Getting Through Emotional Hangovers

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON AFTER PARTY MAGAZINE.

One of the best things about getting sober was no longer waking up sick to my stomach with a throbbing head and major regrets about the night before. I was thrilled to put hangovers in the rearview mirror. That is, of course, until I experienced my first emotional hangover in sobriety.

After I stopped drinking and using cocaine, I traveled along on a puffy pink cloud for the first few months. I thought that getting clean and sober would solve everything. And the truth was, it did solve a lot. Sure, I had moments of frustration and anger along the way. I moaned about the fact that I had to change my routines with my friends. I whined about not wanting to go to a meeting when I knew I needed to. But after some complaining to my sponsor, screaming into my pillow and smoking an extra couple of cigarettes, I usually got back on track pretty quickly. For the vast majority of the time I was grateful and, dare I say, happy.

It wasn’t until midway through the holiday season of my first year of sobriety that I woke up one morning feeling different, and not in a good way. It was a Friday—the morning after my office holiday party. Nothing horrible had happened. Quite the contrary, I had used every tool in my kit to get through it without suffering. I called my sponsor before going to the party, arrived late and left early, made sure I ate before I went and called my sponsor again on the way home. I hadn’t had a drink, nor had I even been tempted by one.

Despite making it past a major obstacle, when I woke up the next morning my head and my limbs felt heavy. I didn’t want to get out of bed. A palpable gloom had come over me and there was a lump in my gut. Even after I took a shower, I felt exhausted and clammy. It reminded me of how I used to feel when I drank heavily the night before. There was the dreaded sense that I had done something awful, but my brain hadn’t yet come around to tell me exactly what it was. In those days, checking voicemail scared me because there was always a good chance I’d learn about some humiliation from the prior evening.

But I hadn’t done or said anything stupid on the night of the office party. I clearly remembered coming home—a first for one of these events. Tucked away in bed before 10:00 p.m., I had been proud of myself. So why did I feel terrible? I took this question to a meeting.

“You’re having an emotional hangover,” one of the women said to me after the meeting. Seriously? I thought.There’s a new kind of hangover I have to deal with? What could possibly make me feel as bad in the morning as having downed 12 vodkas and a gram of blow the night before?  She explained that even when we get through challenging or emotionally powerful situations without drinking, we might be left with a residual mental and physical reaction that feels alarmingly close to a booze hangover. It doesn’t matter whether the trigger is related to work or family or anything else, we can have that same miserable feeling.

That morning, it was the combined effect of the suppressed dread about going to the party, the fake happy face I had to put on to get though it and the time spent watching a bunch of people getting drunk. I was so busy trying to breeze through the night as if it were no big deal that I failed to recognize the toll it was taking on me. The inevitable crash left me feeling as if I drank hard the night before.

I’ve had the same kinds of emotional hangovers on mornings after having a vivid drunk dream or spending psychologically taxing times with family or friends. More often than not, I can look back and see that I could have taken better care of myself. Usually it was about the HALT triggers—I let myself get hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired.

Sometimes I can take myself out of situations I know are likely to leave me emotionally vulnerable. For example, I don’t go to the office holiday party every year. When co-workers cajole me, my answer is, “Sorry, I can’t make it this year.” I try to bow out of conversations that get gossipy, too, because I know that later I’ll feel like I drank two bottles of wine on an empty stomach with no sleep. (I know this because I keep doing it. I’m far from perfect.)

Other circumstances that trigger me are unavoidable. For instance, I still hate parties. Being among a group of people holding wine and cocktails in their hands does something to me that in 11 years of sobriety, I haven’t gotten past. Maybe one day that will change, but for now, it is what it is. So, while I do my best to avoid them, there are occasions when I can’t be the hermit and I need to show up. One of my worst emotional hangovers happened the morning after my wedding. At the party, I was thrilled that everyone was having a great time and I didn’t resent their pretty glasses of wine. But, the next morning, I felt like a beast that had been poked and prodded overnight. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had seen fangs in my mouth when I looked in the mirror.

For me, the fact that emotional hangovers are occasionally inevitable, the same way that drunk dreams and resentments are inevitable, helps me to accept them. If I can do that, recognize what’s happening and try to work through why, pretty soon it will pass. It always does. At least this kind of hangover doesn’t require three Bloody Marys, four groveling apologies and a fistful of Advil to cure.

Telling on Myself in 12-Step Meetings

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON AFTER PARTY MAGAZINE.

At my first few 12-step meetings, what people were willing to share about life before they got sober fascinated me. Whenever a story started about a weeklong bender or a dramatic showdown with family, I leaned forward in my chair and furrowed my brow, intent on not missing a word. These people did the same kinds of things I did, I thought. I can talk to them without shame.

I eagerly jumped in. In no time, I was recounting the cringe-inducing behavior I engaged in before I got sober—from all of the barstools I swore must have been greased before I fell off of the them, to the family holidays I spent spouting off the same story seven times, and, finally, to landing on a locked-down detox unit. The list was miles long, but no one seemed to mind listening. It was a massive relief to not feel judged or humiliated by my past. Once those truths were out there, they lost their power to destroy my self-esteem. I was even able to laugh about the fact that I justified drinking at 6 am by reminding myself that it was noon in France and people drank at lunch there, so I wasn’t the only one drinking.

