When I first got sober I found it incredibly difficult to let go of the past. I spent most of my waking hours thinking about what was and what could have been. Why did things turn out the way they did? Why did I make certain decisions? Why did I let this person into my life? Why did I hurt someone I loved? Why did they hurt me? Why did I spend so much time in self-destructive pursuits? Why didn’t I pay more attention to the red flags when they first appeared?
The list of regrets was endless and haunted me day and night.
A big part of recovery for me was the sorrow I felt because of the poor decisions I had made and the lifestyle I had pursued. It made me sad and angry to think about “what could’ve been” and the potential I had sacrificed in aimless pursuits. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. My life was supposed to be epic and triumphant, not small and broken. By this stage in my life, I was supposed to have all the cash and prizes. I was supposed to be one of the winners. I was supposed to have a fat bank account. I was supposed to have a big house. I was supposed to have a wife and children. I was supposed to have fame, fortune, and adulation.
Instead, I had sickness, debt, and regret. Oops. Sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men can turn into a steaming pile of shit.
Looking back, I was shocked by the number of bad decisions I had made during my life. Red flags aside, I had made most of my choices over the years based entirely on immediate gratification. I wanted to feel good, and I wanted to feel good now! I always seemed to be seeking instant happiness and euphoria in every aspect of my life, including work, family, romance, and finance. The most consistent and recurring element of my time on earth was the drinking I did in an attempt to find serenity and joy. Why try to accomplish anything substantial when I can just drink six beers and feel like I run the world?
The wreckage of my past was not a pretty sight to behold. But it was something I had to face to move forward. I had to look back and fully embrace all the mistakes and bad decisions I had made in my life, and be willing to forgive myself and others who had hurt me. Otherwise, I was doomed to repeat the past and keep swallowing the poison of regret that polluted my mind and soul.
As I continued to review my past mistakes and flawed decisions, it occurred to me that I had also made some horrible choices when it came to people I associated with over the years. I had gravitated towards people who were like me – alcoholics and addicts.
Whenever I take our dog for a walk, the second she spots another dog, even blocks away, she freezes in her tracks and stares. The other dog usually does the same thing. Then the inevitable tug of war takes place as each dog strains against its leash to greet one other and start the ass-smelling ritual.
This is how alcoholics and addicts seem to find each other, too. We can enter a room, party, or office and be drawn to one another like dogs (hopefully without the ass-smelling, but not always). There is an unconscious pull that brings us together.
Once we meet and establish a friendship or relationship, we provide cover for one another in our behaviour and habits.
These friendships always start fun and exciting. We’ve found someone who likes to drink as much as we do. Woo hoo! As long as we stick together, our lifestyle and hangovers start to seem normal. This is how everyone behaves, right?
As I looked backward, it dawned on me that my life was populated by people who were as equally fucked-up as me. Most of them were kind, funny, and smart. Many were brilliant, ambitious, and financially successful. Many owned businesses and were raising families. There were writers, actors, and even a few doctors. I have snorted cocaine with an anesthesiologist and a police officer. They were black, white, Asian, and Hispanic; men, women, gay, straight, and everything in between.
One thing that is certain about addiction; it doesn’t discriminate across race, gender, class, or social status. It’s an equal-opportunity disease that welcomes everyone into its home. Everyone is invited.
My first instinct was to blame the people who had come in and out of my life. I wanted to point the finger at everyone else and say IT WAS YOUR FAULT! YOU DID THIS TO ME! I was angry and sad about some of the friendships I had developed over the years. Who are these people and how the hell did I end up with them?
It took me a long time to fully realize that the people I had surrounded myself with were often just as sick as I was. Many of them were alcoholics and addicts who were searching for comfort and meaning in the world. Somehow, we found each other and took the journey together into the realms of self-destruction and addiction.
Sadly, and inevitably, a number of those people never made it out. Many died along the way. Even today, twelve years into my sobriety, I occasionally get a call or email informing me of an old friend who succumbed to their addictions and died sad, lonely, and broken. One of my closest friends, Eric, from my drinking days, just died recently from an overdose. He tried to get sober for years, but just couldn’t make it work for whatever reason. Eric was a good man, brilliant and kind. But his addictions were more powerful than he ever realized, and they took him out before he could escape his demons.
