My neighbor shouted to me over the fence that he had an extra ticket to the ballgame, and asked me if I wanted to join him and his friends. I was two weeks sober and determined not to let my affliction ruin my life – social or otherwise. “Thanks – sounds like fun!” I shouted back. I boldly told him I wasn’t going to drink and I could drive the whole group there and back. He looked a little dismayed at my proclamation and offer, but mostly thankful that I’d solved a problem for him.
There were so many things wrong with my thinking, my acceptance and my offer. I was an alcoholic in early recovery, and the very last place I should have gone was to a Major League Baseball game with a bunch of beer and booze swilling guys on a Saturday night. But my stubborn conviction about plowing forward with a life unchanged save the lack of beer in my hand was making my bad decision for me, and off to the Rockies game I went.
The drinking was fast and fierce sprinkling in shots from the club level bar with copious amounts of beer. The questions about my abstinence came after they were all about three drinks in. “Why aren’t you drinking? I don’t understand.” The very idea of attending a Rockies game sober seemed beyond comprehension to my neighbor and his buddies. It was as if they were asking me why I bothered to live and steal their air and occupy the seat that could have been given to a regular guy, not a broken misfit like me. That implication might not have been intended in their questions, but that’s certainly what I heard.
I stayed to the end as promised. As we walked the concourse toward my car, my neighbor was yelling angrily at the Miller Lite drinkers he passed because of Budweiser’s clear superiority. Was he going to get into a fight over his beer preference? Was this really happening? I couldn’t believe the jam I had thrust myself into. I dropped them at a bar on our way home, and pulled into my driveway and cried.
I work with a lot of men and women through our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism, and they all listen to my advice about patiently growing sobriety muscles to varying degrees. That night at the baseball game with two weeks of sobriety under my belt was hell on Earth. I think myself tough and determined, and I made it through that night without drinking. I endured unimaginable misery as I watched the group spill and slur through the later innings. I did it. I accomplished my goal. I didn’t drink.
But to what end? That night is seared into my memory as one of the worst social experiences of my life. What did I accomplish by putting my head into the lion’s mouth? Did I prove to a bunch of drinkers who didn’t give a shit about my disease that I could be a downer on their drunk-fest? Did I prove to myself that I could have fun without alcohol? Certainly not in that setting with that crowd and those ground rules. All that I did was prove to myself that I was too stupid to stop playing with matches when I was covered with burns.
Sobriety muscles take time to develop. Now almost three years sober, I would never go to a ballgame with a bunch of beer guzzlers, but it has nothing to do with shame or temptation. I wouldn’t go because it would be really boring until it became really annoying. I’m strong enough to attend without fear of being triggered to drink, but I’m also smart enough to know drunk people repeat themselves and spittle a lot.
Do you know what happened within a week or so of that baseball game? I started drinking again. I white-knuckled through the dramatic trigger, but the trauma was ultimately too much. I drank because we are weak in early sobriety. We don’t know what we don’t know. Alcohol has stolen so much of our lives, and we are determined not to give it any more power. But alcohol is powerful, and it is more stubborn and determined to win than any human. That includes all of us. That includes me. That includes you.
Early recovery from alcoholism is unlike any other addiction because of the social pressure to drink. Because alcohol consumption is so ingrained in our culture as the tool we use to mourn, celebrate, relax and deal with pain, we have to hide from it while we grow our sobriety muscles. And hiding from alcohol means hiding from family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and casual acquaintances.
This is serious business. The participants in the SHOUT Sobriety program learn eagerly about brain chemistry, pro-recovery nutrition, bibliotherapy and all the other topics we address to help them succeed in early recovery. All of those topics are accepted enthusiastically. They all even acknowledge my assertion that recovering out loud is the key to permanent sobriety even as the thought of doing so fills them with terror.
But the idea of laying low and healing from alcoholism is both socially inconvenient and practically challenging. There are work functions to attend. There are family gatherings that can’t be missed. I hold my breath and pray every time someone tells me of the boozy social event they can’t possibly decline. And when they attend with their puny little sobriety muscles, the results are mixed at best.
Socializing in early recovery in our alcohol-soaked world is the single biggest threat to sobriety.
Think I’m being overly dramatic? I relapsed too many times to count before I hid like a hermit and worked on my sobriety muscles. And now that I walk the path of early sobriety with dozens of people, I see what makes them relapse. Sometimes, the stress and pressure of life just becomes too much to manage. But far more often than not, if someone drinks, it is during or following a social event centered around drinking.
This is one of those things in life that’s both super simple and mind-bogglingly complex at the same time. Don’t drink. Stay home and read. Give yourself time to heal. Oh, and also, blow off your grandmother’s 90th birthday party where your cousins and uncles will be doing shots in honor of Nanna. And, tell your boss you’re not interested in the happy hour to celebrate the successful execution of his million dollar idea. While you’re at it, tell your best friend you’re not going to the concert she bought you tickets for on your birthday.
Healing sucks. It is beyond hard. Why do you think the world is full of high-functioning alcoholics who just can’t stay quit? Why do you think Cris Farley and John Belushi and Anthony Bourdain and a hundred other celebrities are dead?
We’ve got to pretend we wiped-out while riding a motorcycle naked, and we are covered head to toe in road rash. We’ve got to heal in private, because being out in the big, bad world is a recipe for disaster.
I’ve been there. I failed before I succeeded, and I want to make your path easier than it will be if you try to walk the road alone. I want you to join our SHOUT Sobriety program if you are new to sobriety, or if you think alcohol is doing more damage that the pleasure it is providing. We offer the program free of charge because we don’t think you should have to pay for your freedom. We ask successful graduates and others passionate about sobriety to consider donating to keep the program going for the next person who is struggling and needs help. For more information, to enroll or to make a donation, please click the button below.