15 Years Sober 4 Life Lessons
One of the very first things I learned in early sobriety was that I was a person consumed by fear. Fear had played a dominant role in my life since I was a child. However, it wasn't until I actually got sober that I learned how destructive this part of my personality had become.
Looking back now at those early days of sobriety, I am amused by all the neurosis, fears, and anxieties that plagued my mind every moment of every day. In the coming years as I developed a new and healthier life in sobriety, I would learn many things that would help me on my journey.
I have been clean and sober for 15 years as of this writing and continue to learn many things about myself and about life each and every day. Which brings me to the point of this book.
I have been blessed in my sobriety. I have grown in many ways, succeeded in some areas of my life, failed in others. I have had ups and downs, highs and lows, great achievements, and dismal disappointments. Through it all I have remained, and continue to remain, sober, mostly happy, and always curious to learn as much as I can about myself and life.
Perhaps most important of all, I have been blessed by meeting so many strong, interesting, and accomplished people over the last 15 year. From them all I have had the privilege of accumulating a vast wealth of knowledge, insight, and wisdom from those who traveled the path of recovery before me. Without these people I honestly don't believe that I would have stayed sober as long as I have, nor had so many joyful and fulfilling experiences.
To all those that came before me, and to all those who have taught me so much, I want to say thank you. I am forever grateful to your guidance. Many of you didn't know that you were helping me, nor even know my name or that I was listening to every word that came from your mouth. Many of you are strangers, many of you are friends. But from all of you I have learned so much and remain humble and grateful that we crossed paths.
Why do I write books and produce a podcast about addiction and sobriety? Over the last few years, I’ve written a number books that focus on various aspects of addiction and sobriety. While there are many books written about how to get sober, there are not nearly as many books covering the topic of how to STAY sober. Generally speaking, that’s what my books and this podcast are about – getting and STAYING sober!
Sobriety itself is a huge topic. Staying sober over many years takes a lot of hard work and dedication. My books focus on the various elements a life in recovery after we get sober. There are many parts of our lives that we never mastered because we were consumed by our addiction to alcohol or drugs.
They say when we get sober, we are emotionally and mentally the same age as when we began to drink alcoholically. In my case that means that I was approximately 12 years old emotionally and mentally when I got sober at the age of 43. In many ways I was completely underdeveloped and unprepared for living life on life’s terms. I was immature, self-indulgent, self-obsessed, selfish, arrogant, and frightened by life.
But one thing that I have learned from sobriety, and one of the most important lessons I've learned, is that it's never too late to change. Getting sober provided me with an opportunity to get a second chance at life. I had failed miserably up to this point. Now, as I began my sober journey, I discovered that if I was willing to open my mind and receive new information without prejudice, arrogance, or fear my life could and would grow in many positive directions.
There are so many things that all of us can learn as we travel the road of recovery. What I wish to share with you are many of the life lessons that I picked up along the way in my own sober travels. Most of all, I want to convey that life is filled with an abundance of wonderful, beautiful, and interesting lessons and adventures.
#1 WE GET A SECOND CHANCE
I believe that during a lifetime most of us are given a second chance to repair any mistakes we have made or, in more extreme cases, start our lives over entirely.
As far as my story goes it’s quite clear to me that I was given a second chance at life, an opportunity to redo what I had so badly screwed up prior to getting sober. Prior to getting sober I lived a life that was self-absorbed and self-destructive. I indulged a weakness for alcohol and drugs to the point where I was destroying my health, my personal relationships, my finances, and any hopes of a successful future.
As stated, I began drinking at around the age of 12. by the age of 14 I had advanced to experimenting with hard drugs. My first love remained, however, alcohol. This was a love affair I would continue to indulge for the next 31 years.
My story is in many ways like so many other alcoholics and addicts who I have spoken with throughout the years. While alcohol and drug experimentation were fun and exciting for a long time, I eventually crossed an invisible line into addiction. By the time I realized I was a full-blown alcoholic and addict it seemed like it was too late to turn around and change the path of my life.
At a certain point many of us who struggle with addiction simply give up and give in to our self-destructive nature. I had accepted the idea that there was simply no way out of my predicament. I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG.