One of the great things about 12 step meetings and something I cherish to this day is that I began to meet people who were trying to improve their lives by getting clean and healthy. I was now surrounded by the survivors who were after the same thing I was – a life free from addiction and filled with possibility and hope. We were still dogs sniffing each other out, but now our common bond was a desire to STOP drinking, not a compulsion to KEEP drinking. Woof woof.
I first started experiencing depression when I was around 14 years old. It would hit me in violent waves, without warning. I never knew when it was coming, how long it would last, or how far down it would take me. I could never figure out what triggered the episodes, so I had no way of avoiding them. My mood would shift with startling speed into a dark hole of sadness. I would become overwhelmed by a thick, heavy feeling of hopelessness, a sense that there was no meaning to life, or that I had any purpose on earth. I was a useless piece of shit, and death felt like the only escape.
Perhaps I could’ve received the help I needed through professional counseling, but I never bothered to tell my parents or anyone else, so it remained untreated for many years. However, I discovered quickly that Dr. Budweiser was a very competent therapist who provided me with an instant fix to my problems. A six-pack therapy session only cost around $5 in those days, not a bad deal and an easy way to kick the blues. Bottoms up!
Teenage angst is certainly not uncommon. It’s no surprise that kids have been turning to alcohol and drugs for decades to make it through their high school years when their hormones and emotions are waging war on their young brains. The waves of depression I experienced were crushing. The only way I got through those periods was by self-medicating with a steady stream of drinking.
I have often said to other alcoholics that I don’t think I could’ve survived growing up had I not been able to drink through the depression. Ironically, booze saved me before it almost killed me.
The collapse was inevitable. I had been regulating my feelings with booze for so long that my ability to control my emotions was almost non-existent once I finally got sober. It was just like being a teenager all over again, only an older, fatter version. The waves would crash down on me with horrendous force, leaving me dazed and sometimes unable to get out of bed.
I often wanted to return to the bottle for relief. I would be at home, doing nothing but lying in bed watching TV for days on end, never leaving my apartment. I wanted to drink, but I didn’t want to drink. I knew I needed to go to a meeting, but at that stage, I still hated going to meetings (that would change later). I knew I should call Paul for advice, but I hated the idea of asking another dude for help all the time (so “unmanly,” I thought). I should leave my apartment, go outside for fresh air, but the idea of hearing birds and feeling sunlight repulsed me.
Eventually, the depression would lift. Sometimes it would last only a few hours, sometimes several days. Once I was able to crawl out of bed, I knew what I had to do:
- Call my sponsor
- Go to a 12 step meeting
My sponsor was extremely patient with my mood swings and outbursts. There were times I would call him and blubber and sob uncontrollably about whatever was bothering me that minute. I cried like a baby or ranted like a maniac. Either way, he remained calm and steady. As I said, the man was a saint.
One of the most challenging and dangerous stages of early sobriety is the inevitable crash that comes. It seems to happen to most people I’ve met in recovery. We all go through a period of intense sadness and sorrow as we begin to rebuild and repair our lives. For the first time, perhaps ever, we’re learning how to absorb and process emotions, anger, and depression without the aid and comfort that booze used to bring us. We’re learning how to deal with life on life’s terms. It’s a hazardous period, and many people don’t make it through without going back to the bottle.
Over the years of my sobriety, I’ve learned to cope with my depression in healthy and productive ways. It never went away entirely. I have accepted the fact that I am always going to experience bouts of depression. But how I handle these episodes has changed dramatically. Exercise, meditation, prayer, or meetings are usually all I need to lift myself out of the dark hole. I’ve learned to identify their arrival early and can fix the problem before it overwhelms me.
But in those early days of my recovery, the waves were brutal and frightening. Thankfully, between my sponsor and the meetings I attended, I survived without visiting Dr. Budweiser.
I still have my old driver’s license from my last year of drinking. Occasionally, I pull it out from my sock drawer to look at it as a reminder.
