For a large part of my seven years of sobriety, I had conscious thoughts about alcohol. I was alert for potential triggers. I considered how alcohol would enhance, then ultimately unravel, various situations. I worked to combat the shame of addiction, then the shame of sobriety in a society that reveres alcohol.
I felt pity for people who tried to quit drinking to appease a frustrated spouse. I felt pity for people who tried to quit drinking without a plan for recovery – as though not drinking was some sort of solution. I felt pity for people who put rules around their drinking and tried to control it. I thought about all the people I pitied, and it helped me maintain my commitment to sobriety.
But I don’t have a commitment to sobriety anymore. Not really. I don’t think about drinking or not drinking. Sobriety isn’t my thing anymore. At least it isn’t my thing any more than not drinking Drano or gasoline is my thing. I have no intention of ever drinking battery acid, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about not drinking battery acid. It is hard to consider your thing to be something you never consider. How can I claim sobriety to be my thing?
I can hear the AA old-timers (as they are affectionately referred to by the AA not-old-timers). “I’ll save a seat for you at a meeting for when you relapse.” Constant vigilance is a tenant of recovery. I have, for years now, referred to myself as a recovered alcoholic, not an alcoholic in recovery. That is another no-no. Considering myself healed, that is. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’ll relapse. I guess we’ll find out. In the meantime…
I just can’t keep pretending sobriety is my thing.
By not thinking about sobriety anymore, I’ve made room for other things. Better things. Next-level things. Sometimes I feel like Spock from Star Trek capable of some kind of Vulcan mind control. I’m not suggesting I can control the minds of others. To the contrary, actually. I’ve learned I have no control over the actions, thoughts, behaviors, or attitudes of anyone else. That’s actually one of the next-level lessons that gives me the most freedom. I was a world-class manipulator (although I would have worked hard to convince you otherwise). Even as a pro-status control freak, I couldn’t keep my own family from fearing and despising me. The Spock-like mind control I am referring to has nothing to do with other people. I feel like I’m gaining some measure of comfort with my own thoughts and reactions. It’s pretty cool, really.
This past summer, my wife, Sheri, and I went on a hike through the Flatirons above Boulder with a friend. Our friend also leads hikes for teenagers. She told us that while hiking, kids constantly ask, “Are we almost there?” Her go-to response is, “What do you mean? We are here right now. Look around. The trail is the destination.”
Bam. Pow. Boom. Mic drop. It was as if a lightbulb suddenly went on, then exploded all over my brain. It’s only been like five months since that hike, but I feel like it was a seminal moment in my earthly existence. Sorry to be so dramatic, but what a profound way to explain the fundamental, critical importance of living in the moment. Not only was I a master manipulator, but I could ruminate about the past and dread the future with the best of them. While Buddhism gets all the press, all the major religions are rooted in the philosophy of staying grounded in the present. All of the internet’s best gurus and self-help philosophers lean on the principle of living in the moment, too. It is a thing. I was trying to make it my thing. Then my friend framed it in a way that made it as comfortable as Mr. Roger’s cardigan.
It helps that it was a hiking reference, and the mountains are my place. If she said something about paddling out to catch a wave being the best part of surfing, I would have nodded and gone back to thinking about what kind of ice cream to have in the gift shop after the hike. But she didn’t. She made focusing on the present about doing my thing in my place, and it opened up the cellar door to some of the 90% of my brain that I’m only supposed to have access to on a subconscious level. See. Spock. I told you. Also see – sobriety can’t be my thing anymore. I’ve moved on, and I have other things now.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a goal-oriented person. I thought that was a good thing. You know, not being satisfied with the status quo and always aspiring for something more, something greater. I detached from the idea that money, power or fame was that something better a long time ago. That was a start in a healthy direction, but it wasn’t enough. I still chased education or understanding or meaning or purpose like it was the key to some euphoric existence. I didn’t step on the little people on the way up the corporate ladder, but I drowned my own contentment with my thirst for knowledge.
Johann Hari said in his 2015 TED Talk that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. And the recovery community jumped on it like a hobo jumping on a hotdog. Me included. I have repeated that mostly-right mantra many times. But a few years ago, I started to realize that Mr. Hari’s assertion is incomplete. Connection is important. Connection is why people who reject or don’t understand the 12 steps can still get a lot out of AA. Connection is so useful because it is a critical component of self-esteem. Self-esteem is the key to preventing or recovering from addiction, I realized. When sharing my theory, for probably like the tenth time, a guy in our SHOUT Sobriety group asked me why it was so important to me to be right. What a great question. I still don’t know the answer. I feel like there are a lot of us working on the jigsaw puzzle of the meaning of the human experience. Along with a few dozen others, I have been assigned to put the pieces together in the addiction corner. I felt like the self-esteem piece was important – like it made the placement of other pieces obvious. But I also felt like I would not be satisfied until the puzzle was completed. That’s the sad part. That’s the burden of being goal-oriented. If I am aspirational and never satisfied, what if I never get to see the finished puzzle? Does that mean no contentment for me?