But then I started noticing that people in meetings were also sharing tales of the not-so-perfect things they did in sobriety. Suddenly, I was confused. If that lady’s been sober for five years then why is she still having temper tantrums in the office? I know we claim progress, not perfection, but what is that? I’m certainly not copping to that kind of behavior if I ever act out like that. I listened warily as I heard person after person come clean about overreactions and dramatic episodes that happened years after they put down the drink. It got to the point that when I would hear the words, “I need to tell on myself,” my ears would perk up.

As a kid, I loved to tell on other people. I freely admit that. I was an insecure little girl who felt better about myself by getting other people in trouble. Run to the teacher to rat out the eight-year old boy who pulled another girl’s hair? Yep. Tell the camp counselor about the kid who took crayons home after yesterday’s art period? That would be me. And it didn’t matter how many times the adults would respond with, “Nobody likes a tattletale, Lisa.” I didn’t care. Other people’s bad behaviors made me feel superior. Thirty years later, sitting in detox, I had to admit that maybe I wasn’t so superior after all.

So how exactly would I become a person who could tell on myself in a 12-step meeting, of all places? Wasn’t this where I was supposed to be a better human being? What would other people think of me if they actually knew what happened inside my supposedly sober head? I thought about how I hated every single stranger on the subway platform most mornings. Would that make me sound like a total maniac? How could I admit that when the pharmacist told me my prescription would take five more minutes, I curled my lip up at her, rolled my eyes, and asked, “Seriously? What is the problem with getting it ready when it’s supposed to be ready?” I also stomped my foot. Can I really claim to be a changed person if I still act like a petulant toddler? If people knew the real me, I thought, they’d never like me.

Based on what I saw in the rooms, though, it was undeniable that people were getting real relief by ratting out their own non-sober reactions to life on life’s terms. No one was judging them. Rather, many people were nodding their heads in agreement at stories of chewing out co-workers as well as innocent bystanders. In fact, I admired their ability to tell the truth and own it. Just like with bad behavior pre-sobriety, putting it out into the open somehow removed the power those actions and thoughts had on people going forward. It made me think of something I had heard—we’re only as sick as our secrets.

One morning, “rigorous honesty” was the meeting topic. Maybe I hadn’t had enough caffeine, maybe I was coming down with the flu, or maybe I had just become willing to let people to see that I wasn’t the first person ever to practice the program perfectly, but I spoke the truth. When it was my turn to share, I said, “If I’m rigorously honest, I have to admit that I’m having an awful week at work and if there had been a bottle of vodka in my freezer this morning, I’m pretty sure I would have chugged half of it. In fact, I wished it were there. This morning, the obsession to drink did not feel lifted. Not at all. I don’t feel like being sober today. I don’t want to be in this meeting. I wish I could drink.” It just fell out of my mouth. And it felt great. Vocalizing those feelings didn’t solve my work problems, but suddenly a drink didn’t seem like the answer to them either.

Now I am a big fan of telling on myself in meetings. Not only does it provide the relief of unburdening myself of a secret, it also does so in a quick and painless way. If I were to confess to wanting to drink to my sponsor, we would be digging into some step work to get to the bottom of it. This could take weeks. If I floated it to my therapist, we’d have material for a month and it would likely continue to pop up indefinitely in forms such as, “Maybe that was what made you want to drink last time?”

No, the beauty of dumping my bad behavior and dangerous thoughts in a meeting is that often times it’s out there, and then it’s over. Sure, someone may approach me after the meeting to see if I want to get coffee and talk about it. Or I might get a few calls or texts checking up on me later in the day. And all that is helpful. But it doesn’t have to become a major event. It can be just another fact in another day of another alcoholic, trying to stay sober one day at a time.

So yes, five-years-sober lady who melted down at work, I understand where you’re coming from. And I’ll make sure to let you know when it happens to me. 

Tips for Surviving the Holidays Sober

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON AFTER PARTY MAGAZINE.

On the day before Halloween, I walked into a stationery store to grab a birthday card. I expected the place to be filled with season-appropriate fake cobwebs, cardboard black cats and plastic jack-o-lanterns. I was wrong. The witches and goblins had been shunted to a back corner and the store had already been taken over by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s decorations. Cards, wrapping paper and holiday knick-knacks filled the tables and walls. And there were plenty of prominently displayed books about the cheeriest holiday cocktails for your big party. Oh no, I thought. They’re already here. And it’s still 70 degrees in New York City! I wanted to give crêpe-paper Santa the finger.

When I first got into recovery, I was warned about surviving the holidays sober. One of the old-timers at my morning meeting started talking early in November about what she called, “The Alcoholic’s Bermuda Triangle,” Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Please, I thought. Isn’t that a little dramatic? I had survived Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Those were my big three, when my friends were all soaking in sun and partying at the beach. I hadn’t dared test my newfound sobriety with them. It had been a long summer, but I was feeling great. The holidays couldn’t be much worse, right?

