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25 Years Clean & Sober

It started with making a decision. Read the story below that I submitted to be published in the 5th edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous.

The single most important event of my entire life occurred on February 1, 1999. I was twenty-two years old. From the outside, it didn’t look like a momentous occasion. I sat in a church meeting hall listening to a man talk, then made a decision to get up out of my chair, walk to the front of the room, and receive a plastic poker chip.

Of course, it was much more than that. I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous speaker meeting. As I listened, I compared the speaker’s drinking history to my own. I couldn’t relate at all, really. He was much older and had lost little due to his drinking. But I could identify with his thoughts and emotions, the obsession around drinking and the shame and regrets.

At the end of the meeting, chips were given to celebrate people’s time sober. They first offered a white chip to those wanting to stop drinking or return after a relapse.

I was no stranger to AA as I went to my first meeting at seventeen. I had no plan to be sober again. It was purely family and legal pressures that led me there that night.

Yet when the white chip was offered, it felt like some outside force got me up out of my chair and to the front of the room where I received a chip and a hug. This was the beginning of a spiritual awakening that has never truly ended.

I made an equally impactful but detrimental decision to take my first drink at age fourteen. That drink seemed to fill a hole inside I didn’t know I had. It was another sort of spiritual awakening. My heart lit up, my soul felt a glimmer of bliss. From then on, my life centered around chasing that feeling.

In two years’ time, I found drugs and my love affair with escaping reality became more serious. Everything took a back seat to this single most important motivator of my young life: to never experience one waking moment sober.

The progression of my disease was frighteningly fast. I quit sports and my grades fell. I changed friend groups to spend time with people who drank like me – not just timid teenage experimenters, but other more serious drinkers.

I now had a reputation of being a crazy party girl and I liked it. Before I started drinking, I was a nobody. Now I was interesting. Boys finally started to notice me.

Sneaking out, getting caught, failing classes, school suspensions followed by expulsion at age seventeen – my life resembled a good-girl-gone-bad after-school special. I got arrested for shoplifting. I totaled my car while drunk and lied about it to both parents and police. No consequence was big enough to make me consider stopping. I was driven by the desire to escape myself through alcohol and drugs. Nothing else mattered.

My desperate parents first sent me to a psychiatrist, then the local rehab, but I lied about my habits and avoided an admission. They put me in therapy instead.

All of their efforts to control me failed: curfews, grounding, nailing the windows shut that I would sneak out of, tracking the mileage of the car when I used it, forbidding me to hang out with certain friends.

Finally, they searched my room and found enough evidence of my drinking to take drastic action. Three weeks after the start of my senior year of high school, they sent me to a thirty day inpatient rehab center.

I welcomed the experience, seeing it as a vacation from the daily grind of trying to live every moment either drunk or high, or both. It was also exhausting trying to hide what I was doing from my nosy family.

During my first official AA meeting in the rehab something clicked when I heard Step One read aloud. The words “…that our lives had become unmanageable,” echoed across the room and reverberated in my mind. Here was the perfect description of my life. The first part of Step One, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol,” I was not totally sold on yet. For drugs, yes. Alcohol would take a few more years.

I got out of rehab and my parents threatened sending me to a long-term treatment center if I got into any more trouble. I lasted three weeks before being sent away again. This time I got caught sneaking out on a school night, stealing the car, and coming home drunk at five in the morning. I just couldn’t not do it, no matter the threat of consequences.

The new rehab hundreds of miles from home was the opposite of the country-club cakewalk I had just experienced. This religious treatment center, exclusively for teenagers, used military brainwashing and penal-style punishment to rehabilitate its patients.

There was no option to leave as I was still a minor, so I complied and did the best I could. By the time I turned eighteen and became a legal adult, I had had enough treatment that I remained there voluntarily until my graduation almost a year after admission.

The treatment center’s aftercare program included going to AA meetings twice a week. I went almost daily. I got a sponsor and worked the Steps. I was happy in my sober life and was fully aware I was a hopeless alcoholic and could never safely drink again. I had a working relationship with a higher power personal to me that I prayed to and was the most important thing in my life.

