Sober for eight yearsssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

Just passed the eight year anniversary of my quitting alcohol (and most, but not all, other drugs [I’ve subsequently quit the rest of them too, but this isn’t the anniversary of that]). Feeling pretty good about it! Didn’t even have those ‘drinking dreams’ that sober people often get around their anniversary. The alcoholics know the ones I’m talking about: the ones where you relapse and are like oh nooooooooooooooooo.

I think sobriety is…really good. If I wasn’t sober today, I doubt I’d be married. I might’ve published a few short stories, but I wouldn’t have published a book. Probably wouldn’t have an MFA or any money in the bank. Wouldn’t have my mental equilibrium. And most importantly I probably wouldn’t have the fuzzy widdle kitty we just got! His face is so fuzzy! I like to kiss it.

Yes, two weeks ago Rachel and I got a cat, suckas! Little known fact: I LOVE cats. But since leaving my parent’s home, I’ve never had one. It’s shockingly easy to adopt and care for a cat. I mean I was shocked. We just went to the SPCA and this cute little 6 mo black cat jumped off his perch and meowed at Rachel. We played with him a little bit, and then he was oursssssssssss. We call him Schubert. Partially because of the composer Franz Schubert, who is one of Rachel’s favorites, but mostly because Schubert is a really silly name. Personally I call him Schubie, Schoobs, or Schubie Doo.

Schubie is good cat. He sleeps on our bed, and he likes cuddlesszzes. That’s pretty much all you need in order to be a good cat I think.

In other news, I am writing. WRITING. The other day I was having a trouble with a scene that just wouldn’t quite come out right. The characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do, and then I realized something: I just need to relax. The characters need room to breath. To wander. To be lost. I need to dare to be less dramatic.

This is a lesson I’m continually learning in my writing: dare to be less dramatic. Dare to pull back. Dare to miss the big moment. Dare to scale things down. Now that I’ve adopted this mantra, I’m constantly noticing areas where it can be applied out in the wild. For instance, have you ever noticed how many movies and TV shows (particularly for teens) feature kids who are big movie stars? It’s totally a thing. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll see it all the time.

And each time I’m like, that’s cool and all, but why are they always the star of some big blockbuster? Why not a side-character on a TV show? Why not the understudy in a Broadway musical? Why not the pitch-person in a nationally-broadcast commercial (think the “Can you hear me now?” guy)? Why do they always have to be at the apex of fame? There’s nothing wrong with that choice, per se, but it’s still lacking in subtlety, and its very grossness forecloses so many story options. For instance, if you’ve got the equivalent of Miley Cyrus walking around in your story, everything is gonna be about that. There’s gonna be bodyguards, fans, stalkers, fanfare every second. But if instead you’ve got a minor star, then the story breathes a little bit more. They’re able to be normal sometimes. There’s less distance between the characters.

Of course, I’d probably downscale even more and take out the ‘fame’ thing entirely, since unless a book is specifically about pop culture in a broader sense, it’s generally hurting more than helping.

IMG_2376.jpg

Quit smoking six years ago today!

Yep, I quit smoking six years ago. I am happy about it. Tobacco is apparently one of the most addictive drugs? The percentage of casual users who become addicted is much, much higher than for cocaine.

Periodically I’ll hear a story from somebody where they’re like, “Man, my uncle quit heroin and alcohol and cigarettes thirty years ago, and the only substance he still gets craving for is tobacco.”

To which I have to say, what the heck? Who gets cravings for cigarettes? Basically the moment I’d kicked the physical withdrawal (I smoked a pack a day for five years), I was like…smoking cigarettes is insane.

Now I don’t think tobacco is the worst drug in the world. It’s clearly not. In fact, it’s amongst the least harmful drugs in the world. Nobody ever beat their wife, killed their friend, blew their life savings, or lost their job because of tobacco.

However, it definitely has the worst cost/benefit ratio out of all the drugs. I mean, alcohol makes your worries melt away and helps you forget life’s burdens. Heroin gives you the closest thing you can get to pure happiness in a bottle. Cocaine makes you feel like a god. LSD fundamentally transfigures the world and leaves you feeling like you understand all of reality in a new way. MDMA makes you feel an ecstatic communion with all of mankind. Amphetamines let you transcend your body and your mind and commit, fully, to whatever task is in front of you.