As it turned out, they were much worse. Carrying a string bean casserole into my cousin’s house with my parents on Thanksgiving, I slipped on some icy stairs and landed hard on my back. “I’m okay! I’m okay!” I insisted, as they fawned over me and helped me up. Fifteen minutes later, I was sobbing in the bathroom. I’d like to say it was because my back hurt. In truth, it was because as soon as I fell, all I wanted was to go straight to the bar set up for the dinner and start chugging out of the vodka bottle. Instead, I ate double helpings of at least three desserts. Not exactly a success story, but I got through the day without drinking.

I wrapped up that first holiday season with a screaming tirade at the friend who was kind enough to spend a quiet New Year’s Eve with me. He had committed the cardinal sin of daring to drink a single glass of champagne. Let’s just say it was a relief to go back to work after the New Year and put the whole miserable season behind me.

Since that first year, though, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped me to handle the festivities with a little more grace. It starts with bumping up my program. The holidays are coming whether I like it or not, so I might as well be prepared. While each one is, “just another day,” the cumulative effect of the season, with its constant pressure to shop, travel and socialize—often with people whom I find challenging—is exhausting. I have to take care of myself.

For me, this means going to more meetings, talking to more sober friends and keeping my prayer and meditation routine on track. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. If I can go into the holidays (which according to Hallmark, now start on November 1st) in a good place mentally and spiritually, I have a better shot at getting through, and possibly even enjoying, the season.

When in doubt, I do service. One of the best parts of my recovery is my commitment to take a meeting to a locked-down detox/rehab facility one Saturday a month. That meeting is never more important to me than it is in November and December. There’s gratitude to be found in the opportunity to make the day a little easier for people who are likely not having their best Christmas. It’s also a huge reminder that if I don’t do the things I need to do in order to stay sober, I’ll end up right back in one of the detox beds I found myself in when I bottomed out. When I hear the door click behind me as I leave the unit each month, I’m thankful.

Doing service also puts perspective on the overblown emotions and resentments that tend to bubble up starting right around Thanksgiving. I’m upset about the fact that I have to drink seltzer and cranberry at my office holiday party? Maybe it’s time to make a phone call to the newcomer I met last week and see if she would like to hit a meeting and have a coffee. Maybe my problems aren’t the big deal they feel like in the moment. If I get out of my own head, I feel better every time.

I remind myself “No,” is a complete sentence. Being sober allows me to make choices every day, choices I couldn’t make when I was chained to the bottle and the mirror lined with cocaine. I get to decide whether or not to participate in the parties and other activities that surround the holidays. I first read that, “’No,’” is a complete sentence on the wall of a meeting. Now I use it all the time. A friend might ask, “Do you want to join a bunch of us for a holiday dinner at that place we used to go to?” While I might dress it up with, “I’m having a busy week,” or, “I’ve got too much on my plate,” the answer can still be, “no,” even if what’s on my plate is catching up on Homeland. I find relief in not feeling that I have to do anything other than take the next right action for me and protect my sobriety.

I’m not alone. For all of the craziness surrounding the holidays, it’s remarkable how easy it is to still feel alone. There have been years I found myself doing nothing but isolating as much as possible between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Sometimes I had put up a wall between the rest of the world and me and sometimes I just found myself without a lot of things to do.

The best years have been the ones where I’ve been able to find some balance. Yes, I have to show up to the office holiday party, but I can get there late and leave early. And no, I don’t have to go the New Year’s Day brunch if I want to catch up on sleep and watch movies. The only thing I have to do is to put first things first and not pick up a drink or a drug, one day at time. Now, where’s that pumpkin pie?

My 12 Steps: Step 5

This article first appeared on Addiction.com.

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

While those of us going through a 12-step program can talk through step five with anyone we trust, I chose my sponsor, as do many people in recovery. As a fellow alcoholic/addict, she seemed to be the person most able to understand the “exact nature of [my] wrongs.” In step five, the aim is to come clean about past transgressions, which could range from thoughtless petty actions to long-buried sordid secrets. It made sense in theory; I’d usually felt relief in getting things off my chest in the past. However, in the past it had not been these particular things, the most unappealing and unflattering facts about myself I had to offer.

The source material for my step five came from writing out my step four —“a searching and fearless moral inventory.” For that step, my sponsor had given me forms with columns on them that helped me to organize my thoughts and identify situations and patterns of my own behavior that were troublesome. At the same time, this exercise set forth in black-and-white the variety of problems I had created for myself and hurtful things I’d done to others around me. It wasn’t easy, but it was enlightening.

By the time I was done with step four, I was painfully aware of my “potential areas for improvement,” as I might have heard it put in a performance review at work. Less diplomatically said, it was time to ‘fess up all of the selfish, nasty and offensive behavior in which I had previously engaged.

