Life During Wartime: Early Sobriety

So sorry I’ve been AWOL these past couple of weeks. I’m in an MFA program, and we had our big residency week last week. It’s always completely draining, especially for those of us many years out of university, but this one was particularly brain-sucking. I graduate this time next year, so I sat through the “graduation requirements” meeting at which all those thesis and other deadlines got articulated. It’s not that I didn’t know they were coming up. It’s just the fact of them being spoken into public air made them all too real.

In years’ past, I would have needed a drink (or ten) to calm the panic that meeting stirred up. This year, I settled myself down with the thought “thank God I’m not drinking anymore.” Because I’m going to need every one of those formerly wasted hours and brain cells to get finished.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

Before I left, I commented on UKAnnie’s blog (Dappled Path, currently shut down, I believe, but that is often a temporary state) with a link to a live performance of the Talking Head’s “Life During Wartime” (link at the bottom of the page). I want to elaborate on the point I was trying to make there. And in doing so, I want to emphasize, this was MY experience of early sobriety. I know it’s not everyone’s, and maybe not anyone else’s. So I’ll make that disclaimer here, and go on as if the rest is the word of Buddha — and you all will just have to make the necessary adjustments.

When I was first gobsmacked with the realization that I had to get sober, I was in a state that feels very much like David Byrne sings and dances in this video clip. It wasn’t a matter of figuring out whether I was an alcoholic or devising some sort of moderation plan (I had noodled on both of those for years). Nor was it an endeavor I saw as a clear path to mental and physical health — like taking up race walking or eating more vegetables. I was petrified. I did not know what was happening to me. I did not know what to do to survive beyond doing everything I could not to drink minute to minute. I was willing to try anything I thought might work — and that included walking into my first AA meeting, 90 in 90, and, had that not done it, rehab or medicine. I did not know — and this is the important part — whether I would survive, whether I would escape the addiction. I just knew that I had to try.

“This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.”

Had I not been this desperate and scared, I would have continued to half-ass sobriety attempts, making excuses about why I couldn’t stop drinking now, or maybe I didn’t really need to. I had to make stopping drinking my number one priority.

“No time for dancing, or lovey dovey. I ain’t got time for that now.”

One of the things I love in this clip is the way the whole band is in constant motion. They are working so hard. And that’s the way I felt at the beginning. I spent all my time working so hard for my sobriety (and when that voice came that said — but you need to take care of your family and your job too — I had to answer, that’s what I’m doing. Because this war is threatening us all). I went to meetings, I got a sponsor, I read books and blogs, I walked and ran miles, I took up yoga, I gave up parties, I learned to meditate, I did sit-ups, I ate donuts, I journaled, I read books on religion, I volunteered everywhere that would have me, and I would have checked into a rehab facility. The only rule was no rules, no plans, just action after action, minute by minute, to stay sober.

“Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock,
We blended in with the crowd.
We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines,
I know that that ain’t allowed.”

And you know what? I didn’t keep doing all of that. I kept what worked. I discarded what didn’t. I became what I needed to be to not drink that day. To survive.

“We dress like students, we dress like housewives,
Or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle, so many times now,
I don’t know what I look like.”

What I did not do was plan ahead. Because I knew (know) myself. If I decided the way to get sober was to go to a meeting…tomorrow…or the doctor…next week…or to stop drinking…on Monday, I would have a new plan the next week that put it all off until the week after that. I could have (and did) stay in the planning and reading and researching stage for a very long time. Which is how one should behave if one is buying a new home or adopting a dog — not how one should behave if one is fighting a battle for one’s life. In that case, you do what you need to do in the moment to make it to the next moment.

“Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive.
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace,
The burning keeps me alive.”

The burning kept me alive too.

Now watch the video, and I want to make one more point.

There’s so much there — paranoia, fear, insanity, sure. The very real feeling that this may not work — there are no guarantees. But also, dare I say it, there’s a pulsing, thrilling euphoria that was unavailable to me during my drinking days. Surviving is a rush! It’s terrifying, and it’s so hard, but it has all the beat and energy of real life. Yes, you will get to the better sleep and calmer outlook and peaceful afternoons with the family — but even in those first awful days, you will feel more alive than maybe ever before.


14 thoughts on “Life During Wartime: Early Sobriety

  1. Yes! I planned for a long, long time as well.
    Eventually I could see if I didn’t put a plan, any plan, into action, I was going to keep spiralling down.

    I was scared for me. Which reminded me I wanted to love, even if I had to do it sober.

    Turns out that is the way to joy!


  2. Oh I’m so glad you wrote this! I’ve been missing your posts, you have such a great writing style, and I feel you are an intelligent person who we all could learn from.

    I often take the comments you leave on a Dappled Path’s blog and pretend they were for me.

    Before I stopped drinking (again) at the end of April I read something you wrote about us underestimating just how serious this is. It was just what I needed to read. I know I have a problem but I did underestimate it, smooth it over, pretend it was ok.

    I’m now coming up 6 weeks next Tuesday and I know your words are what kickstarted me into action, so I thank you very, very much. I know it’s early days still, but I plan to stay here. It means my survival.

  3. As a person who is an over-thinker, I get so tired of thinking!
    My word of the year should be MOVE! or GO! or ACTION!
    But I just reached 21 months sober, and I took a lot of action to get here!
    Including blogging, AA, telling friends and family, getting a life coach, a sponsor, Women for Sobriety meetings, yoga, and more.

  4. It’s ironic that David Byrne has a way to an alcoholic’s heart! I wrote of him in a post yesterday! Once in a Lifetime says it all. I will be 4 years sober on August 14, and I have complete faith that you can totally rock this sobriety thing. I always find comfort in affirming to myself that there’s only today. Yesterday happened already, and tomorrow is later. Today I won’t drink, and all is well. Sending good vibes your way!

  5. I know you must be busy but just wanted to check in to say I miss your posts and comments on other blogs. Hope you are well and that you will be back soon.

  6. Thank you so much GG. I am alive, well, and sober, and planning on returning to blogging sometime late summer. I am, in my real life, an aspiring novelist and recently had the “this never happens” experience of a really big time agent contacting me to ask to read the book I’m working on right now. I had planned to finish the latest (and last of many ) drafts in October, but he wants it in August. So that is all I’m doing right now. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, one I could not respond to if I were still drinking and one I would have never gotten if I had not gotten sober, something I remind myself of every day!

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