Discover more from god, sex, smoke & sugar
Burning out and fading away
a meditation on sobriety
I was supposed to go away this weekend and visit my dear friends J & A and instead I am home nursing a bad cold that is definitely not Covid, I swear. I’m sad not to be with them today as it has become a sort of tradition. Today is the day, 21 years ago, that I stopped drinking.
At the time I didn’t know it was my last drink. I went to AA because J asked me to and because otherwise I was going to kill myself. J convinced me that AA was worth a try first. And I remember the meeting for how bad it was. Like, this is what I gave up suicide for? Come on. End it now. Neil Young’s voice was an angel on my shoulder, It’s better to burn out than to fade away. There was no way I was going to be sober for good. I only needed to dry out a while. That was the plan. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, it’s better to burn out than it is to rust.
I don’t remember when the switch happened. I don’t remember when I transitioned from casually-temporarily sober to permanent-lifestyle-choice sober. I do remember a party with a campfire. I was slouched in a lawn chair with my hoodie pulled up over my head while everyone stood around encouraging me to drink. You’re a sell out. You’ve lost your edge, someone said. When you relapse, another person said, call me. It’s going to be an incredible bender. I pushed the bottoms of my shoes up against the edge of the fire-pit ring and felt the metal nearly sink into my feet as the plastic soles started to melt. I hated everyone for reducing me to my addiction. There had to be something underneath all of that. I was more than the sloppy drunk who couldn’t say no, wasn’t I? Some part of me left that night determined to prove it.
In the beginning I stayed sober because the people I met at meetings were also in early sobriety and we were all young and hot and crazy. We smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee and had a lot of sex. Afterwards we felt bad about it and we prayed and promised to do better. It was an exhilarating roller coaster. Having been raised Catholic, self-flagellation has always been my true religion.
Later on, I became someone with something to say. This had its own allure. How had I done it? How had I gotten sober and stayed that way? Everyone wanted to know. God, sex, cigarettes and sugar, I would say. I’d managed my own method of harm reduction. Find an addiction that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself and stick with it. Over the years, I gravitated to less and less harmful addictions. Quitting isn’t so hard when you get the hang of it.
Over the years, when obsessions and compulsions would find their voices again in my mind, I would take that as a cue to get help. The desire to drink was like a failsafe switch in my brain. It was like a dashboard light that would come on to tell me something was amiss. I would recommit to my therapist, my God, my path of meditation and exercise and righteousness. And it always worked.
Last year when I celebrated 20 years I was struggling. My dad had just died, I was in a deep depression, and I was trying to figure out how to go quietly insane without anyone noticing. Attempting to hold on to ministry while losing my mind fried my body and my brain. I burnt out. None of the old cues were available to me. None of the old methods were working. Reducing harm became impossible. The harm had been done and I felt like I was walking around a post-apocalyptic wasteland no one could see but me.
But alongside the voices of obsession and addiction I could hear the loving voices of people who knew me and saw me and called to me through the wasteland. After all this time sober, I had learned what voices I could trust, which ones were false and which were real. And as my eight-year-old son once told me (quoting Winston Churchill), if you’re going through hell, keep going. So I kept going.
I’ve said it before but the truth remains: the fact that I am sober today is a miracle. It is the miracle that keeps arriving, day after day, year after year. It is the proof I have that the Holy exists. I am continually astonished by my own beautiful sober insanity and how underneath it all, there is a holy and divine power whose love is with me even as I have moved through hell. Even as I have gone insane. Even as I have resisted and hidden and denied. I forgive myself and find someone or something else has been there first. Grace always abides.
That’s the miracle. I couldn’t fade away even if I tried. I rest in love and let this truth surround me and that’s how I survive. It doesn’t erase the pain, doesn’t magically transport me out of the wasteland, doesn’t heal all within me that continues to struggle. But it does give me a million reasons to go on.