Beginning the Work of Step Five

My sponsor lived in a high-rise building in New Jersey, straight across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I arrived at her place early on a Saturday morning armed with my step four forms for discussion, a giant wad of clean tissues and a full pack of cigarettes. I anticipated a long day. My sponsor was even more prepared than I was: She had ready a 12-pack of Diet Coke, two different kinds of SnackWell’s cookies and a back-up pack of cigarettes.

We started with the Serenity Prayer, which is how we always begin step-work sessions. Then she repeated something that she told me when we first started working together. It had given me great comfort at the time and I now say it to any new sponsee I start working with as well: “Remember,” she told me, “there is absolutely nothing you can say that will make me mad at you or judge you as a human being.” It’s a simple statement, but one that allows for complete soul-baring in a way that I just cannot do with other people. This has always been a centerpiece of sponsorship for me — the existence of this safe space to say anything, no matter how despicable-sounding.

We spent close to six hours that day not just going over the list of awful things I’d done and said in the past, but also digging into why I had done and said them. It’s different for everyone, but my particular motivations almost always traced back to the same fears and insecurities I had carried around since childhood. I did things like lying, backstabbing and pushing others out of the way to get what I wanted not because I thought I deserved what I was after. Rather, I learned, the opposite was true. I didn’t believe that I was good enough or deserving enough to succeed on my own merits, so I’d take what I could from someone else. Screw the other person. It wasn’t pretty stuff. A lot of it fell somewhere between inconsiderate and unforgiveable on the selfishness scale.

As promised, my sponsor didn’t chastise or criticize me for any of the things I admitted. In fact, she shared some stories of her own past that weren’t so different than mine. I also didn’t feel like I was being psychoanalyzed. It wasn’t a confession; it was a conversation.

By the time I headed back into Manhattan at the end of the day, I felt as if I had just crawled out from underneath a gorilla that had been sitting on my chest. The relief didn’t come solely from telling someone else all the terrible secrets I’d been hiding. It also came from getting some understanding of why I had done those things and what I could work on to avoid those actions in the future. At that point in my sobriety, I had come to care about what type of a person I was, something I never cared about when I was drinking and blaming the rest of the world for my problems. Step work was helping me change how I thought about things and, therefore, acted.

Step five helped to dissolve the deep-seated feeling of isolation that came with so much hiding and lying. We say that “we’re only as sick as our secrets,” and now mine were out there, shared with someone I could trust. It wasn’t exactly like the blast of opening a freshly shaken can of soda, but pressure I hadn’t been able to articulate before was relieved, finally.

The other big bonus I discovered is that if I need to find humility, step five will get me there fast. Nothing will stomp out any creeping feelings of self-importance quite as firmly as running down the list of things I did when I was drinking. And if I can find humility, I can stop trying to direct everything in my life and those of the people around me. All I have to be is a friend among friends and a worker among workers. So far, I have found no better things to be.

Three 12-Step Slogans That Really Should Exist

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON ADDICTION.COM.

Twelve-step programs are full of slogans meant to help people get and stay sober. When I first started going to meetings, I rolled my eyes at some of them: “Live and Let Live.” “Easy Does It.” “First Things First.” What? I thought. I just wanted to stop drinking and using cocaine. What did any of those slogans have to do with it?

Then, one of them stuck. For some reason, I decided to try staying sober “one day at a time.” Promising that I’d never drink again scared me. I didn’t know if I’d end up drinking the next week. But the idea of taking that decision on a daily basis, not a permanent one, was appealing.

Eleven years later, it’s still the same for me. I don’t think about never drinking again. I don’t say I’ll never drink again. I just focus on today. I find that if I do the right things on a given day, I choose not to pick up. I don’t have to worry about tomorrow; it will take care of itself.

While I have ended up finding most 12-step slogans helpful, if it were up to me, I might add a few more. Here are three of them:

  1. “Just Don’t Be a Jerk.”
    I heard this said years ago at a meeting and it stayed with me. The phrase is applicable in so many ways and in so many situations. I can think about it through working the steps. In step 3, for example, when faced with a difficult circumstance or person, I need to take the next right action and let go of the results. But what is the next right action? To get an idea, I can try to better understand my higher power’s will for me (step 11). Of course, I can’t know exactly what that will is, but I can take a pretty good guess at what it’s not – being a jerk to other people. If I follow that thought, even if things don’t turn out the way I’d hoped, the fact that I behaved in a sober way is something I can feel good about. 

  2. Laugh and Let Laugh.” 
    People in 12-step meetings share a lot of stories about things that happened to them, both when they were drinking or drugging and after they got sober. At first, I was amazed to hear some of the wildly embarrassing things people were willing to reveal. I was even more amazed to hear entire rooms break out in laughter in response to these stories — the storyteller included. At the heart of reveling in the dark humor gleaned from addiction, I believe, is empathy. I have never related to the words, “There but for the grace of God go I,” more than in 12-step meetings. I could have been the guy snorting coke off someone’s ass when his mother walked in. I could have been the girl who stumbled into her own surprise party having just wet her pants because she couldn’t make it to the bathroom. And I was the girl who packed high heels and push-up bras to go to a locked-down city detox because I thought I might seduce a celebrity there. It’s as if telling these stories — and being willing to laugh at them — takes away their power to shame us. Of course, many stories from our past are not funny. Tragedies and grief are certainly accorded the somberness they deserve in meetings. But if we couldn’t find humor in the situations that ultimately brought us to a place of humility, and if we couldn’t laugh with other people in the world who have been there, too, it would be a lot tougher to keep coming back.