By my early 40s I was very sick physically, mentally, and spiritually. I held no illusions about what my life had become. And I held no hope for anything different or better from my life. I simply assumed life would continue forward as it had for so many years, lost in a haze of substance abuse, bad choices, lower companions, health problems, financial problems, and ruined relationships.
I have written extensively about my experience “in the trenches” in my previous books, most notably Polluted: My Sober Journey. Nonetheless, for the sake of clarification I will briefly share why and how I got sober.
As I mentioned, by the time I reached my early 40s I was heading for an early grave. There had been several frightening incidences where I needed to go to the hospital for various issues relating to substance abuse. My personal and professional life was in ruins. I was unemployable, broke, depressed, and worst of all, hopeless.
In the final years of my addiction, I drank excessively every day. It was not unusual for me to drink 3 bottles of wine, a pint of vodka, and a 6 pack of beer in a single evening. Quite often my drinking was accompanied by cocaine abuse as well.
Every morning was a living nightmare. My body and brain hurt from the moment I woke up until I took my first drink around 4:00 PM each day. The daily cycle was the same from day-to-day, week to week, month to month. I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a scrappy neighborhood in Los Angeles. I constantly struggled to pay rent and often spent any money I had on alcohol, Cocaine, and cigarettes rather than food.
This was how I lived my life for the last five years of my addiction. The last year was particularly gruesome, dark, end depressing. How I managed to survive and not succumb to my disease is attributable, in my opinion, only to the grace of a higher spiritual presence that was protecting me. I am amazed that I lived as long as I did. So many of my friends from those days did not survive and I often struggle with survivor’s guilt mixed with overwhelming gratitude.
My second chance began on December 9th, 2007. I was suffering with a horrendous, brain melting hangover. It was one of those hangovers that are so intense that you wonder if perhaps you’d be better off dead rather than experiencing the pounding headache and wretched nausea washing through your body.
I was driving through Los Angeles when I heard a radio program mention something about a 12-step program. It was during that moment that something was triggered within me. I can't explain why or how it happened, but I decided at that very moment that I was going to try to clean up my life and get sober. It was as simple and as sudden as that.
To clarify, I had tried to get clean numerous times in the past. I had tried everything from Buddhism and psychology, to doctor prescribed medication. I'd also tried self-will which got me absolutely nowhere. On several occasions I had gone to 12 step meetings, but they never seemed to work for me and I quickly gave up.
On this day in 2007, however, I decided that I had only one choice left; I needed to cry out to God and ask for help.
At that stage in my life, I didn’t have much faith in God, but I was so desperate for relief that I was willing to try absolutely anything. So that's exactly what I did. I was not religious by any means, but I figured a church would be a good place to get started. So, I walked into the first church I could find. I didn't care what kind of church it was, I simply wanted to find a quiet, peaceful place to communicate with spirit. And there I fell to my knees, clasped my hands in front of me, and I begged for help.
For the record, I felt like a complete idiot asking for help from a God I wasn't even sure I believed in, inside a church that I didn't belong to. Weirdest of all, I was on my knees begging with my hands clenched tightly into fists of fear and rage.
It was, to say the least, one of the strangest moments of my life. But here's the funniest part of all; it worked!
For some reason that strange act of prayer lifted my spirit, cleared my mind, and gave me a sense of courage that I had never felt before. I immediately left the church and called a friend who was working on his sobriety and that night he took me to a 12-step meeting where I began my journey into sobriety.
Today I remain sober and hope and pray that I remain that way for the rest of my life.
I was given a second chance at life. You don't have to believe in God to recognize that some type of transformation took place that day. Something changed dramatically. There was a significant shift in my psyche the moment I reached out for help. From that day forward nothing would ever be the same. I had begun a journey of growth and change that fills me with wonder and awe.
Because of the second chance I was given I have learned so much. And that's what I want to share with you.
I decided long ago to never to stop learning, and I hope you do the same. One of the most enjoyable parts of being alive, and being sober, is the ability to constantly learn and grow. Otherwise, what's the point of being alive? Life is filled with many wonders. There is so much beauty to witness while we are here on earth. I beg of you to go through your own life filled with a hungry mind and a curious heart.
