The first five years.
Five years ago today, drunk and high, I boarded a plane from Boston to San Francisco, and when I landed I was no longer drunk or high and I haven’t gotten drunk or high at all in the five years since, and I think that’s the simplest way to explain it. I am proud of that now, which is odd, since in the beginning I was so ashamed. Ashamed of the fact that my arms were so knotted with track marks and abscesses that it was a week before I could raise them over my head, and I wore long sleeves for months because I didn’t want anyone to see. Ashamed of the things that I had done when I was drunk and high. Ashamed of the fact that at age nineteen, I had made such a mess of my life, and I was fairly certain that no matter how hard I worked I probably wouldn’t amount to much.
Getting sober is strange in that most of the people who are in my life now never saw me the way I was then, and so if they offer congratulations (which always feels a little funny) it’s without the context of my sobriety’s relative necessity — like they think I’m looking for a pat on the back for giving up gluten when I don’t appear to be that allergic to it in the first place. Good for you, but you seem fine, they seem to be saying. And I do, because I’m sober, but I wouldn’t if I wasn’t. I’m sure, too, that I seem holier-than-thou or self-aggrandizing sometimes when I talk and write about it and it’s annoying or even threatening, especially for the people I care about who have troubled attachments to alcohol or drugs. I have thought many times, in relationships with men who drank, after it was over, that it probably would have worked out if I drank, if I’d been able to loosen up, if we’d been able to get on the same level.
But we wouldn’t have been on the same level, because I was never on that level. I was on another level. I was falling down a flight of stairs at Grand Central Station. I was in the hospital, getting my face stitched up. I was in a coma. I was back in rehab. And the things that were funny, the nights that started with one drink and ended with mornings waking up from a blackout in New Jersey with my underwear on backwards and a half-eaten Pop-Tart on my chest, stopped being funny, and it was just sad, the nights that started with one drink and ended a week later with strangers and sickness, closed-circuit cameras and rubbing alcohol and no spoons left in my apartment. So it was clear to me, when I got on that plane to San Francisco five years ago, that I was heading toward a future of necessary sobriety, because the only alternative at that point was death, and I don’t say that in a melodramatic or self-serious way. It took me a long time to understand that addiction wasn’t a moral failing, but a terminal disease borne of genetic predisposition and environmental factors (just like a lot of other diseases), a disease for which you either accept treatment or you die.
It’s like those diseases, but it’s not; it’s different, because the treatment is behavioral and self-imposed. And I would be lying if I said it hadn’t been difficult, these last five years, deprived of the luxury of anesthetizing my feelings when they are agonizing in their intensity, forced to navigate social situations that feel like minefields, turning down drinks over and over and over again, struggling to negotiate the way my sobriety impedes the warm and convivial intimacy created by sharing a few drinks with friends, being the only sober one at the end of a long night, never having the excuse of intoxication for my bad behavior. Happy hours and birthday parties and corporate retreats and lonely evenings. It’s been hard, and often it’s exhausting, and it’s a beautiful gift and a maddening curse and of course most of the time I just want to be normal.
But it’s also been very simple, because — even if this sounds terribly self-important — on that day five years ago I chose life, and not just any life, but an extraordinary one; and I’m so very grateful that, for whatever reason, I was lucky enough to have that option. Some of my friends didn’t; they’re dead now. That’s what happens when people who really need to get sober don’t. And so I celebrate today, the anniversary of the day I got sober, with much more ferocity — as much as I can muster without getting drunk — than I do my actual birthday. (As someone glibly but accurately once told me, “That was something my parents did; this is something I did.”) For better or for worse, sobriety has made me who I am — earnest to a fault, eager to talk about my feelings, too tolerant of a type of confessional honesty in my own work and the work of others that many people find repellant, intense and demanding, fond of risible self-help jargon, fiercely protective of anyone as broken as I was, so incapable of having just one drink that I am only capable of having none — but I am not ashamed of who I was nor am I ashamed of who I have become. And I hope I stay lucky enough to keep choosing life for the next five years, too.