  3. “Never Say Never.” 
    Before I got sober, I said I would “never” to a lot of things. Quitting drinking was at the top of that list. I assumed that if I didn’t drink, I would have to leave behind an entire litany of activities I enjoyed doing, but believed I only could do under the influence. Listening to music in clubs, taking a beach vacation, visiting Paris, attending parties and celebrating holidays would clearly be out because they mandated drinking. If I absolutely had to quit drinking at some point, I would become a hermit with activities limited to “Law & Order” marathons with my two friends, Ben & Jerry. Then I got sober. In time, I realized that almost all of these things not only could be done without booze, but many were better that way because they didn’t end in the shame, regret and scattershot memories that accompanied them when I drank. I admit that I still don’t love all of them. Parties aren’t my favorite things. But good times, like seeing a sober musician friend perform in an East Village club without feeling like I want to drink, far outweigh the bad. Then there are the things I do now that I couldn’t even imagine doing when I was drinking and drugging. I’ve hiked on glaciers in Patagonia, attended family Thanksgivings without embarrassing myself, made it past the 40th birthday I thought I’d never see and got married. And I write this blog. I will never say never again.

My 12 Steps: Step 1

This article first appeared on Addiction.com.

MY 12 STEPS: STEP 1

“We admitted we were powerless over
alcohol – that our lives had become
unmanageable”

The first time I read step 1, I was sitting on a hard plastic chair in the dayroom of the detox unit at a New York City psychiatric hospital. The words were at the top of a giant poster listing all 12 steps. I was in the middle of a five-day medicated detox from alcohol and cocaine and required to attend a 12-step meeting. My jaw hung slack, thanks to the Librium I had been given to keep me steady through withdrawal, and I couldn’t remember my last shower. Things were not going well.

Even in my haze, though, when I saw the steps I was aware enough to think, Oh, no. Not that. I had checked myself in two days earlier because I believed that if I kept going the way I had been, I would die. I just wanted to feel better, not join a 12-step program.

Before detox, I had been a high-functioning addict, doing well at my law firm and keeping friends and family in the dark about the extent of my using. They didn’t know that I had to drink to get out of bed each morning, or how much coke I put up my nose to counter the booze.

“Powerless Over Alcohol”

Sitting among my fellow detox patients, the sight of the 12 steps struck fear in me. Like many people I knew, I had strong, yet thoroughly uninformed, notions about 12-step programs based on a few third-hand stories and rumors I’d heard over the years. I self-righteously likened the program to a cult in which God was forced upon members who sat in the dark basements of churches, drinking bad coffee and complaining about their parents.

That morning, my eyes fixated on the words “powerless over alcohol.” What could that mean? Sure, I had drunk virtually every day for the past 10 years. I knew I had a “problem with alcohol,” and that I was “dependent on alcohol,” but “powerless over alcohol”? It seemed like a whole different level.

If I were “powerless” over alcohol, all of my plans to get my drinking under control on my own would be useless. Of course, none of the plans I’d tried in the past had worked. The plan to take a week off from booze, the plan to take three days off from booze, the plan to have just two drinks tonight, the plan to stop sneaking out of work at lunch to drink, the plan to stop drinking and using in the morning — all of these had failed. Could it be that alcohol was in charge and I actually had no power in this relationship?

I assessed my immediate situation. It was a Wednesday morning in early spring and I was in a psych hospital, not at work. All sharp objects had been taken away from me and my blood pressure was being taken every few hours to make sure withdrawal didn’t give me a heart attack.

The realization hit me in the gut. Just like the driver of a car speeding head-on toward me, alcohol dictated what happened next, not me. But maybe I still had time to turn the wheel of my car and get out of its path?

“Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable”

When it came to the second part of step 1, I thought, I’m managing my life. Well, OK, right now I’m on a detox unit, but otherwise, I manage just fine.

Then I ran through some facts of my life. For example, I used to pay all of my bills on time and keep a keen eye on my bank balance. Recently, however, a giant pile of unopened mail had sprouted on my kitchen counter as if I were a teen idol who couldn’t possibly keep up with all of the letters that poured in daily from fans. On visiting my place for the first time, a new friend asked me, “Did you just get back from a long trip?” I looked at him as if he’d inquired whether I was fluent in ancient Latin. He pointed at the pile of mail. I silently scolded myself for not having hid it in a cabinet.

And there were small details, too. Before my using spun out, I loved getting weekly manicures. Now I couldn’t remember the last one I’d had. I was too embarrassed to let the manicurist see my how my hands shook uncontrollably. I told myself that nail salons weren’t sanitary, anyway. Similarly, I had gone from putting together stylish outfits for work each day to grabbing whatever was least wrinkled at the bottom of my closet because nothing was clean. If it didn’t have a visible tear or glaring stain, I wore it.

