One of the major misconceptions out there about people in recovery is that we hate drinking and drugs. Au contraire! We simply learned that we can’t do it responsibly. The fact of the matter is that we would never have become addicted if it all hadn’t started off being incredibly fun.
If you hang around recovery circles, you’ll hear people say, “First it was fun, then it was fun with problems, then it was just problems.” We like that expression. We get that expression. We wanted to have a column which examines that expression. And so we reached out to the most prominent recovery bloggers, writers and advocates out there to ask them about their trudge down that road.
This week, our focus is on Paul.
What was drinking/using like when it was fun?
It really pains me to admit that drinking was, at one point, fun. Like, really goddamn fun. In the beginning, I loved everything about drinking. Absolutely everything. (I’m not going to lie: admitting this makes me feel as if my sponsor is just seconds away from kicking down my door, shouting “Not on my watch!”). Early on, with my college roommates, every night out was a new adventure. It didn’t take much alcohol for me to reach a comfortable cruising altitude, either. Get a few beers in me and I’d bend your ear about X-Files trivia or something else that’d keep me a virgin. But drinking just made everything easier. I made friends more quickly. I know for a fact that I was a better pool player at 1:45 am with three Jager shots and countless beers rushing through my system. And if I wasn’t funnier, I was certainly bolder. I scribbled flirtations into the margins of my relationships with female friends. I once encouraged a half-dozen friends to strip down naked and run out into Lake Erie at moonlight. I was also the guy most destined to keep the party going as much as I was the guy guaranteed to pass out before everyone else. I also started marrying alcohol to every single occasion so that, when I finally got sober, I had to re-train myself that birthdays and anniversaries weren’t alcoholic calls to arms. Even now, when I think of Christmastime, I don’t really think of trees and decorations and family time—I think of bars with fogged windows and amber holiday brews. Alcohol made life seem so exciting and full of possibility. Magical. And I may have been cloudy-headed and made one terrible decision after another but, the next day, nothing was really that bad. My life was one giant Etch-a-Sketch: a few shakes and everything was clean, like it never happened.
When and how did it become fun with problems?
When my oldest son was three or four, he’d go to the park and make immediate friends with anyone and everyone. He’d form relationships that were as intense as they were instantly over. One second, he’d be chasing some kid around the playground equipment and the next, he’d be telling that same kid that he was done playing. Sometimes he wouldn’t even say “Bye.” He was just done. It was startling. But maybe that’s because some part of my alcoholic brain understood the behavior all too well. My life really didn’t have any object permanence. When I was getting more serious with my drinking, I discovered I couldn’t have commitments or obligations in my life. If I was super-excited about making plans with someone, I’d most certainly wake up the next morning dreading those exact same plans.
I was also starting to drink every day. It wasn’t just Thursday-to-Sunday anymore. I didn’t see anything wrong with having a beer or two a night. After all, my grandfather used to drink two or three fingers of scotch a night. He was one of the smartest men I’d ever met, so I figured drinking was just fine. Once, my father-in-law and I went to some mall tavern for lunch one day and I ordered a beer. I asked if he wanted one and he said, “It’s a little too early for me.” I scoffed. It was two o’clock. Well past noon. That was the idiotic line I drew in my brain: If I ever started to drink before noon, that’s when I’d be an alcoholic. Anytime after that? Fair game. I even stopped drinking for a whole week. I was so proud of myself that when that week was over, I celebrated by drinking so much that I blacked out, only to find myself parked at a nearby quarry with Burger King wrappers all over my lap. I still have no memory of how I’d driven there—or why.