I have made so many mistakes in my life, both in my recovery and before getting sober. This is simply a part of being human. We make mistakes quite often, and sometimes quite dramatically. What is most important is what we learn along the way. If we are willing to continuously learn and grow, it is inevitable that we will prosper and emerge more successful, happy, and strong.
Sobriety should be seen as a journey not a destination. It is in your best interests to continuously learn and grow.
Many of the lessons I have learned through my own journey are shared in my books as wells as my podcast. Many of them I learned on my own through trial and error. Many others I learned from people I met along the way.
The important thing is that I continue to remain filled with gratitude and humility for all the gifts I've been given over the last 15 years of my recovery. As I move forward into the future, I hope to never, ever, give up my curiosity for learning.
The sober life is a very curious thing. I hope that you find it as interesting and inspiring as I do.
#2 ALCOHOL IS NOT THE PROBLEM
Getting sober means we stop drinking, correct? Sobriety is about never drinking alcohol or indulging in drug use, right?
Like so many other people who struggle with addiction I was under the impression when I first got sober that if I were to stop drinking alcohol every day, I would be sober and happy. My logic at the time went something like this:
1. Ask for help.
2. Receive help.
3. Stop drinking.
4. Sit back and watch as I become a raging success in every part of my life.
I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that many people upon starting their own sober journey, think this way when they first put down the bottle. It's not uncommon for people who are in the early stages of sobriety to be surprised by the fact that they still feel lousy all the time.
I experienced this phenomenon myself. The early stages of my sobriety were plagued by intense emotional discomfort and spiritual angst. Even though I had stopped drinking I often felt as bad, or worse, than I did when I was drinking.
What the hell! I thought I was supposed to magically feel a million times better once I stopped drinking. How come I still feel like complete crap most of the time and suffer with intense feelings of insecurity, anger, and frustration?
During the early stages of my recovery there were times when doing even the simplest tasks like going to the store or asking someone for directions felt excruciating. The most intense discomfort always occurred when I was required to speak with other humans.
I have always felt ill at ease around other people, especially groups, small or large. What I realized early in my life is that I felt so much discomfort around other people that drinking became the only way that I could find a sense of ease in social situations. I was, and remain, introverted and shy. So why wouldn't I utilize any substance that can make me feel comfortable being around others?
This is one of the great difficulties that people with addictive personalities must face when they're in recovery. We often have a desire to interact socially, but it comes with a price. That price manifests in intense feelings of awkwardness whenever we have to socialize.
I had always known that I was shy. However, it wasn't until I started working on my own sobriety that I came to realize that alcohol had served as a crutch that helped me hobble my way through many of life’s moments of discomfort, especially socializing. Once I stopped drinking the discomfort still existed, but the tool that gave me the relief was no longer available to me. I had only two choices; 1) acknowledge my discomfort and learn how to deal with it or 2) go back to drinking and hope for relief.
As you might guess, the second option was not really a choice for me anymore. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to give up and go back to what was destroying my life. I was determined to stay sober at all costs which meant I had no other choice but to face the real problem, which was deep, haunting insecurity.
What I came to realize over time, with the help of many people who I met on my journey of self-discovery, was that I was not only shy and introverted, but suffered with profound emotional in psychological wounds that made me feel insignificant, useless, and unlovable.
The real problem was not alcohol. Alcohol abuse was nothing more than an external reaction to what I was feeling inside. I was using alcohol to repress a lifetime of fear, anger, and resentment. Not until I was ready and willing to face my internal life would I be truly sober as I now define sobriety.
Sobriety, in its truest sense, is not the absence of alcohol in one’s body. Alcohol, in and of itself, is an inanimate, harmless substance. Alcohol is nothing more than liquid that's contained in a bottle or can. It has no real significance on its own, much like rat poison has no significance on its own. However, once we ingest the poison, everything changes. Quickly!
Drinking alcohol, for people like me, is like swallowing poison. Alcohol on its own is harmless. But once it goes down my throat, into my stomach, and gets absorbed into my central nervous system and ultimately my brain everything changes, and usually not for the better.