I had never considered “unmanageability” in my life before. As long as I didn’t get fired or overdose, I thought I was “doing great,” which is the inane go-to phrase I used to describe myself to friends and family. In detox, I realized that maybe it was worse than that. If unmanageability meant attempting to handle ridiculous situations I created as a result of my drinking and drugging, then, I had to admit, my life had become unmanageable.

At first glance, I thought step 1 meant I was defeated by alcohol. But the truth was, admitting my problem and asking for help actually freed me to walk away from the constant battle to control my drinking. I saw a glimmer of hope that perhaps someday I could tell someone that I was “doing great” and mean it.

Surprising no one more than myself, that day I decided that maybe, just maybe, the other steps would be worth reading as well.

 

This is the first in a 12-part series of essays — one essay on each of the 12 steps — by talented writers writing on the step that meant the most to them.  Please check back every week for a new essay in the series.

If you completed some or all of the 12 steps we’d love to hear about your experience, too: Please share your comments below.

'No, I Didn't Join A Cult When I Got Sober'

This article first appeared on Addiction.com.

Shortly after I got sober, people in my life started saying they were worried — very worried — about me. Hands were wrung, questions were whispered, sidelong glances were leveled at me. What’s going on with Lisa? these looks seemed to say. What does she do at all those closed-door gatherings?

Their trepidation for me had nothing to do with my drinking or drugging, though. No, quite the opposite. My friends and family were concerned about the fact that I had started attending 12-step meetings.

“I’ve heard that AA is a cult,” various people told me. When I was still drinking, I would have said the same thing, despite having no evidence to support that statement. I couldn’t even tell you where I’d “heard” it. However, after spending five days in a locked-down detox facility, I found myself willing to listen at least to what the so-called “cult” people had to say. I did not want to go back to my old life of round-the-clock alcohol and cocaine use.

First Encounter with the “Cult”

At the first 12-step meeting I attended, I was wary but managed to raise my hand and introduce myself. Five or six women approached me after the meeting to say hello. One of them gave me a piece of paper with all of their names and phone numbers on it. They said I should call any of them any time if I wanted to grab coffee, go to another meeting or just talk. It wasn’t exactly a hard sell — more like a warm welcome.

So what was all the cult talk about? What is a cult, anyway? I checked the Oxford Dictionary, which gave three definitions for “cult.” This was the first one: “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” I quickly learned that the religious part of 12-step programs is entirely up to the member. You can be as religious or as secular as you like. Lots of people, including me, find a Higher Power of their own choosing that helps them to stay sober, but I can’t liken this to religious devotion. There is no standard, prescribed “God” in 12-step meetings. Personally, I haven’t had a religious transformation. I still start thinking months in advance of ways I can get out of going to temple with my family on Rosh Hashanah. And that’s OK.

Here was the second definition in the dictionary: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” I’ve already discussed that I wasn’t too worried about “religious beliefs,” so here I considered the word “practices” in a general sense. Since getting sober, my “practices” have included going from drinking vodka for breakfast to drinking coffee. My morning practices also changed from trying to save enough cocaine for later in the day to trying to quiet my mind with five minutes of meditation. In the evening, my practice of sitting on barstools with strangers changed to sitting in meetings with people who were living lives I respected. Not that strange, and definitely not sinister.

Here’s the third definition the Oxford Dictionary offered up for the word cult: “A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Some people point to the strict adherence to the words of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, AA’s founders, as the basis for calling AA a cult. But 12-step literature states that the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking.” Members don’t need to swallow every suggestion whole or express a devotion to the founders. In fact, the founders, knowing alcoholics’ and addicts’ penchant for defiance, encouraged people to try things their own way and if they found something better, to go that route. One of the best things I was told early on was “take what you need and leave the rest.” If I don’t like what I hear in any particular meeting, I can shrug it off and think instead about something helpful I might have heard. I’ve had personal trainers who placed more stringent requirements on me.

Despite all of this, I can see why the cult accusation might come up among those around me. Going to meetings, spending time with my sober crew and doing service for other alcoholics and addicts is a huge part of my life. Maybe others think that these are requirements of the “cult” — things only a brainwashed and vulnerable person would do.

But to me, these are the things that lifted me out of the gutter I was in and got me back on my feet when I thought that was impossible. Life has improved beyond recognition in the time I’ve participated in 12-step groups. It has nothing to do with being in a cult. It has everything to do with being able to make choices — choosing to go to a meeting, choosing to call a newcomer and, most of all, choosing not to pick up a drink — that help me stay sober one day at a time.

When I was using, my addiction dictated how I lived. My world was limited and I went where my addiction took me. (Hmmm, sounds a little like being in a cult…) But if I stay sober, my choices are endless. To me, that’s what freedom — the very opposite of cult membership — looks like.

‘C’mon, Do I Really Need a Higher Power?’

This article first appeared on Addiction.com.

When I read Step Two of the 12 steps, ‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,’ I let out a heavy sigh. We’re only at Step Two and they’re already hitting me with the God stuff? I thought. This whole 12-step thing might not be for me after all.

