A First Time for Everything
Here’s one more for the “first series”—joining the story of the first drunk and the first admission.
I remember the first time I said ‘no’ to a drink in hand. I do not search long and hard for this memory because until I got sober I said yes to everything, even in blackouts. This resulted in strange circumstances to wake in—hallucinating a forest grow in a living room, or hearing empty nitrous cartridges clank on the floor. Saying ‘no’ was not an option. Who wants to join Nancy Reagan’s merry band of winners and ‘just say no’ anyway?
It was in Asheville, North Carolina on October 3, 2008, ten days short of one year sober for me. I saw the Black Keys at Asheville’s Orange Peel, a small venue. This was years before their album Lonely Boy won three Grammy Awards. The duo’s first four albums were homemade single-take tracks, relying on the simple sound and rhythm of a guitar and drum beat, rooted in the bluesy syncopation of Junior Kimbrough. This concert showcased the band’s fifth studio album Attack and Release, produced by Danger Mouse; it was the first album with a professional polish.
The smell of stale beer permeated the music hall like it was a fraternity house. Feet jumped and stomped on the hardwood floor, sticking to dancing heels. The Keys electrified the crowd with “Set You Free.” Bodies jammed together in the sweat and the smoke. It was a blonde with two red Solo Cups in her hands who approached me. I had one year to imagine how this scenario was to play out. I prayed for the ability to say ‘no’. I thought that I would have to explain that I don’t drink like normal people; that when I start with one drink, I don’t know when I’ll stop or where I’ll end up; that alcohol is poison to me.
Amid the bumping and dancing and sweating, she extended the red Solo cup—“Want a beer?”
I stopped moving and stood my ground. “No,” I said with a broad sweep of my hand as if attempting a Jedi mind trick.
“Right on.” She swigged from the cup and turned her attention back to the stage. Issue resolved. I was left there standing motionless in a crowd of concert-goers who cared nothing for the feat I deemed heroic. After a few measures of drum-roll and guitar-strum, I jumped back into beat as Dan Auerbach wailed, “And come to me. I’m gonna set you free.”
I thought sober life would be filled with restriction, with sanctions for the soul. I thought the exotic things I did and places I went were rooted in drinking and drugging. I thought sober me would be a hermit, or some poet-recluse. And that was OK with me. I was desperate; any road out of my despair was a welcomed alternative.
But sobriety has set me free.
I am free to reap the joys of the simple life, of fatherhood, of teaching, of writing. What people call mundane; I call a miracle. Does everyone have to wake up in Venice Beach with a broken jaw in order to find bliss in the everyday trudge? While I think the answer is no, that was my story. (For subscriber-only readers, recent guests posts at The Recovery Revolution and Recovery Rockstars tell more of the same.)
The urge to drink was a paradox. I believed I was choosing to drink, but once I put alcohol in my body, the drinks chose me. I can do sober everything I used to do drunk. I can go to the concerts, to the bars. I can dance and socialize and laugh hard. I can cry and express how I am feeling. The old world is still open to me. And, in fact, there are many aspects of that old way of life I no longer choose for myself. I’ve grown to enjoy waking in the morning rested, knowing exactly where I was when I went to sleep the night before. The new world I continue to pioneer is a great gift, an undeserved gift—a blessing.
I have stood on the rock where Moses stood at 3 a.m. as the moon lit the ghost of a great people. I have seen the woman I love bring a child into the world in the screaming new breath of existence. I have guided students in the classroom to reach an ethereal “a-ha” from simple black ink on a white page.
With all that life to live who wants to be stuck in a bar anyway.