Now all of these drugs have negative cost/benefit ratios in my opinion (at least for me), but they’re at least fun! And sometimes useful!

Tobacco does what? In the beginning it gives you a tiny rush, lasting no more than a few moments. After a year or so of daily smoking, you feel nothing. Maybe a few seconds of ease. Really, at some point the only thing tobacco gives you is the ability to once more feel normal.

And in return it takes, on average, seven years of your life!

What a terrible bargain; which is why only those famed for their lack of foresight–teenagers and addicts–tend to take it up.

Quitting smoking was great. I’m very lucky I was able to do it. I quit cold turkey. It wasn’t very difficult. I had a uniquely easy transition. I did gain twenty-five pounds, which was no fun! But within two years I lost all that and more. I’m sure if I took up the habit again, I’d find it much more difficult to kick.

My body experienced all the typical benefits of quitting smoking: more wind; fewer and less severe colds; my cough went away; my circulation improved (I could feel tingling in my fingers and toes for months after I quit). But one unexpected improvement was that my overall productivity dramatically increased. I noticed, shortly after I quit smoking, that I was hitting my daily word counts in much less time.

I have three theories about this. The first is that when you’re addicted to cigarettes, you exist in a perpetual state of withdrawal. Every hour or so, you get antsy and distracted. Removing this drag on my productivity allowed me to do more. The second is that smoking just takes a lot of time. I was spending an hour a day smoking! That’s an hour of my life I got back. Finally, the most intriguing theory is that smoking broke my flow. All writers know that only a minority of your writing time is truly productive. It’s the 80 / 20 rule. you do 80% of the work in 20% of the time. And that 20% is the time when you sink really deep into the work and get into a flow state. For me, I think that having to get up every hour to smoke was hampering with my flow.

We’ll never know for sure, but in any case I’m thankful

Sober for seven years now!!!

_1

I forget what was the first sobriety anniversary I marked on this blog, but I’ve been doing it at least two or three years now. This time it passed almost without me noticing it. I didn’t even have the alcohol dreams that commonly manifest themselves around this time (dreams where I drink alcohol–it’s a sober person thing).

Yay for me! I am very very happy to not be drinking (or using drugs). I don’t feel any particular difficulty maintaining my sobriety nowadays, but I know it’s the kind of thing that can fall away pretty easily. I ordered a soda water and lime at a party recently and the bartender was like, “Why aren’t you drinking?” I immediately knew he was asking whether or not I was sober, so I was like, “Sober seven years.” He told me that he was trying to get back on the wagon. He’d been sober for years, but then he got drunk one time and it all fell away.

That’s how it happens. You get drunk once, and you say it’s just that once (or maybe you lie to yourself and say you can control it now). Then it slowly slips out of control, and you know it’s out of control, but because you’ve been sober before, you now have this illusory feeling of mastery. When you tell yourself “I can quit whenever I want” you actually believe it, because you’ve done it. But “whenever” always turns out to be next week or next month or right after this deadline or that trip. It’s a shitshow, and I want none of it!

It’s amazing that it’s only been seven years. I mean, that’s actually kind of a long time, but I also feel like I was reborn when I stopped drinking. Everything good in my life has its roots in that decision, and I think the last seven years (24 to 31) have been far richer and more full of growth than were the seven years (17 to 24) that preceded them.

Here’s to another seven years, I hope!

Is it actually a good idea to have recovering alcoholics in positions of power?

Leo_McGarryI’ve been rewatching season one of The West Wing, and in that show there’s a plotline where some political opponents of the President try to embarrass his Chief of Staff, Leo, by revealing that Leo spent time, seven years ago, in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And in the show, this is treated like a completely cynical and absurd move, because we know Leo! He’s so wise and caring and responsible! Obviously no one could ever doubt that the world is a better place with Leo in charge!

However, I’m not sure it is an absurd objection. First of all, before someone goes off all half-cocked on me, please note that I’m a recovering alcoholic myself (with five years of sobriety), and that I’m not proposing that anyone in real life be fired from their job (also, firing someone for their recovery status would be, under the ADA, an illegal act).