It wasn’t that I had anything against believing in God or a “higher power,” or whatever anyone wanted to call it. I just didn’t think I wanted to live my life with that higher power front and center. Whatever I believed or didn’t believe was private. I neither wanted to talk about it in a room full of strangers nor did I want to have to sit through listening to their views, especially if they were going to push one idea or another on me.

After only a few weeks sober, though, I realized that two major improvements had happened: I felt like a brand-new human being physically, and I stopped pretending that I was fine while secretly downing wine like it was post-marathon Gatorade. So I wanted to keep doing whatever it was that made me feel this way.

I decided just to listen for a while and see if the program was really going to center on this higher power stuff. What I heard surprised me. People were all over the map with how they viewed God, a higher power, or whatever they chose to call it. Several people said they didn’t believe in God. I didn’t hear anyone judge anyone else’s beliefs.

The specifics of what “a power greater than ourselves,” meant or looked like was a decision everyone made on their own. Yes, the 12-step literature refers to “God,” but that reflects what the founders of the program believed. No one has to agree with them on that to be a part of and stay sober in 12-step programs.

I’ve heard people refer to God as he and as she. I’ve heard people say their higher power is the 12-step group itself, which has helped to restore their sanity. I’ve even heard people say that their higher power could be a doorknob — it doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

How A Higher Power Helps Me

For me, a higher power can take different forms on different days. What I find most important is acknowledging that some kind of “power greater than myself” exists, meaning I don’t run the world. All I can do is take the next right action, try not to be a jerk and let go of what ultimately happens. I don’t get to dictate outcomes, for myself or for others. Once I accepted that and learned how to let go of the things I couldn’t control, a huge burden came off of me. The constant frustration of not getting what I wanted eased up. And I discovered that that kind of frustration was what had fueled a lot of my drinking and drugging. So this ‘belief,’ if that’s what someone wanted to call it, was helping me feel better in the moment and keeping me from needing the relief of alcohol and drugs. Not a bad deal.

In accepting that “a power greater than myself” existed, I didn’t sign up for a God program or any kind of religious practice. I gave myself permission to loosen my grip on the steering wheel of my life. I understand that a lot of people struggle with or reject the idea of a higher power. I get that and whatever works for them is great.

For me, choosing to accept a higher power has brought relief. When I considered myself to be in control of my life fully, I couldn’t put down the bottle or the coke. Since I started going to 12-step meetings and being open to a power greater than myself, I haven’t picked up either in more than 11 years. That’s all the proof I need. Whether in fact it’s rightly or wrongly placed doesn’t matter to me. I’ll take it.

Surprise! There Are Cool People at 12-Step Meetings

This article first appeared on Addiction.com.

The first 12-step meeting I attended was in a church in midtown Manhattan. Of course it’s in a church, I thought. I knew next to nothing about 12-step programs, but I felt strongly that they were full of sad people with boring lives, hoping to feel better through some intense, God-focused set of rules.

I was already going to outpatient rehab two nights a week following a detox stay for alcohol and cocaine addiction, but it was strongly suggested that I add 12-step meetings to my routine. I didn’t want to become a 12-step person, but I also didn’t want go back to life the way it was before detox. So I gave it a try.

I was sure that I was in the wrong room when I walked into that first meeting. I expected to see a bunch of crusty old men, mixed in with some social misfits who likely hadn’t seen the sun or cracked a joke in years. But what I saw was a group of average people, chatting and greeting each other warmly. Most of them were dressed nicely and seemed to be on their lunch hour, just like I was. This crowd could have been lifted from the waiting room at my dentist or a subway car at rush hour. They actually looked normal.

Warily, I took a chair at the back of the room and the meeting started. A pretty blond girl, probably in her early 30s, sat at a table up front and told her story. Her hair was in a glossy ponytail and her skin glowed. She talked about how grateful she was to be celebrating one year sober. One year! It sounded impossible. I had just a few weeks and I wasn’t sure I’d make it another day. But look at her, I thought. She’s a 12-step person. She’s talking about doing things like traveling, being with family and socializing with friends, all without drinking. And she’s happyabout it. She even joked about things that had happened in her past. Everyone else laughed along with her. Was I really in the right meeting?

It was a revelation. That woman – someone with whom I could identify — got better and built a great life through a 12-step program. I decided I’d keep going to these meetings, just to learn a little more. I realized quickly that many people in 12-step programs not only have gotten their lives back, they’ve expanded them, doing things they had only imagined before. They stand up in front of crowds and perform comedy in clubs. They run marathons. They write books and plays and movies. They even have children who grow up with sober parents. All things that seemed to me like pipe dreams.

When I was drinking and drugging, I met a lot of people who hung out in bars and talked about all of great things they were going to do: climb a mountain, get a new job or jet off to Paris. Then I’d see them the next night on the same barstool, not training for a climb or researching a new job, and certainly not jetting off to Paris. When someone in a 12-step meeting says they’re going to do one of those things, I’m pretty confident that it’s going to happen. It often does. And I get the chance to share in their excitement and achievement.

