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).

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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.

I do not believe that introversion is a real personality trait

The number of people who will tell you they are introverts is astonishing. You can talk to the most dynamic, engaging person in the world–someone with thousands of friends, who goes to parties every night–and he’ll tell you, “Oh, I actually find it hard to talk to people. And I usually prefer to be alone. I’m kind of an introvert.”

The truth is, everyone sometimes finds it hard to talk to people and everyone sometimes wants to be alone. The charmer who hops effortlessly from party to party is a myth: even within the maelstrom, there is awkwardness and loneliness.

When you read online about introversion and extroversion, it will focus on “energy.” Interacting with people imparts energy to introverts and drains energy from extroverts. But, in my life, there’s pretty much no activity that gives me energy. I wake up with a certain amount of it. Then I run down throughout the day until I finally fall asleep. All activity costs effort. Some things cost less than others (TV costs less than reading; going hungry costs more than eating), but nothing happens automatically.

If I didn’t do things just because they “drained energy” from me, then I would never do anything other than sleep.

That’s why the concept of introversion rang true to me for so long. I was like, “Wow, that dinner party really wore me out. I never want to talk to anyone again.” Because the truth was that social interaction did drain me more than most activities. The problem was that I never figured out why it was so draining.

It’s just like how some people find swimming really tiring…because they have a terrible technique that dissipates all their kinetic energy. If they had better form, swimming would become much less tiring (though it would never cease to require some effort, of course).

The reason I was drained by social interaction was because I was really bad at it.

I required huge amounts of alcohol to talk to strangers…so much alcohol that even though I met many people, I was never sure how it happened. And since social interaction was such a black box (input alcohol, output human connection), when I was sober, I was just as clueless as ever. Whenever I went to a party or gathering that was largely filled with people I didn’t know, I’d lurk on the fringes or disappear to smoke cigarettes by myself (I told myself I was “recharging”). And when I’d come home after a gathering, I’d feel so exhausted. I’d sit at home and tell myself that I disliked other people…that their conversation was so shallow and they were so plastic and what was the point of small talk anyway and that all I needed were a few close friends because who needs a horde of fake, surface-level acquaintances anyway?

If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said that I was an introvert.

I mean, people make this distinction between people who are shy and who want to be social, and the “real” introverts. But I definitely thought I was one of the real ones. I enjoyed spending time by myself. To this day, I have no problem with not seeing another human being for a day and generally feel few pangs of acute loneliness when I am by myself. And being around people was very exhausting for me. I dreaded it, and I frequently cancelled or minimized my social engagements by telling myself, “Oh, I just need to be myself today.”

But then I stopped drinking, and, by and by, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to talk to people. I won’t say that I am a dynamo of wit and charm. In fact, part of the learning process involved letting go of this idea that social interaction involves holding forth and entertaining other people. But I do pretty well. I can sometimes talk to strangers (a thing that few people, every very charismatic people, are truly good at doing) and am pretty good at talking to casual acquaintances.

And, surprise, I enjoy social situations much more than I ever did before. I am much less likely to need to go off by myself to “recharge.” But nothing happened to my personality. I still feel pretty much the same inside. I just learned a few really simple things that smooth over social interactions and then I consciously practiced them until they became easier (though they’re still not quite second nature).

I was telling a friend about this, and she was like, “But some people just know how to do all these things. Some people just know how to start conversations and keep them going. Some people just know what to say…”

Well, yeah, but so what? It’s the same process as anything. A kid becomes a pro basketball player because when he was eight years old, he happened to be a little better than everyone on the team, so the coach gave him more playing time, which lead to him getting more practice, which led to him improving faster than everyone else, which lead to him becoming the star of the next team, and so on. A tiny initial difference in skills is translated, over twenty years, into a huge final difference.

The same is true with social skills. Kids who are just a bit friendlier in grade school acquire more friends, gain more confidence, practice their social skills more, etc, etc, until they turn into adults who are seen as “extroverted.”*

But social interaction isn’t supposed to come about as a result of good skills. It’s supposed to arise as a spontaneous connection: souls calling out to each other in sympathy. The result is that we essentialize social outcomes (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I’m an introvert”) rather than looking at them as things we can improve (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I never know what to say when there’s a lull in the conversation. Why don’t I just sit down right now and think of five things to say, so I’ll always have them ready…”)

I know that people will read this and say, “Oh, Rahul’s experience is not my experience. I’m a real introvert.” And that’s absolutely fine. Actually, it’s shockingly presumptuous for me to say that I don’t believe in peoples’ self-analysis of their own personality traits and desires.

And believe me, if you came up to me and said that you were an introvert, I would never disagree with you or ask you to change. So let’s take questions of identity and leave them to one side. People can continue to self-describe as introverts if they want to, and if they’re really satisfied with how they are, then that’s great. But when people come up to me and say, “Oh, I wish I was the kind of person who could talk to people easily” or “I wish I was the kind of person who could make lots of friends” then I’m like…well…you can be.

*Although if you talk to really charming people, you’d be surprised at how often they’ve put some amount of conscious study into developing their charm