KNAPP: Sobriety Test

FEBRUARY 20, 1997: I had my last drink three years ago today, which is just long enough to teach you this about life without alcohol: it gets easier and easier to have a life that doesn't include drinking. And it gets harder and harder to have a life.This isn't as paradoxical or weird as it sounds. It does get easier to have a life that doesn't include drinking: you just do it. You stop going to bars, you hide your corkscrew in the back of a kitchen drawer, you make friends with other people who don't drink, and once you've adjusted to the shock of the lifestyle changes, you wake up one day and realize that you've created a whole world that simply doesn't involve drinking. No popping corks on New Year's Eve, no wine lists at restaurants, no trips down the liquor aisle at Bread & Circus. Such changes can seem massive and alien and terrifying at first, but for the most part they're external shifts, accommodations of habit and structure eased and made familiar by the passage of time.The hard part, the having-a-life part, has to do with what goes on internally, with the questions and choices and feelings that present themselves when they're not perpetually blunted and obscured by alcohol. This is the big stuff, the stuff that has you staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. What kind of person am I, really? How do I truly want to spend my time? What kind of a life am I capable of, cut out for? What sustains me, motivates me, satisfies me? These are the sorts of issues of self that most people (at least most thinking people) start addressing in their 20s, and it can be very disconcerting indeed to wake up at the age of 37 and realize you've never really raised the questions, let alone begun to answer them. Figuring out how to have a life without being drunk all the time is a lot harder than it sounds -- and a whole lot harder than I expected. Active drinkers are masters of the art of titration. How much to drink, when to drink, what rate to drink at, which substances to avoid while drinking, what blend of coffee and food and Advil get us out of bed the following morning -- we learn all that, over many years of practice, lots of trial and error. We titrate substances in order to manage emotion: two drinks after work to relieve stress, another two or four or six to maintain the buzz, a couple before bed so we'll crash, another few when we wake up at 4 a.m. and can't get back to sleep. The difficult work of sobriety -- of living, I suppose -- involves titrating actions rather than substances in order to achieve the same effects: what to do to manage fear and anxiety and sleepless nights, rather than what to drink; what to do to foster feelings of well-being and safety and meaning; what kinds of relationships to engage in, what kinds of hobbies, what kinds of physical and psychic nourishment. This involves another form of trial and error, one based on acting rather than consuming, and it's a good bit trickier.At an AA meeting recently, people talked about what they missed about drinking. Some people talked about the simple relief of it, others the way it obliterated self-consciousness and inhibition, others the freedom it gave them to lose control. Me, I sat there and thought: I miss being relieved of the responsibility of having to create a life.When I drank, drinking was life in many ways. I used alcohol to lubricate relationships, and to blunt boredom and disappointment and anger and fear. I used it to organize my time, to give my world structure. The question was never "What should I do tonight, or tomorrow or next year?" It was "Where should I do it? Where should I drink, how much, and with whom?" Take all that away and life becomes a giant blank screen backlit by anxiety. "I feel really precarious." I heard someone say that at an AA meeting not too long ago. She didn't mean she felt at risk of a relapse; she meant she felt unformed, as though everything in her life was somehow up for grabs. She said, "I could end up married with five kids, or I could move to Europe, or I could become a heroin addict, or -- who knows?" I sat there and nodded. You spend years and years drinking, and then you spend a few years learning how not to drink, and then you look up and think: what now? Marriage? Kids? New city? New career? Indeed, who knows?These, of course, are big life questions that can't be answered without some basic information. And here, on my three-year anniversary, I am still collecting data, still struggling to answer the most elemental questions of self: how do I like to spend free evenings and weekends? What's the right mix of solitude and companionship for me? How much to I want to be touched or loved or depended upon? What's fun to me, what's soothing, what's engaging?My trial-and-error data collection: building this is painstaking and hard. Seven hundred walks with my dog through the Middlesex Fells and I've discovered I like this; this feels good. Nine hundred failed battles with my sewing machine and I can say, okay, I don't like this, I don't have the patience for sewing; it makes me feel incompetent. These are tiny discoveries, but they're also the sorts of lessons you can't learn when you're drinking all the time, and they're the small building blocks on which a secure sense of self is built. I am this sort of person, these are my needs, these are my particular strengths and weaknesses. The man I've been involved with for a long time would like to live together, get married, share a life. I keep resisting. I keep saying, "But I'm only 14!" I'm half-kidding when I say this, but there's also a hard kernel of truth to it. People in drinking-and-recovery circles often say that in some important respects you stop growing when you start drinking alcoholically. The drink stunts you, prevents you from walking through the kinds of fearful life experiences that bring you from point A to point B on the maturity-and-confidence scales and teach you who you are. I started drinking in earnest at around age 16, so three years into recovery, I'm actually a little older than 14 -- about 19, 20 tops. I still feel too young to know what kind of life I want for myself, let alone make decisions about sharing it; still too new to the world to know how to shape it.It's not surprising to me that so many people relapse after a year or two, once the fog lifts and the hard work ahead is revealed. Quitting drinking is a little like emerging from a train wreck: you get up, dazed and disoriented, and you wander around for a long time, stunned and deeply grateful that you survived. And then the mind clears, the sense of trauma ebbs away, and you find yourself standing there gaping at the debris. You ask, "Who am I now, now that I'm off that particular train? What direction should I go in next? And how will I get there?"It's a scary time and -- I have to remind myself often -- an important one, too: full of uncertainty, yes, but also full of possibility.

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