My life wasn’t yet sloppy. “Threadbare” is probably the better adjective. At a quick glance, my life was pretty put together: I had loving parents, a job, and a fiancee. Look closer, though, and you’d see all the frayed threads. A DUI didn’t slow me down. It was embarrassing, sure, but nothing hugely out of the ordinary for my circle of friends. They all had one under their belts. We all blamed Northern Ohio and how there wasn’t mass transit or cabs or any other excuse we could come up with. We never once considered that maybe it was us. I did my time in a court-ordered alcohol awareness class and promptly met my friends out for beers afterward. I also started not remembering things—I’d get angry calls from friends or acquaintances asking why I’d stood them up for lunch, when I didn’t even remember making the plans. I barely remember asking a buddy’s Vietnam-veteran father about how many men he’d killed in combat—but I did. I was also having to make a lot more lies in my life true. By then, lying had become second nature to me. Lies were alcoholic oxygen. It was easier to lie about where I’d been all night than simply come clean about it. I burned a lot of calories trying to keep all the plates of my alcoholic life spinning. It was just exhausting.
What was it like when it was just problems?
When I was really starting to circle the drain, I’d go to the Russian liquor store near my house and they wouldn’t even ask me what I wanted. They’d just silently slide a pint of Smirnoff across the counter. I wouldn’t say a word when I paid, either. I’d tried not drinking so much, but I could feel this ugly and electric anxiety rise up inside me. I knew I had to keep the beast fed—or else. One time, I left my infant son in his crib and went to the grocery store to buy a bottle of wine. I was also hiding bottles all over the house, but I hid them so poorly that either my wife would quickly find them, or I’d forget where I’d hidden them and then she’d find them shortly thereafter. I hid bottles under sinks, pillows, and cushions. I put them in the outdoor gas grill, behind the sofa, or underneath the porch. You name it. Rarely a week went by when she wouldn’t open some cupboard in another room and shout, surprised by what she’d found. It was like living in the world’s worst advent calendar. There was a sad surprise behind every door.
I’d love to say that I’ve forgotten just how bad things were, or that time has sort of dulled the edges. It hasn’t. Not at all. If nothing else, things I’d completely forgotten routinely emerge from my memory swamp. Every week, I think of some scene from my alcoholic past that makes me cringe. Knocking silverware off my table at a fancy restaurant. Slurring my words at my kids’ daycare. Passing out in the parking garage of my job. Forgetting to pick up my son at elementary school. I was an open wound, exposed and wide. I’d drank myself to place where I couldn’t shrug off consequences or just assume things would go back to normal. I quit job after job. I owed people money. I lied to my wife about big things and tiny things. There was nothing fun about my last year or two of drinking. Nothing. It was joyless, lonely and soulless. I drank to keep my machine parts moving, like an alcoholic Tin Man needing oil.
I hear people say how they don’t know where all their friends have disappeared to in sobriety. Near the end there, though, I’d burned off most of my friendships. I was a human blast zone with an impressively wide radius. Nothing but scorched emotions and trusts. But ultimately, I think I had to destroy every inch of my life to appreciate the enormity of everything I’d have to regain. In some ways, it makes the accomplishment of sobriety that much more meaningful. I often say that I wasn’t a bad person—I was just bad at being a person.
How and when did life become fun again?
Well, the first thing I had to realize was that I never really knew what the word “fun” meant. Don’t get me wrong: I thought I did. For all the years I hurricaned from one drink to the next, I was convinced I was a grandmaster of fun. There’s nothing quite like hitting that high yellow note of being drunk in the summertime, surrounded by friends and having absolutely nothing to do but have a beer bottle tossed in your direction. Sober, now I get to see that it wasn’t exactly as I saw everything back then. It’s like a sitcom camera pulling back to reveal the studio audience, lights, and stagehands holding up boom mikes. There were places I should have been and obligations I should have been fulfilling. I was as absent from my life then as I’m present in my life now. I’m actually in the moment. My biggest fear about getting sober was that I wouldn’t laugh again. Once I pulled free from the funeral procession that was early sobriety—the charcoal-gray period of mourning alcohol—I started to feel like myself again. (Actually, that’s not quite true. I felt like another person entirely, like I’d Quantum Leaped into a new body.) All I know is that life became fun in a way that I never anticipated was possible without alcohol. Until I stopped drinking, my life was nothing more than shortcuts and cut corners and fake laughter. Truth be told, I’m still learning what “fun” is—and I genuinely love every moment discovering what it means.