But you have to wonder…Leo is in a position of immense responsibility, where he needs to exercise sound judgment every day. He’s also in a position that entails lots of stress and lots of temptation. Most people have an awful day here or there. But when a recovering alcoholic has an awful day, there is a non-zero chance that he will start drinking. And if he starts drinking, then there’s a very good chance that the next few months (or years, or decades) of his life are going to be filled with dropped responsibilities, unsound judgment, poor mental acuity, mood swings, heart problems, criminal behavior, lying, panic, depression, rage, etc.

So I have to say that alcoholism, even when you’re in recovery, seems like a definite downside for a person. In most cases, though, the downside is ameliorated because if a person starts drinking, their performance tends to tail off pretty quickly, and they can be fired relatively easily. In Leo’s case, though, you have to wonder. He’s basically a shadow president (a Dick Cheney figure). How long would it take to fire him? How much damage would he do in the meantime?

I think what’s scary about this thought experiment, though, is that every person runs this sort of risk every single day. I mean, for most people, it’s not alcoholism, but it’s something. Anyone can have a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode or a period of depression. Anyone can have a stroke or early-onset Alzheimer’s or just a gradual decrease of mental abilities. Anyone can become arrogant and detached and really full of themselves. Anyone can become nervous and withdrawn and fearful. Basically, past performance is never a guarantee. Anyone’s abilities can fail them at any time.

We pretend like there are two states in life: “healthiness” and “disaster”. And we pretend that, barring disasters, we can expect such and such a span of health.

But when we shove disaster aside in that little phrase, ‘barring disaster’, we ignore that…well…disaster will come. It’s unavoidable. It’s like, i remember a conversation I once had with a young Silicon Valley guy. He was talking about how he exercised and didn’t smoke or drink and he ate kale and did everything perfectly and, as such, he could expect to live to be 100.

So (ignoring whether that number is sound on an actuarial level or not), I said, “Yeah, but you could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or some free radical could shoot through one of your cells and flip it over into a cancer cell.”

And he was like, “Oh yeah, I meant barring all that stuff.”

Which is fine, I guess, and I knew what he meant. But that is the stuff. That’s the stuff that happens. We pretend like death and disease only come to those who ‘deserve’ them. We pretend like only alcoholics suffer breakdowns and terrible mood swings. We pretend that only smokers get cancer. And, more insidiously, the moment someone falls ill, we re-label them. They’re not like us. They’re disabled people. We’re not disabled. We’re healthy. We know, intellectually, that there is no moral difference between us and them, but just being able to think of it in those terms–as two very separate camps–is comforting, because it ignores how easy it is to cross from one into the other.

On this day, I give thanks to my past self for deciding, five years ago, to quit drinking

5-years-soberMost things in life don’t live up to the hype. But, for me at least, quitting drinking did. Everything good in my life flows from that moment. After I quit drinking, I almost immediately became much more serious about my writing. In the first year after quitting, I finished my first novel. In the second, I finished my second (and so on). I was able to make plans for the future. I was able to learn how to make and sustain friendships in an organized fashion. I was even able to start having romantic relationships (yeah, I know, I’m like the only alcoholic who never got laid…it’s so annoying).

I had a whole other post written here and it contained scattered musings on recovery, but I think today isn’t the day for that. Today is the day for me to say that I feel profoundly grateful to that person, five years ago, who decided to stop.

I really have no idea why he did it. As the years pass, it seems more and more crazy to me that he—on the basis of remarkably little information regarding what would happen—actually decided to quit doing something that was such an integral part of his life. I mean, at the time, I remember feeling afraid for my life. But that’s all I had: fear. I had no positive vision for the future. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what I’d become. In fact, my worry was the opposite. I worried that I’d change so much that I wouldn’t be myself anymore, and I was only able to quit after I’d reassured myself that that wouldn’t happen.

Which it did, of course! I’ve changed so much that it’s absurd. People routinely describe me using the antonyms of words that they would’ve used eight years ago. They’ll say, “Oh, Rahul is so organized. He’s so dependable. He’s so good at talking to people,” where they once might’ve said “Rahul is disorganized, unreliable, and anti-social.” It’s weird that I’m now particularly accomplished in the same areas where I was once particularly bad.

