Seven Years Out of the Trenches

Today marks seven consecutive years free from drugs and alcohol. Eighty-four months. Three-hundred, sixty-four weeks. Two-thousand, five-hundred, fifty-seven days. Over sixty thousand hours. Over three and one-half million minutes.

That is, as a friend said to me, a long time without a beer.

Last night, in search of something to play as background noise while I tried to fall asleep, I turned on the most trite and easily ignored thing I could find; I put on Confessions of a Shopaholic. I ended up staying awake throughout the entire thing, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t until Isla Fisher made a statement near the end that I could figure it out; it was because the movie’s treatment of addiction really had some resonant moments amidst the goofy action and lame plot points.

The statement in question was (and forgive me, as I’m quoting this from memory here)

When I shop, the world gets better, and the world is better, but then it’s not, and I need to do it again.

Simple, but ridiculously accurate to boot. When I was using, I used to make the world that I saw better. When I began, better merely meant more fun or more exciting, and that is an easy mark to hit. Hell, when you are teen, anything makes the world more exciting. So I drank, smoked pot, dropped acid, ate shrooms, smoked banana peels and various kitchen spices, and generally did whatever I could not to have to face the day without chemical help. It made the world better in my eyes. Then I’d sober up and have to start again.

This is the part where the narrative degenerates into the story of progression; where I needed more and more just to feel good. I won’t bore you with the details, but recognize that it is a cliche for a reason. Things do progress. In my life they progressed to a point where I was getting loaded just to make life tolerable—and by all measures, my life should already have been tolerable. Hell, my life was better than tolerable; I was making a considerable amount of money, I had a nice place to live in a nice neighborhood, two great kids, the physical trappings of suburban life, friends, hobbies, a senior level office job at which I had earned the respect of my co-workers…yet nearly every night I got trashed to make the world better.

So the movie was uncomfortable to watch, because while it showed all of those addict moments in a humorous light, it still showed them. I share pretty liberally from my life as a dope-fiend; but I tend to share the stories that are humorous (at least in hindsight) and not the stories of desperation and shame. It isn’t that I am embarrassed by them so much as they do not make for great party stories, but those stories are readily accessible in my mind. You don’t forget stuff like that. You can’t forget it, even if you try (and believe me, there are times that the using is simply to help you forget this stuff, and that doesn’t work either), so it remains there for you to deal with.

It is so hard to forget because it isn’t some external stuff that happens to you, it is a pervasive, aggressive feeling of helplessness. I could never impart to you the phobic feeling that comes with addiction; like love, you have to feel it to understand it. You have to know that you should not take the next hit—know it to the very core of your being—then you have to rationalize taking it anyway. You have to convince yourself to do it all the same; using trickery, manipulation, and lies on yourself. And make no mistake, you know that you have just lied. You have to come to an agreement with yourself that you are going to overlook that lie, that you are going to believe your own pathetic rationalization, because it is the only way not to hate yourself for what you are about to do. Then you take that hit, and you go ahead and hate yourself anyway; because the agreement that you made doesn’t make you stupid—you know that your excuses were bullshit. So you live with that, too. You live with the knowledge that you are too pathetic, worthless, and weak to stop using, and you hold onto that until you feel worthless and weak enough to do it all again.

You have to know the feeling of sitting in front of a drink trying to come up with some rationale that will allow you to consume it despite the fact that you have promised everyone you love that you are done and that you have it under control. You see, as an addict, there was never a doubt that I would take the drink, but I had to find some reason that would allow me to do it without being obliterated by the guilt. I DESERVE this drink for putting up with my wife’s shit (amusingly enough, her shit was usually about my drinking, go figure…). I am OWED this drink by a world that puts too much pressure on me. Why shouldn’t I have it, I mean, I’m an adult, right? Then once you have selected your excuse, and once you have agreed to ignore how trite it is as far as excuses go, you can go ahead and take the plunge. The upside is, the more drinks you have, the easier it is to convince yourself of the legitimacy of your excuse; of course, sometime you will sober up, but that is a problem for future you.

The simple fact is, as I ultimately learned, you can never drug yourself up enough, have enough sex, buy enough stuff, or eat enough to make the your perception of the world better. At a certain point though, you recognize that fact, but the world is so intolerable by that time without any chemical “enhancement” that there is no way to just stop. So you continue along in a self-reinforcing cycle of doing things that make you hate yourself more so that you use more to mask the self-loathing so that you hate yourself even more so that you use more…well, you see where I am going here.

So today marks the anniversary of a moment in my life that is amongst my proudest: the first day I stopped using and did not pick back up again. Seven years ago today, I sat on my front porch crying because I had not yet used that day, but I was on the verge of doing so anyway. I was physically shaking from the horror of my certain knowledge that in a few minutes I was going to get up, wander to the cupboard, and get a drink. On this day seven years ago, instead of going to the cupboard, I gave a friend a ride to a 12-step meeting (you know, entirely for his sake, because I certainly didn’t have a problem or anything). Seven years ago today I clung to my sobriety with knuckles as white as printer paper and only noticed years later that my grip had slowly relaxed; that blind obstinance had turned into a way of life. That I was no longer merely not using, but actually recovering. Seven years distant from the trenches of what is known as “active addiction” (a fancy term for the time spent actually using).

So today is something of a dichotomy for me, as much somber retrospection as holiday. It is a celebration of seven years of freedom from actively pursuing my various addictions to be certain, but it is also a day of reminder for me. It is rough, remembering the people I hurt, the things that I have done, and the feelings I felt through over a decade of abusing drugs and alcohol; but it sure feels nice to have stopped being that person. Today, I will celebrate my clean-time, and I will strive to make the rest of the year my time of remembrance.

Now, to quote my friend Dave, back to working on getting day two-thousand, five-hundred, fifty-eight…

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