I can’t resign myself to that thinking anymore.

It’s frightening, and it makes my mouth dry.

It seems that when addicts stop imbibing, we tend to become very introspective. Maybe it’s because we’re asking ourselves why our habits got so out of control, why we were so unhappy with ourselves and our circumstances, and why we were spending our lives in emotionally and physically degenerative states, rather than pursuing measurably beneficial things like fulfilling careers and stronger relationships. Maybe it’s because we were already asking similar questions and we were exasperated by a lack of answers. I know I was. And now I’m back there, but without a drink to help me forget the questions. Like, how can I be a person without those regular punishments?

I remember the fall happening fast. All at once I lost the two relationships that (theoretically) made loneliness — the existential kind, not the clinically depressed kind — a little easier to endure: the man I loved, and booze. When my former partner sat me down to tell me I needed a level of care higher than a low-dose antidepressant and once-weekly therapy, he also began a painful and drawn-out breakup. So I left rehab single, sober, and miserable.

Now, I’m four months sober and trying to get into dating, and I get the sobriety detail out there pretty quickly. I’m not embarrassed by it. I’m actually pretty fucking proud that I was able to simultaneously go through the two hardest breakups of my life and not immediately relapse. But try conveying that to a hottie on Grindr who responds to my not drinking with, ‘To be honest, it’s kind of a buzzkill. No pun intended.’ Feeling a little crestfallen in my currently fragile state may not compromise my sobriety, but it certainly deflates my boner — and we all know he was proud of that pun. Really, the problem is that I agree with him: I’m still my own buzzkill. I can admit that I don’t drink because I know it’s important and it’s a part of who I am now, but I hate doing it and I hate that it’s true.

Sitting with self remains the greatest and most important task, and there are things that help me do it sober:

  1. I live in a sober house with 10 other guys (almost half of us are gay!).
  2. I’m on a medicated assisted treatment plan, taking meds to help suppress cravings (what cravings, eh?) and inhibit the effects of alcohol and drugs should I decide to use.
  3. I see a therapist and psychiatrist provided by the organization that saw me through detox and rehab.
  4. I’m out and proud as sober with my family, friends, and co-workers (even though I manage a restaurant and bar, surprise!).
  5. And for the first time in my life I’m permitting myself to be confused and to actively pursue clarity, because I don’t yet know all of the things I expect from myself. Sure, I’ve learned a bit about what I don’t want, like drugs and alcohol, and I can at least follow that.

I’m also trying to recognize when good things happen while I’m not drinking. For instance, I went out to a restaurant with a new housemate recently. We had genuine, thoughtful conversation. He had dinner, and I ordered the flan for dessert. It was soft and sweet, and even though the custard was baked with coffee liqueur, I was sober. I may not have done it alone, but I still sat with my sober self and smiled a ‘no thank you’ to the waiter each time he asked if we needed anything else (I didn’t even have a second soda). I may not be guzzling vodka and cheap wine anymore, but my body still craves sugar in all its delicious forms. So I can at least sit with myself and choose dessert over booze. And that’ll have to be enough for now.