You know, I always used to think recovering alcoholics were being ridiculous when they said, “My worst day sober is better than my best day of drinking,” but I don’t anymore. In fact, to me that seems like an almost banal thing to say.

Obviously my best sober day is better than my best day of drinking. Because even on my best day of drinking—my euphoric, most productive and social moment—my life was still a mess!

And it was that person: myself at what was literally one of my loneliest and most depressed and disorganized points, who had to face one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. Isn’t that crazy? The points in life which we require the most determination and confidence are always the times when we have the least to spare.

Anyway, I’m really glad that I no longer have to face problems like, “Should I keep drinking or should I stop?” And the reason I’m free of these conundrums is because my past self solved them for me. So, umm, that’s pretty awesome. And it’s a gift that I reap every day.

—–

Yes, even on this most sacred of days, I am going to pimp out my mailing list. If you want to get infrequent emails (fewer than one per month) about my work, please sign up here.

I’d define a compulsion as an act which your brain chemistry compelled you to do, but then did not reward you for

You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff...
You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff…

Still pondering The Willpower Instinct. For me, the most revelatory chapter was the one on how when we want something, we assume it’ll make us happy (or at least bring us pleasure), even though that’s often not the case. In this chapter, the author explains that dopamine is the brain chemical that mediates how much we want something, however it has nothing to do with how much we enjoy it. Thus, when we do things, we’re trying to stimulate the release of dopamine in our brain…but that release does not correspond to a feeling of pleasure. The only subjective emotion that we experience is a cessation of wanting.

Now, I sort of already knew that, but I had mostly heard about it in the context of smoking cigarettes. I know from personal experience that the magnitude of the compulsion to smoke is in no way mirrored by the pleasure that a cigarette brings. I wanted to smoke much more than I actually enjoyed the act of smoking.

However, dopamine is also the culprit in lots of compulsive behaviors. For instance, internet browsing–the compulsion to click on another link or open another tab or go to another webpage or check your email one more time–is all based on this desire: this implicit promise that if we do these things, then there’s a chance of pleasure. But, actually, the compulsion is far greater than the desire. The maximum joy I’m going to get from reading an article on the web is much less than the need that I feel to go and find one to click on.

There’s also a corollary to this, which is that some things bring us pleasure but only carry a very weak desire. For instance, now that I’ve started regularly exercising, I can finally attest: exercising does make you happy. It’s a remarkably good and robust feeling. I know that after I exercise I’m going to feel much better–oftentimes for a good 3-6 hours–than I did before it. Nonetheless, I still feel very little desire to exercise.

It’s just a quirk of our neurochemistry. Possibly there’s something evolutionary involved here. Maybe our brain gains some evolutionary advantage tofromrewarding us for exertion, but little evolutionary advantage from encouraging us to engage in unnecessary exertion? I don’t know.

But this information has had pretty profound implications for my world view. You see, I had always more-or-less seen life as a trade-off between momentary pleasure and attaining lasting goals (like being productive and maintaining my health). I think this comes from drinking. For me, drinking heavily was really fun. When I stopped drinking, I lost that pleasure. And this is a pretty classic framework that influences lots of human beings: the idea that life is a choice between sense-pleasure and a deeper, more spiritual sense of joy.

But I think I was ignoring the fact that lots of things aren’t really like drinking. I do (or did) so many things that don’t really bring me much pleasure. Watching the day’s seventh episode of Law and Order isn’t pleasurable. Browsing the internet for three hours isn’t pleasurable. Checking my email twenty times a day isn’t pleasurable. Buying a gadget isn’t really pleasurable (or, actually, browsing for new gadgets is pleasurable…actually spending money on them is not that pleasurable).

But I was constrained by my worldview. I assumed that because I wanted to do these things, then there must be some value in them.

Now I feel very liberated.

This has mainly made itself clear to me in my attitude while I am reading. Normally, when I am reading, I feel a constant desire to interrupt myself and look something up on Wikipedia or check my email or see what happened on Facebook. And I not-infrequently give in to these desires. When I do, I assume (in some unconscious way) that Facebook was just more interesting to me than the book was.

