I was leaning in toward her, trying to hear her next words just slightly sooner than the rest of her audience. I was mesmerized by the story to the degree that I was losing awareness of some of my physical presence. I didn’t notice that my jaw had dropped and my mouth was hanging open like a baby waiting for someone to insert a spoonful of pureed carrots. Have you ever heard a TV advertisement for the monster truck rally at the fairgrounds next, “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”? The part where the pitch-man bellows, “We’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”? That was me. Mouth agape, surely drooling a little, butt cheeks barely hanging onto the front half-inch off my chair, and astonishment coursing through my body.
It’s not that her story was so captivating that I had never heard anything quite like it before. I had. I hear lots of unspeakable tales. It was that she was telling the story. Her. She had come to our little writing workshop every Thursday for months. She always wrote, but only read on occasion. Usually, she shared something that felt like the tip of the iceberg. Like she wasn’t sure if she could trust us with what was below the surface. I’m not sure she’d trusted anyone ever. At least not since someone ruined it for all of us – proving the human species so untrustworthy that she’d chosen never to trust again.
But there she was, trusting us with something so personal and raw that it had clearly lived in the dark and scary corner of her mind for so long she wasn’t sure how she could ever let it glimpse the light of day. But she had. She did. She told us the story in all of its heart-wrenching detail. She unwound the protective layers she had balled the pain inside of, and splayed it all out for us to judge and mock. Surely, it took every ounce of courage she had ever possessed to put on display her agonizing truth.
When she was finished, she looked sheepishly at us over the top of the lenses of her glasses. Head down, legs folded so tightly together that I thought her knees might merge. She waited. Waited for us to gasp in horror. Waited for the criticism to start. Whether she knew it or not, what she was really waiting for was for her audience to regain some semblance of composure so we could react to the vulnerability we had just experienced.
And that’s euphoria for me now, over six years sober from alcohol.
The reward of true, honest, unfakeable connection that can only come from complete trust is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
I drank regularly, then heavily, for 25 years. I spent the last decade of that quarter-century across the invisible line of addiction. Ten years is a long time. It is almost unimaginable to suffer through the chaos and trauma of alcoholism for that long without taking the necessary steps to stop drinking. One of the key factors that kept me digging, and prevented me from starting to climb, was euphoria.
About two, or two-and-a-half IPAs into a drinking session, I would get the most amazing feeling of blissful transcendence. I have written and talked about that buzz-induced bliss many times, but the lasting impact is morphing as time goes by. It isn’t that my recollection is changing with the years, as is so often the case when we try to conjure memories. It is that I’m slowly trading a toxin-stimulated euphoria for an authentic one, the latter being much harder to attain, and thus, more gratifying and sustaining.
Back then, I kept drinking because I didn’t want to lose access to that euphoria. It felt like nothing else. My assumption that all drinkers knew that feeling was naive. My wife never understood. A buzz for her was a lightheaded feeling, some social lubrication, a little less polite restraint, and a looming promise of a headache and exhaustion the following day. The very buzz itself was a mixed bag for her. For me, it was all upside.
So the thought of giving that up – that feeling I had found in no other activity, encounter, experience or substance – that thought was paralyzing. So in my paralyzed state, I did as that descriptor suggests. I kept drinking, unwilling or unable to make any change to my alcoholic behaviors. Even as the red flags waved and warning lights flashed indicating my addiction to alcohol, I knew I couldn’t replace the euphoria, so clung tightly to the wreckage of the status quo.
There are lots of humps we have to get over to earn permanent sobriety. We have to beat the physical dependence. We have to have patience for our neurotransmitters to regenerate, and we have to replace destructive patterns with healthy ones. We have to learn to manage emotions, and we have to find people who get it. And we have to, or so I thought, learn to accept that our life will forever be without that euphoric feeling only alcohol could deliver.
I was wrong.
As my brain chemistry returned to near-normal and I learned to embrace a wide range of emotions and I spent my time in less damaging ways, I eventually found euphoria lurking all around me. I find it easily on the soccer field where I coach high school teams. That was where I saw my first glimpse. But now, I find that stunning bliss in conversations with friends and strangers, in partnership with my wife, and in the eyes and experiences of my four growing kids. It is not short of amazing.
And it is worth the wait.
The first year of early sobriety is rather selfish and hellish. As time passes and confidence grows, stability improves, and temptation is replaced by mundane disinterest. It is like turning an ocean-going vessel in a small harbor. It takes time and patience. Our brains go from expecting a substance to provide joy, to finding it on their own. There is a several-year period where joy is replaced with nothingness. It is lethargic and void of hope. It is existing, not living. But it is a transition so necessary that I can’t even imagine an alternative.
Then the boat is turned around and going the right direction, and it can return out to sea with calm waves and a steady tailwind.
And euphoria reemerges. This time, there is no poisong required for inspiration.
I have never understood the memes and prophecies of the recovery community on social media. “Click ‘like’ if you woke up happy and sober!” Or, “I am 30 days sober, and I’ve never felt this good in my life.” If it was as easy as a little cheerleading and 30 days of abstinence, everyone would be sober. But it’s not. It is excruciatingly hard.
There’s the hard of quitting drinking, and then there’s the hard of finding the joy again. I’m not sure how one can survive in the long term without the other.
Back to the story I led with, you might be confused how someone else telling a vulnerable tale inspired euphoria for me. Anyone who knows me knows of my talent at making anything be about me. And this experience was no exception. That woman trusted us. She uncovered a long-buried truth that was holding her back and keeping her stuck in pain and resentment. She made progress that no amount of therapy or pharmaceuticals could have inspired.
And I felt so incredibly blessed just to witness the transformation. I know it was life changing for her. But being around authenticity and honesty like that, why that is a profoundly euphoric feeling for me.
If you think sobriety is about not drinking alcohol, keep going. You might be euphorically surprised.
And if you think the end of drinking means the end of euphoria, please check out our SHOUT Sobriety program. Maybe we can find the bliss together.