If I know this to be true, the real question is why do I do it? Why do I consume the poison that is going to kill me? The answer is deceptively simple. I consume the poison because it temporarily alters the way I feel inside. That's it. That's the answer to the equation. I drank to cover emotional damage and psychological wounds.
Perhaps this seems obvious to some people. But to me it was a revelation. Once I learned and fully comprehend that alcohol was not actually the problem in my life, that the problem that I needed to face was internal not external, my real sobriety began.
Long-term sobriety is about accepting, facing, and ultimately healing the myriad wounds we carry within.
Alcohol wasn’t the problem I had to face when I first got sober. Covering up my problems by drinking was like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It served only as a temporary, ineffectual solution to a much deeper problem. Once I was able to see this and fully understand it, the real process of healing finally began.
#3 PAIN IS A GREAT TEACHER
If you've ever been kicked in the head by a horse, chances are good you’ll think twice before walking behind the same beast in the future (assuming you lived through the first blow to your noggin).
Human beings are adaptive creatures. We’ve been given the ability to learn quickly from our mistakes, especially mistakes that cause pain or trauma. However, many of us choose to ignore what we’ve learned, instead choosing to pursue our self-destructive tendencies. Often this willingness to ignore our mistakes results in compounding difficulties and further pain down the road.
This brings to mind the many occasions when I put myself in danger as the result of my addictions. One incident stands out in my mind. It was a year before I finally got sober. I had had a blowout with my then girlfriend and had moved into a cheap motel room in Los Angeles. Drowning in self-pity, I preceded to drink an insane amount of beer, vodka, and wine.
At some point during the evening, I collapsed and found myself unable to move. I lay on the filthy carpet, my body immobilized by alcohol poisoning. My brain was functioning enough that I felt terrified, convinced that I was going to die that night only to be found days later after rigor mortis had set in. It was a nightmare scenario which I had put myself into without regard for the people who loved me whose lives would forever be altered should I to die under such pathetic circumstances.
Miraculously, I awoke the next day having survived somehow. I made a vow that I would never drink again! That vow lasted about 24 hours.
By the next day I was drinking like usual as if nothing had happened. In fact, I continued to drink for another year. That last and final year of my drinking was particularly gruesome and dangerous. Only by the grace of God, and the help I received from others, did I finally get sober.
The point is, the pain I suffered on that motel floor, and the awful realization of what I was doing to myself was not enough to detour me from continuing my self-destructive path. I still had a lot more drinking and drugging to do even though I had clearly been given a sign that it was time to stop or I was going to die a miserable alcoholic death.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst alcoholics and addicts. Quite often we are given a clear picture of the pain we are causing ourselves. Nonetheless we continue forward, learning nothing.
But pain can teach us so much if we are just willing to learn from our experiences. When we finally do get sober it can only help to look back at our lives and evaluate how we got to where we are today. We are given the opportunity to review and judge our actions in the past so that we might improve our future. Pain, and painful experiences, can teach us much of what we need to know about ourselves.
Many people suffer through traumas, particularly childhood traumas, that run so deep that the wounds seem impossible to heal. But often, even the most painful experiences and memories can teach us what we need to learn so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past, even if those mistakes were inflicted upon us by others.
Quite often trauma and pain from the past requires forgiveness. Forgiveness is never easy nor does it happen overnight in most cases. However, forgiveness is often the only chance we have to release the pain and sorrow that haunts us. If we are able to somehow forgive ourselves for the mistakes we have made, and to forgive others who have harmed us, we stand a much better chance of surviving and succeeding in sobriety.
Pain can be a great teacher if we are willing to learn what it has to teach. In order for us to avoid repeating the past, especially the negative parts, we can take the opportunity to review any pain we have experienced then evaluate how it affected our present life so that we might avoid repeating the same patterns in the future.
If we've been kicked in the head by a horse once the pain should be sufficient to teach us to avoid the same mistake yet again.
#4 MOST OF OUR FEARS OUR IMAGINED
Somewhere along the way I developed a crippling fear of flying.