In the photograph, my usually narrow face is round and red with a thick double chin. My hair, which has always been close to blonde, is dark, greasy, and looks like I cut it myself with a fork and knife. I look pissed off in the photo, lips narrowed, eyes squinting. There is zero joy on my face. I look like an angry tomato.
Years of booze-guzzling, coke-snorting, and cigarette-inhaling had taken their toll (shocker!). As I mentioned earlier, during the final stretch of my drinking, I was in dangerously bad shape. My body was starting to give up on me. My doctor informed me that I had a fatty liver, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. My skin, hair, and teeth were showing signs of early decay. I was grossly overweight and could barely walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to gasp.
Alcohol is one of the worst things we can put into our system. It wreaks havoc. There’s not a single thing in alcohol your body needs or wants. It’s poison when consumed in large enough quantities over a long enough period of time.
In the early days of my new sobriety, I could hardly sleep and would often break out in cold sweat as my body worked to squeeze out all the toxins that had pooled in every pore. I would sweat so much at night that I had to keep buying new pillowcases to replace the ones that were stained yellow. My skin was blotchy and dry. My heart would race so fast it felt like it would explode. I suffered from anxiety and paranoia. My stomach was in constant agony. I had horrible pain and discomfort in my belly morning, noon, and night. There were times that it was almost unbearable. I would curl up on my couch and moan from the pain. And the farting! It sounded like a fog horn was lodged up my ass. The windows rattled at times. Of course, being a hypochondriac, I was convinced that the pain was caused by stomach cancer and that I would die soon.
My physical condition deepened the depression I was experiencing at the time. I became despondent, wondering if I would ever feel halfway normal again.
I have always been vain, and it made me sad to think I had inflicted so much damage to my body. I felt and looked like shit. My body was trying to repair itself, and it was taking longer than I could’ve anticipated.
There were brief moments when I would feel great, especially after the first few weeks of not drinking. Waking up without hangovers was like a miracle. The morning shakes were fading. And nausea that had become routine was no longer a constant presence. But my body was made weak by long-term substance abuse, and I never seemed to feel completely well.
Eventually, I learned that if I took a few walks every day, I would begin to feel better. And I made a concerted effort to improve my diet. I had been living on booze, cheeseburgers, and top ramen for a long time, and the results were noticeable. I started to increase my consumption of fruits and vegetables and make healthier choices in what I ate each day.
Progress was slow. Yet over time, my body began to heal and repair itself. Whenever I was feeling particularly low or unmotivated, all I had to do was pull out my driver’s license to get a quick reminder of where I had been just a short time earlier – a sick, angry, flatulent tomato.
When I first got sober, I spent a lot of time thinking about the numerous mistakes of my life. Where did it all go wrong? How did I fuck things up so badly?
Reviewing the wreckage of my past, I noticed a recurring issue that appeared throughout my life – terrible relationships. In terms of dating and romance, my past looked like a graveyard.
All of the relationships I had been in were started either at bars or parties, fueled by cocktails. It was astonishing to realize that I couldn’t identify a single one that hadn’t involved alcohol from the outset.
They were all doomed from the start. My romantic past (“romantic” haha) was nothing but a long string of drinking-friends-with-benefits, notable mostly for constant fighting and painful breakups. Each of these relationships started out fun and exciting, but quickly dissolved into insults, manipulation, cheating and screaming, lots and lots of screaming. All these years later, my ears are still ringing.
I assumed I would never experience a calm, peaceful relationship built on mutual respect and trust.
I think most alcoholics and addicts seek out drama in relationships. We get high from the adrenaline created by chaos and pain. We crave lives filled with euphoria, followed by depression. Up and down! High and low! Around and around we go. As long as we keep living in the tornado, we never realize the destruction we’re creating.
As I started working on my sobriety, I began to review a lifetime of broken relationships. It was a pathetic view to behold. Like many people, alcoholic or not, I had clung to the idea that if I could just find the right person – The One – then all my problems would be solved. I wouldn’t have any more worries. My existence on earth would finally matter once I found the perfect mate or spouse. The love of another person would validate me.