Of course, not every 12-step member is the model of sobriety or sanity. There can be some unsavory types around and it’s important to maintain boundaries. “Stick with the winners” was a helpful slogan to me early on. I found people whose sobriety and way of living I admired and I hung close to them. Another thing I liked about the “winners” was simply the way they approached their lives. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding gratitude in the small things and being honest with people changes everything. As soon as I got to know them, I wanted to spend more time with them. They were funny and supportive and walked through life with a whole lot more peace than I ever had. Now my 12-step friends include a wider circle than I ever expected; they are musicians, schoolteachers, cops, doctors, stay-at-home parents, journalists, lawyers, actors, corporate executives and more. Early in sobriety I went to a meeting with a sign in the front that said “You Are Not Alone.” It was right. I was with the cool people.

How to Get Over the Drinks That Got Away

This article first appeared on After Party Magazine.

As I sat in my poolside lounge chair at a hotel in Miami recently, my travel buddy walked up from the beach to join me. She held a clear plastic cup with some sand stuck to it. Empty of liquid, the cup had mint leaves clinging to its inside, along with a couple of sad-looking, dessicated lime pieces. “Mojito?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she replied with a shrug that might have meant, “but it wasn’t very good.”

I appreciated her tact, intended to counter any envy I might have felt as I sat there with my sun-warmed bottle of sparkling water. She was right to think that I might have been jealous, but it wasn’t for the reason she likely thought.

I wasn’t envious because she was able to have a drink while sitting on the beach and I could not. Instead, it was the mojito itself that sparked a twinge of regret in my brain. I never had one when I was drinking. What did it taste like? Was it strong? Was my life not complete without having poured that particular blend of liquids down my throat?

As an alcoholic, I feel like I should know what a mojito tastes like and probably even have a mojito story or two—that Fourth of July that I drank mojitos on a boat, or the time I got sick after the mojitos at that Caribbean restaurant downtown.

I’ve been sober for a little while, so the list of popular drinks I never tasted has gotten quite long. Some of these sound like cocktails I would have enjoyed—a lychee martini, for example. Some sound like they pack a new buzz—absinthe, in particular. And some sound flat-out disgusting, such as the Flaming Dr Pepper—a mix of rum, light beer and amaretto. It’s even socially acceptable now to drink wine poured from a screw-top bottle. (Although I understand it’s still not appropriate to drink said wine directly from said bottle, as I might have been inclined to do.)

Over time, I’ve gotten some perspective on the lure of these drinks. Every once in a while, like in Miami, I just have to remind myself of a few things.

First, these unexplored cocktails need to come off the pedestal I’ve put them on. I am susceptible to thinking that people out drinking mojitos are having more fun than I had when I was out drinking, simply because they’re drinking mojitos. But if I’m honest, for the last several years of my drinking, pretty much everyone I knew was already having more fun than I was, no matter what cocktail they held in their hands. Once my drinking shifted from social to necessary, the fun was over, mojito or no mojito.

One of the most annoying things people said to me when I got sober was, “Well, the party had to end some time.” Really? I would think. I don’t know what party you were at, but I haven’t had fun in years. All that was left at the end was compulsion, shame and misery.

The second thing I need to remember is not to fantasize about the taste of a drink I never tried. While I can easily picture a delicious explosion in my mouth when first tasting a French 75 (gin, Champagne, lemon juice and sugar), it’s not as if I ever would have sat there and sipped it or paused over the flavors. I would have swished it down as quickly as I was physically able.

What something tasted like was never relevant when I drank. The only questions I mulled over were: Cabernet or Merlot? Absolut Citron or Ketel One? Margarita on the rocks with salt or without? Sure, there was a casual nod to the specific taste of the drink I was about to have, but the important thing was just to get it in front of me.

And finally, I have to remember that the reason I never tried a mojito when I drank is that I just never ordered one. They aren’t a glamorous new libation. Mojitos were around back then. The truth is that I only ordered what I knew would give me the best buzz the fastest—straight up martinis and margaritas on the rocks with a floater shot were solid and reliable. Why would I have wasted a precious drink order on something that might be too sweet and possibly too weak to get the job done?

I don’t often mention my regret at not having tried a specific drink when someone else orders one, mostly because I bristle at the common response: “Ask the bartender to make it virgin!” It could be just me, but those words make me want to deposit my non-alcoholic drink over the head of the speaker. I drank virgin cocktails when I was eight years old and my parents took us to a “grown-up” restaurant for dinner. At this point in my life, I’d rather exchange the calories in a virgin banana daiquiri for a real dessert.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what rationale I use to get rid of my feelings about not having tried one drink or another, as long as I get rid of them. While my friend tossed out her plastic mojito cup, I straightened my head out:

No, I don’t get to try a mojito. I cannot drink safely. After one mojito, I would know what it tastes like, but one mojito would lead to two mojitos, then four mojitos and pretty soon I’d be asking the bartender if he knew where I could get some cocaine.

I have to remember that every day. If I do, I get to spend Saturdays like that one in Miami, feeling healthy, with someone I love. Just don’t offer me a Shirley Temple.