But that’s not true at all. Reading is actually far more pleasurable than browsing the internet, but it doesn’t carry a strong compulsion in the way that Facebook does. I think that’s because reading isn’t fast and colorful and unpredictable. Anyway, now I’ve learned to recognize that compulsion for what it is and to tell myself, “No. The Facebook actually isn’t a more pleasurable activity than reading Our Mutual Friend.”

And that feels really good. The world makes much more sense now.

I am now four years sober.

The four year chip that I would've gotten, if I went to AA meetings
The four year chip that I would’ve gotten, if I went to AA meetings

Over the weekend, I hit the fourth anniversary of the day that I stopped drinking. I am now four years sober! Woooooooooooooo!

It is pretty weird to me that I don’t drink. I know lots of people who do. And I spend a lot of time with them while they’re drinking. But I still don’t do it. It’s, like, this major decision that I made and that I now stick to unswervingly regardless of circumstances. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a Christian?

I guess we all gain new identities along the way. Like, I am also a queer person (still equally weird to me, by the way). And a Democrat (sort of). And an atheist (sort of). And a science fiction writer (sort of). All things that I, in some sense, chose to espouse.

I remember four years ago, when I first quit drinking, I was really worried that I was going to become a different person. And I convinced myself that wasn’t going to happen. And, in some sense, it didn’t: I still feel pretty much the same.

But it also did.

People view me in a completely different way now. They think of me as a self-motivated, responsible person. Recently, some friends of mine in my grad program called me “a morning person.” That is so laughable to me. Yes, nowadays I wake up at 7 AM*, but no one who knew me for the first 25 years of my life would’ve ever said that I was an early riser. I made a conscious choice to start getting up at the same time every day.

Before I stopped drinking, I wasn’t a very organized or self-directed person. The slight obsessiveness that now characterizes my life is something that arose almost entirely within the last four years.

 

Anyway, I am happy to report that the year passed without significant temptations, and that I have almost no desire to drink.

I recently spoke to a former classmate who also quit drinking awhile back, and he told me that he felt like former alcoholics can’t really recover unless they work on the reason why they drank and sort out all that emotional stuff. I am not sure that I agree. I think that if you have a certain sort of brain chemistry, the reason for drinking is obvious: it feels really, really, really good.

In general, the vagueness and patchiness of the human memory is a pretty good thing. I distinctly remember how being drunk often felt extremely amazing on a physical and emotional level, and how it made life seem glamorous and beautiful. But although I can recall that I felt like that, I can’t resurrect the feeling itself.

But I am pretty sure that if I started drinking again, I’d immediately become aware of exactly how good it felt, and it would become much more difficult to justify not drinking.

That’s why I don’t drink at all. Not because drinking is some irrational compulsion that would destroy my life, but because it is a completely rational compulsion that would destroy my life. If the point of life is to feel really, really good (and a fairly good case can be made that it is), then, for some people, drinking heavily makes a lot of sense.

But since I can’t really remember that feeling, drinking seems like complete madness. I don’t have the room in my life to be out of control for even a single night, much less for days or weeks at a time.

 

*How absurd is it that 7 AM passes for early rising in the world of graduate school?

Whenever I start enjoying life, I start to become really afraid of death

Life___and_death_by_Redjuice1For my obligatory Thanksgiving post, I will just say that right now I am very thankful to be alive. It is an exquisite pleasure to be able to be able to set goals, make progress towards them, and generally feel the slow extension of my mastery over a greater and greater portion of both my life and the world around me. I feel very little anxiety. The future will be full of challenges, because I am setting out to do challenging things, and I expect that horrible things will happen to me, but I’ll get over them, eventually. And even if I don’t, the worst thing that can happen is that I’ll die.

I cannot pretend, though, that I feel no anxiety over death. Normally, the fact of death is not something that particularly bothers me. But whenever I get into a very high-functioning state, a little anxiety does start to creep in: I feel that soothsayer whispering in my ear, “This is all going to end, someday…”

For me, that day is almost unimaginably far away. I’ve slowly come to terms with the fact that–according to actuarial tables–I have at least fifty more years of life left. Since, for the last ten years, I’ve more-or-less believed that I wouldn’t live past 50, this is a startling expansion of life. I’ve even started saving for my retirement!