It had never dawned on me that to be in a healthy, loving relationship, I needed to be a healthy, caring person instead of a raging, self-centred alcoholic. Now there’s a novel concept.
It took a long time to realize that the search for The One who could save me was futile and pointless. Seeking validation from another person was no different than seeking comfort from a bottle of vodka. I was searching outside for something that needed to be fixed inside. Until I could find validation and happiness from within, I was doomed to keep repeating the same patterns in every part of my life.
I was filled with resentment and sorrow for the past I had created. I wanted relief for the pain in my heart, the emptiness that seemed to follow me everywhere I went.
There is a saying that I learned early in recovery: resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.
One of the most important things I came to realize in the initial stages of my sobriety was that I had accumulated an enormous amount of resentment towards the people in my life, past, and present. Whether it was friends, girlfriends, employers, family members, or the local coffee shop barista, I had recorded and retained every insult, betrayal, and slight that had ever occurred over my lifetime. I wanted to blame everyone I had ever encountered for everything that had gone wrong in my life. I’m not to blame, you are!
I held on to resentment and self-pity like a shield, a way to deflect personal responsibility for my actions. But the truth was, I had been swallowing as much resentment as booze over the years, and both had been poisoning me.
Step Four in a 12 step program is known as the resentment step. Step Four is our opportunity to identify the source of our pain, anger, fear, and all the other negative emotions that rule our lives. To put it in poetic terms, this is where the shit hits the fan.
A lot of people are terrified of this step. It requires that we write down every single thing that has pissed us off or hurt our feelings, EVER! I don’t mean just in the last few months. I mean, EVER! Childhood, school, birthday parties, dates, jobs, drug deals, family vacations, etc. every moment of your life needs to be recorded and reviewed if it involved pain, sadness, anger, or fear. Was your pride hurt? Did it damage your self-esteem? Did it make you feel deprived, despised, or unloved? Find it and write it down.
When Paul instructed me how to proceed, it seemed like a monumental task. How the hell was I supposed to remember EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY that ever hurt me in any way? I was reluctant to begin and thought it sounded like an epic joke.
But once I started writing, it seemed effortless! I filled page after page of perceived wrongs that had been inflicted upon me. I had no idea that there was so much waiting to come out. I found myself writing down the names and pain caused by every schoolyard bully, teacher, girlfriend, employer, friend, family member, or stranger who had ever inflicted the slightest damage to my precious little ego. I had no idea, until it was all out on paper, how much resentment I had stored up and saved over the decades.
I worked on it for days, and when I finally felt I had unearthed every detail, I had to read it back to my sponsor.
Again, his reaction was pretty much the same as when I read him my history of drinking. No shock or horror, just a paternal “good job,” then on to the next thing.
But it was an eye-opening experience. Most importantly, it initiated an opportunity for forgiveness. If resentment is the poison, then forgiveness is the antidote.
Facing pain and resentment is one of the most challenging things we can do, whether we’re alcoholics or not. My sponsor informed me that if I wanted relief from the poison of resentment, I would have to learn how to forgive others, no matter what. Someone broke my heart: forgive. Someone fired me from a job: forgive. Someone stole from me: forgive. Someone tried to ruin my life: forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.
Not a simple thing to ask of a half-demented man-child who was struggling daily not to drink. I began to review my resentments, looking for a way to forgive everyone on the list.
What became apparent was my part in every situation. As I began the process of forgiving others, I began to realize that I had played a role in every single incident. It takes two to tango, right? Why was I there in the first place? How did my actions possibly hurt the other person? What could I have done differently? Could I have been more sensitive or loving? Was I at fault sometimes?
It was a strange and liberating experience, learning how to forgive and see my part in each situation. Not easy, but illuminating. For the first time, I started seeing the world, and my place in it, much differently. This was a big step forward in personal responsibility, never my favorite topic, but necessary if I wanted to heal.
Something within me was starting to change. Much of my anger and fear began to slowly dissolve as I continued to forgive everyone on my list. For the first time, I was starting to feel slightly better, like I could breathe again.
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