It wasn’t always like that. When I was much younger, as a child and even into my teens, I looked forward to taking flights any chance I could get. I clearly remember the excitement I felt every time I flew from California to the East Coast to visit my grandmother when I was a child. I eagerly boarded the plane and felt a thrill as the engines roared to life and we lifted off the earth and into the blue sky.
For many years flying was something to look forward to, not to dread. But things changed during my college years. I used to fly frequently between California and Boston where I was attending college. At first flying back and forth never bothered me. However, I was often hungover on the flights I took across the country. My college days were filled with a great deal of partying resulting in frequent hangovers (which would only increase in the coming years).
As most heavy drinkers know hangovers quite often create anxiety. I certainly experienced many hangovers that involved anxiety and even paranoia. While flying back and forth from coast to coast we were often caught in bad weather including several snowstorms. This, combined with my anxiety-riddled hangovers, eventually evolved into a hesitancy about flying. Overtime, my hesitancy turned into an outright fear of flying.
As time went by, and I got older, this fear of flying developed into an intense phobia. By my early 30s I was terrified to get on a plane. And when I did fly I would drink myself into a blinding stupor just to be able to board.
My fear of flying became so acute that I went an entire decade without boarding a commercial airline. I even missed my grandmother's funeral as a result of my inability to get on an airplane, something that still causes me pangs of regret and shame even to this day.
The first time I got back on an airplane was in 2011. I had been sober for several years and had made the decision that I was going to start flying again no matter what. Come hell or high water I was going to get back on airplanes and travel again. At that time, I was in a long distance relationship with a woman who is now my wife. Dany was still living in Los Angeles; however I had moved to the other side of the state. We were determined to keep our relationship going and it was impractical for me to drive across the state every two weeks to visit her.
I finally boarded my first flight in many years to visit her. I took my seat and felt the old phobia rising, trying to overwhelm my brain. The fight or flight response was intense. Before the doors had closed, I even considered getting off the plane and driving instead.
A man took a seat next to me who it turns out was a rabbi. Though I am not Jewish, I felt a sense of ease and comfort knowing that a man dedicated to God was sitting next to me. We began a casual conversation and at some point, I revealed to him my phobia and the fact that I hadn't flown in many years. The man smiled gently and, without judgment, and told me that in his experience he had found that most of our fears are only imagined, much like the monsters that live in the minds of children. The monsters are not real, but our mind tries to convince us otherwise. If we’re only willing to realize, and accept, that most of our fears are not real we can easily find the courage we need to move forward and achieve whatever we want in life.
I don't know why his words were so powerful at that moment, but my fears diminished significantly. The plane took off, flew smoothly, and we landed in Los Angeles without incident. Surprise, surprise!
My fear of flying didn’t cease immediately. It still took several more years before I was comfortable flying on a regular basis. Even to this day I experience mild hesitation whenever I'm about to board a plane. But the difference is, now I board the plane, nonetheless. Fear or no fear, I get on the plane and fly wherever I want to go.
Most of our fears in life are imagined, as the rabbi informed me that day many years ago. Whether it's the fear of flying, the fear of people, the fear of failure, financial fear, or whatever, the things we fear the most often come from our imagination and have no real power over us.
If we’re simply willing to keep moving forward, walking through our fear instead of running from our fear, we have a much greater chance of success in every aspect of our lives. If sobriety has taught me anything it's that fear has been one of the most destructive forces in my life. For too many years I allowed fear to keep me from experiencing and achieving the things I wanted (I was also fearful of sobriety, which could be the topic of an entire book). Once I finally got sober and was able to rebuild my life and face my fears, my life changed dramatically for the better.
I still experience fear from time to time, like a monster in my head that tries to keep me from doing the things I want in life. But I do my best to ignore the fear and just keep moving forward. I try never to allow the fear to stop me or to hold me back. Fear is usually just my imagination running wild. Instead of giving in to it I always do my best to ignore it, putting one foot in front of the other as I head down the path of greater experience unshackled by fear.
There are many, many more things I’ve learned over the last 15 years of sobriety. The four life lessons I have discussed are just the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, the point to is to always keep learning. Never give up. Embrace life as a sober person, enjoy the rollercoaster ride. Live life on life’s terms and enjoy the journey no matter where it takes you.
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