However, I know that it’s coming almost faster than I can bear. One thing about doing so much daily logging is that you see how quickly time passes. I look at my spreadsheet and think, “Oh god, has it really been two whole weeks since that night when I ate 3500 calories?” Something happened during those days, but in that moment, the time is elided–it feels like nothing happened at all. And I know that’s at least a little bit like what I’ll feel like in 50 years. I’ll try to remember what’s happened between then and now and I won’t be able to think of anything at all. And then I’ll die.

The analogue, for me, is all the time that I’ve frittered away over the past fifteen years. When I was drinking, I used to say, “I have no regrets. I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do.”

And that was true, at the time. But now I have regrets. Right now, every day of my life is, on an experiential level, much better than it was when I was between the ages of 12 and 23. In the past four years, I’ve had more fun and learned more and experienced more and achieved more than in all the rest of my life that came before that time. When I was in grade school, I tried to stretch one day’s worth of experience and make it last a week: I’d replay video games and re-read books and live inside my mind and never venture outside my comfort zone. And when I went to college, I did new things, but they were the wrong things: they were fun things, but they weren’t things that stayed with you. Most of my college experiences literally made no impression on me–they were wiped clean the day after they happened. It’s only in the last four years that I’ve really learned what it means to be alive.

And it’s not about material circumstances. It’s not about having friends or free time or selling stories. I remember even during my first year of sobriety, when I was at work for ten hours a day and I’d come home to my parents’ h and struggle to stay awake as I did my obligatory 2 hours of reading and 2 hours of writing. And I’d go to sleep at midnight and then lay awake, unable to sleep, for six hours, and then, when the alarm went off, I’d simply lay motionless and stare at the ceiling in hopeless frustration–how could anyone possibly expect me to do something after only three hours of sleep! My arm used to ache with the tension from all the smoking and caffeine. And I barely knew anyone in the city and wasn’t sure how to meet people, so I’d go weeks without seeing or speaking to anyone.

I can’t say that I made very much progress during that year. Like, whoah, at this point in 2010, I still living in my parents’ house in DC, I was still smoking, still overweight, had never completed a novel, didn’t know how to talk to people, had only published three stories at professional rates, and was generally kind of anxious and hapless.

But that was a year when I was, for real, doing everything that I could possibly do.

That is not a year that I regret. It’s not a year that I’d take back.

I can’t say the same about the ten years before it, though. Some people set out at age 14 with the same spirit of wonderment and determination that I had at age 23. And those people get to experience nine more years of life than I ever will! And those nine years are ones where you have huge quantities of free time, substantial disposable income, and are at the peak of both your physical beauty and your ability to learn!

I do mourn for the loss of those nine years. If I’d been able to really use them, then today I’d be a far richer person.

Obviously, I’m not dead yet. I’m still a young person. I have plenty of vitality left in me. And some would say that many people go their whole lives without discovering how to live (although I’d question whether that’s really true–it’s unbelievable to me that a person could stay in a rut for decades at a time).

But I only bring up the nine lost years because thinking about them carries some of the same anxiety as thinking about death. The fact is, they’re gone. And it’s pretty meaningless for me to say that I wish I’d lived them. Even if I had, they’d still be gone. Although something of those years would’ve stayed with me, the bulk of them would’ve evaporated, just like most years do. Even if I’d lived those years, I’d still be here, now, doing something. The regret just comes from feeling like there could’ve been more–feeling like I had something and I wasted it. Similarly, fear of death is about all of life’s possibilities that I won’t ever get to realize: all the experiences I’ll never have, people I’ll never meet, historical figures that I’ll never get to assassinate using my time-travel machine.

In some ways, though, that’s a positive feeling. Because there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I felt that everything was the same, that there was nothing new to learn, that life was meaningless. For me, the fear of death is a reminder that I value my life.

