Sunday, January 20, 2019

Fifteen

A Reflection on 15 Years of Sobriety.

This month will mark 15 years since my last drink. It's hard to believe and even harder to talk about out loud. After all this time, I now have distinct groups of friends who have never known me as anything but sober and whole batch of friends who, for some reason, have stuck around despite the sobriety. Newer friends occasionally ask why I don't drink out of curiosity. Older friends lovingly recall the times I boiled vodka at a Christmas party, got tossed in a bush, or sang "Happy Birthday" one-by-one to the first 100 attendees at a party. Most times I defer on the details as the story isn't nearly as interesting as it should be. I never missed work – I was born with that curse – but I certainly operated at 80% of my capacity many days and regret the times alcohol facilitated acerbic or mean-spirited conversation, especially among people I love or respect.

Here's the story: Just about 16 years ago now, Peggy's mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer; it still feels like yesterday in many regards. As a family, we decided to collectively dull the impending loss with a river of booze. Each weekend during the last three months of what turned into a life-altering experience for me, Peggy and I drove to and from Cleveland, back to our home in Chicago. I could still drive that route with my eyes closed all the way to the Tim Horton's just outside Toledo. As long as we were stationary, though, I found a reason to drink and tucked the justification behind the fog and sorrow with the rest of the crew.

After Peggy's mom passed away in mid-December of 2003, and after a decidedly dim and hazy set of holidays that followed, Peggy initiated a training routine to run a marathon in memory of her mom. She was quickly in great physical shape, I felt like a slug and a drag. Each morning as she trained along the cold lakefront path here in Chicago, I walked the empty, wide open park with our dog who scattered groups of seagulls back up into the overcast sky. It was, quite literally, cold reality.

I was haunted on those days by my rock-n-roll mentor's, Dan Zanes', song, "Cruel Cold Feeling," about his own struggles with alcohol:
I knew what I told her, "Those days are gone. I'll stop for one then be right home."
How do I stop these shaking hands, calm the nerves, mend the man?
To Dan's credit, and something I so admire about his writing, he managed to distill a whole 24-hour narrative into two lines, replete with the awful missing parts that fall on the cutting room floor in any good edit. Dan's a Grammy Award winner and, as I understand it, they don't hand those out unless you know what you're doin'.

Beyond that, though, I was also pursued at a deep, personal level – as I am to this day – by the essayist Wendell Berry's profound direction*:
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?
More to the point, I wondered then: Was this how I was supposed to live in a manner meant to honor the people around me? And now, do I hold myself to this standard as a father as I try to help raise a young boy?

In those moments, facing an icy Lake Michigan, I found a whole new perspective. And, importantly, I found a way to push that perspective directly into motivation. I managed a day, then a week, then a month without alcohol, then quit smoking. Mend the man, just like the song says.

Like many creative types, I had long before convinced myself that alcohol was part of a successful operating system that produced good work – writing, music, coding, the same as now – and, to the extent that a hangover can produce an uneasy space for reflection and regret, I suppose that's somewhat true in the granular. But, overall, it's a falsehood. The truth is, on the other side, there's clarity and courtesy, and the chance to better support the journey of those around us.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Postscript. A number of books, records, and movies have been important to me along the way as context for the the drinking life and day-to-day sobriety. Here are my top three:

(1) Now out of print, Dan's CD "Cool Down Time" (referenced above) from the early 1990s is a masterpiece: the first half will knock the wind out of you; the second will remind you of the power of redemption.

(2) Mary Karr's excellent book "Lit" follows in the fine tradtion of memoirs from writers like Caroline Knapp ("Drinking: a Love Story", "Pack of Two") about navigating recovery.

(3) 1988's "Clean & Sober" features a Michael Keaton performance so real, so raw, so honest that you almost forget Morgan Freeman co-stars in the movie. It's written and shot perfectly; gritty and desperate from scene to scene as it showcases the logic that empowers addiction. Keaton's final speech in the movie comes on the heals of a plot turn that tries its best to break him fully. The speech, delivered at an AA meeting, feels like a friend talking directly to you.

* from Wendell Berry's "The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," 1973.

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