When I search for something on Google Scholar (Google’s repository of scientific research), I always notice the little tagline below the search bar on the otherwise austere and business-like site. “Stand on the shoulders of giants.” That’s right. When I learn something, it is a credit to the people who learned stuff before me. We are all working together. Do you think Einstein is depressed that he didn’t invent the little red laser that cats like to chase across the living room floor? No. His contributions were more than enough for all of us to consider him to be a genius. But do you think he did enough for his own contentment? He didn’t live to see the finished puzzle. Do you think his soul loses sleep because there is more to know? Do you think he ever hiked the flatirons with my friend when he was a teenager?
I’ve also learned to, on a conscious level, control my nervous system’s release of adrenaline. At least I think it’s adrenaline. I used to stand in the shower, and something I needed to do – something that would be hard or time consuming or sure to be harshly judged – would pop into my head. I could feel a jolt of what I think was an adrenaline surge through my body. It was part motivation and part terror. Sometimes I would get that jolt when I was trying to fall back asleep in the wee little hours. Once I felt it flow through my body, I knew any hope for returning to slumber was over. It was a chemical response to a worry about the future. Now, I seem to be able to prevent the chemical release. See, more Spock mind-control shit.
It all started with a reel I saw on Instagram. It was someone’s stolen audio over someone else’s video, so I don’t feel compelled to give attribution to anyone. Instagram reels are the wild, wild west of plagiarism, so I don’t know how I could track the source if I wanted to. Anyway, the reel convinced me that within 200 years of my birth, no one will know who I am. My great-grandchildren will all very likely be born before I am 100, and no one knows their great-great-grandparents, so I think 200 years is the full extent of any of our legacies. Maybe celebrities get an extra 50 years, but that’s about it. My kids have no idea who Rosemary Clooney or Bart Star are, so there. Hitler or Jesus are the exceptions, but even an aspirational guy like me knows those legacies are off limits (for very different reasons). But I digress. The point is, in another 150 years, I will have been swallowed up in the vast black hole of internet obscurity.
And I’m totally cool with that. It seems to help me control bursts of adrenaline. If I don’t get that project done, on-time or with high quality, someone will be disappointed. But who cares? In 150 years, no one will remember that person who was disappointed in me once. I’ve survived five decades. I see no barrier to food and shelter and warm clothes and oxygen in the foreseeable future. My demise is guaranteed, but it is not imminent. There I go living in the present again, thinking about the hike I am on and not fixating on reaching the trailhead.
Controlling adrenaline release has a major health benefit. Aspirational go-getters like me are notorious for finding another chemical to crank down the spigot on adrenaline. For me, it was alcohol. I couldn’t stop thinking about what was coming down the tracks without a little liquid medication. Now, thanks to my Spock-like powers, I can keep the adrenaline from jolting just by thinking, “Awh, my great-great grandkids won’t give a shit.” Profound relief. As an aside, I don’t really know if it is adrenaline I am controlling. It is definitely some bio-neurological chemical, but I’m not for sure which one. I didn’t bother to ask Google Scholar.
I was reluctant to write this for a couple of reasons. First, it sounds really arrogant to compare myself with someone as omnipotent as Spock. But then I remembered that I don’t care what you think of me, and my fingers started pecking away. Second, I am keenly aware that the reason people land on our website is because they are seeking sobriety. So when I share the ponderings that happen seven-years-post-day-one, it probably reads like out-of-touch gibberish while you are staring at a bottle of vodka and trying not to twist off the cap. Or maybe you are a year sober, and it is still hard, and you are pissed about it. Or maybe you are three years sober, and the triggers are gone, but your relationships still suffer and you don’t feel good about yourself. In any of these events, controlling adrenaline flow probably feels about as useful as poop on a pump handle.
Keep going. It gets better. Way better. I am not talking about that cotton-candy-and-unicorns-bullshit better you see on social media. Toxin free, it gets really, deeply better. And when we grow in this way, we don’t need a poison to medicate our thoughts and emotions. None of what I shared here would have been even remotely possible – not the mic drop on the hike with the friend, nor the nervous system Spock shit – without years of exploration unencumbered by the chaotic circus of alcohol.
So I guess sobriety is sort of still my thing after all.
Whether you are chasing your day-one, or you are years into your hike, we encourage you to consider growing together with us in SHOUT Sobriety.