A conversation I have had several times in the last week (Baltimore is kind of a small town)

When you stop going to AA meetings, it can be a little awkward. Because then you feel compelled to have the following conversation:

Speaker What is said What is meant
Me: “Hey, how’s it going?” “Look, I’m not ashamed to come up and talk to you. That’s because I haven’t started drinking.”
Him: “Oh, what’s up? How’ve you been?” “Have you started drinking again?”
Me: “Oh, doing pretty good. Been in DC a lot.” “The reason I haven’t been going to meetings is because I haven’t been around! Not because I’ve been drinking!”
Him: “Great. Hope you’ve been having a good time…” “…a good time drinking!”
Me: “Welp, I’ll see you again soon.” “No, dude. I definitely have not been drinking.”
Him: “Yeah, you too. Hey, it was good to see you. Stay in touch.” “…call me when you want to stop drinking!”

Why is there a spiritual side to becoming sober?

I am not a huge Alcoholics Anonymous person. Before getting sober, I went to maybe a dozen meetings and always found them to be a bit of a letdown. People in meetings are fairly friendly and inviting, but it’s still a social scene. They’re mostly there to talk to people they know, and it’s up to the newcomer to break in and make himself known…which is not exactly easy if you’re still within the throes of alcoholism (with all its attendance angst, depression, and social anxiety).

Barack-Obama-12782369-2-402
My Higher Power

After I quit drinking, I made the conscious decision to not go to any more meetings. I didn’t go to my first meeting as a sober person until my 1 year anniversary, and I never worked the program or got a sponsor or anything.

However, I’ve recently started attending meetings here in Baltimore! Not as any kind of desperate lunge for help, but more just because I felt like it’d be good to get out there, get involved in the sober community, etc. And it’s been pretty fun. Now that I’ve spent three years learning how to socialize, it’s really no problem to interact with a roomful of people with whom I have what’s actually a fairly strong connection.

For me, and for most people, the main sticking point with AA is its religiosity. It really is a program whose basis is asking “a Higher Power” to come down and cure your alcoholism. I mean, yeah, you can choose whatever you want as your Higher Power, but it’s pretty clear (if you look into the AA doctrine) that that’s a middle step. Eventually, you’re supposed to realize that your Higher Power is some kind of omnipotent, all-loving God.

When I was first getting sober, I used to joke that my Higher Power was Barack Obama. It made sense to me. Barack Obama is the most powerful being in the known universe. And I’m pretty sure that if he could do anything about it, he’d try to help me get sober.

But all joking aside, I do understand why AA is a spiritual program. Although there is a practical aspect to quitting drinking*, there’s also something spiritual about quitting drinking. Almost unwittingly, sobriety involves a reordering of your moral and ethical priorities.

AA is full of truisms. And one of the truisms is, “Your best thinking is what got you here” (i.e. don’t think, just follow the program). And there’s something to that. I lived life in a very straightforward manner: I wanted to be happy. And when I found something that made me happy, I used it until it almost destroyed my life.

But the happiness that it gave me was a real thing. It’s hard to overstate how euphoric I could sometimes be when I was drinking. Like, drinking made me as happy as any triumph in sober life–selling stories, getting into Hopkins, getting an agent–has ever made me. And it was an effortless happiness that I could get week after week!

That’s a pretty crazy thing to turn your back on. And when you do something like that, you’re saying–whether you realize it or not–that the physical emotion that we call happiness–is not the most important thing in your life.

Which leaves kind of a void. What is the most important thing in my life?

I can’t really say….

…but it’s definitely not God.

*The main practical aspect of quitting drinking is just the knowledge–strange and unintuitive as it may seem–that if you take even one drink you’re probably going to end up spiraling into full-blown relapse. There’s probably some science for why this is, but I think it’s just because alcoholism is a fairly strong compulsion that you mainly beat down through pure desperation. You’re so scared of the consequences that you’re able to resist the craving to drink and, over time, the craving decreases. However, the brain remembers what it was like to be addicted. If you take even one drink, the craving comes back at near its original strength, but, since your desperation has also waned, you’re not quite as able to fight it. The counterintuitive part of this is that it’s really hard to remember what it was like to need to drink once you don’t need to anymore. Once you’re in control, it’s hard to believe that anything could take that control away. However, I have no doubt that if I took a few drinks, I’d be out of control in no time.