Now that I've been sober for a year, I've stopped counting the days but not my blessings. Grateful that it hasn't felt like a daily struggle to prevent myself from taking that first drink. Happy to know that this habit I'd developed over thirty years or so, one that had crossed a line into the danger zone around five years ago, seems to be gone from my go-to things.
Has the coronavirus crisis been an unintentional help in some way? Would I have otherwise felt like maybe it would be okay to slip away for a bit by now and saddle up to a bar somewhere, for some "me time?" Since I'm giving "voice" to that on the page, the answer to that question must at least be "maybe." But I think a soft maybe.
Something else has kicked in. Could it be mental toughness from putting in the work, first physically, and later psychologically, to refrain from taking that first drink when feeling stressed, uncertain, doubtful, confused, knowing that drinking will just make things worse? Or is it more automatic? Is it the subconscious, sending warning signs to the part of my brain that are stronger than the signals that would normally lead me to automatically say “fuck it, I need a drink?”
I’m not going to give myself the credit for having enough mental toughness, or that willpower alone has helped me get through this. I think the bigger reason is built-in somewhere, and automated - at least, over the balance of this time. And I think that “something” is somehow related to the healing process, of the body healing itself. And that “body” is the whole body, including the mind.
In Proust Was A Neuroscientist, the author Jonah Lehrer argues, among other things, that Walt Whitman’s central poetic idea was that “we do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh.” The central thesis of Lehrer’s book is that poetic ideas, such as this one, have in more recent times been proven scientifically correct in the field of neuroscience. The artists – Whitman, Proust, Stravinsky, others, were onto something, and then the neuroscientists in our own time mopped up with the facts to prove them.
If that is true, might it be then that my body, having been given a long enough break from a negative substance influencing it and given enough time to start healing from the aftereffects, is now sending signals to my mind to stop reaching for the thing that has been giving me physical ailments such as appetite loss, abnormal bodily functions resulting from liver damage, and also psychological problems such as resentment, unfocused anger and random grievances in order to keep me safe? But safe from what? Death? Loneliness? Was it the outright fear of loneliness and isolation that provided the initial shock therapy to aid any willpower that I did possess, to quit cold turkey and seek early help? To buy time to start healing? And could it be possible that I was not truly sick enough from alcoholism that this initial time to heal was long enough to sustain itself?
I am more convinced now than ever that the mind and the body are intertwined if there is any way we can get to figuring out the holy grail of what the "soul" actually is. One informs the other. Therefore, perhaps my alcoholism was not far enough advanced for me to be able to completely ignore these signals, so long as I’d had enough time away from the daily intake to prefer what life is like without it?
I’m going to go with my gut when I say that the fear of loneliness and isolation is a stronger signal being sent to me than now than the pull of any temporary respite from the daily grind that alcohol might have given me along the way. In the back of my mind, I know that had I kept on the same path I was on up until this time last year (or, really, before the first time I quit for almost 7 months back in 2018), I'd be truly alone right now, in some unfamiliar apartment, by myself, estranged from my wife and family. The person I was becoming on the previous path was not sustainable for me to hold together all of the other things I hold dear such as family, work that is meaningful enough, and self-respect. Things were slipping. Alcoholism is a creeper.
One year sober and counting doesn't mean I've escaped loneliness. I'm struggling right now with another kind of loneliness. It's not debilitating, by any means. And I'm not sure I'm all that upset feeling left out of the mainstream of my friends and family who can keep on drinking socially to the degree that they always have. But now that I’m stone cold sober all the time, the effects of alcohol on others are a lot more noticeable. Its harder to relate to people who are intoxicated these days, because I’m not sharing that journey. It’s often a one-sided conversation, and hard for me to open myself up to intimacy. Sure, I can play along, because there is a kind of conversational muscle memory that takes over. But it’s not the same.
The loneliness I sometimes feel is one that I can't replace by only surrounding myself with sober people. I can't do it. I wouldn’t want to. There are support groups that can help. Some tried, some failed, some worked. I leave open the possibility of setting aside some time and going back to a meeting. But not a Zoom meeting. I can make do without that.
Now that this is all on the page, I can gently let it all go. Just wrap it in a bow, lay it all out in a boat, put some candles and flowers in there, a picture or two, and let it drift out slowly to sea.
One more thing: it really is better now than it was before. Even if it’s annoying at times. If there were a crystal ball to show all of our possible futures, my gut says the course I’m on now will probably lead to a better outcome than the one I was on before. Speaking of crystal balls, Dan Rather shared a line about one just this morning, one he said he’d heard long ago about prognostication: “Those who live by the crystal ball end up eating a lot of broken glass.”
Letting go is the thing.