I moved back home and immersed myself in AA there. I got a new sponsor, new friends, and a home group.

Naturally, life didn’t stop just because I was sober. My parents announced their separation after twenty-one years of marriage. I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible.

I got a job and picked up smoking cigarettes again after being forced to quit in treatment. I made a decision to take myself off the medication I had been prescribed. I started looking around meetings for a boyfriend and found one who was not sober, and only there to make it look good for his upcoming court case. These happenings, along with still recovering from the experiences in the treatment center, were all clues of what was to come: relapse.

The mental obsession that preceded the first drink started with resentment and self-pity. In treatment, I came to realize that I was responsible for all the consequences I endured as a result of my alcoholic unmanageability. But as the insanity returned, I started blaming my parents. They were the reason I’d had so many problems. They were too strict. If they would have just let me be, if they would have been like other parents who let their kids party, I would not have had so many problems.

I had eighteen months sober and was seven months out of treatment when I made a decision to deliberately relapse. My new boyfriend from the meetings did not want any part of it and broke up with me. This gave me more fuel for the big blowout I had planned. The minute I drank, the craving for more was activated. I went on a three-day binge. It felt like the entirety of my sobriety hadn’t existed. I knew that I was not just going to magically revert to being sober after the binge and that I was buying back the entire lifestyle of my active alcoholism with that first drink. But I did it anyway.

I had to hide all this from my family so I tried to stop, and found it impossible. I just didn’t have it within me. It was madness! How could I have gone eighteen months and now I couldn’t go eighteen hours? I now know the reason: the mental obsession coupled with the physical allergy that is exclusive to alcoholics caused the craving for more to awaken. Despite all I had learned in treatment and AA, I didn’t understand this at the time. I just knew I was an alcoholic.

After I relapsed, everything fell apart. I became homeless, jobless, and moneyless. I pawned my one possession of value – a guitar I had bought with my babysitting money when I was fourteen. I got a job as a car detailer. Out of pity, the owners let me live in the room that the car floor mats were stored in as I had nowhere to go. Every moment was agony. I was nineteen.

At times, I would reflect back on my life when I was sober and my heart would shatter. One of the worst parts was feeling disconnected from my higher power. I thought god was disappointed in me and didn’t want anything to do with me. I had been given a gift of sobriety and consciously threw it away. I did not deserve love or forgiveness from anyone, especially my higher power. I was totally alone.

Going back to AA was not an option. It felt like an impossible goal, like trying to flap my arms and fly to the moon. I managed, numbing the pain of existence by being under the influence of something… anything… at all times.

I reconnected with the guy from AA who had dumped me and we moved away together, my first geographical cure. In the time since we had broken up I had had many flings and drunken one night stands. Enough so that I was afraid I had contracted HIV yet I would not get tested. I kept this secret deep inside.

The fear did not go away, it only grew as my mental health deteriorated and my alcoholism progressed. The longer I tried to ignore it, the more the fear metastasized in me, poisoning my perception of reality. I lived in a world colored with a fear that my deluded mind had turned into a fact. That fear drove my thoughts, decisions, and actions. I couldn’t drink enough to douse the dread that became my constant companion. I was drinking daily and throwing up every morning. It became normal to wake up and throw up.

From this place of self-centered fear, I made a decision to end my life. I initiated a pathetic scheme and ran away across the country, hoping I would just die somehow. No one knew where I had gone. I later learned my family had plastered missing posters around town, registered me with the police as a missing person, and hired a private investigator to try and find me. All those efforts failed.

If anyone would have been able to see what I had been doing, they would have witnessed me living in assorted daily-rate motels by the side of lonely freeways with near-strangers in darker depths of the disease than I was. Gangs, guns, and plenty of run-ins with police were the norm. Finally, I got arrested and went home to live with my mother.

Each time I thought I could not feel worse or hate myself more, I found a new and creative way to hit bottom. Moving home was the equivalent of waking up alive after a suicide attempt: utter disappointment. I was not supposed to be alive. That was not a part of the plan.

I got a job at a nearby pharmacy that I immediately began using as my personal medicine cabinet. I arrived home from work one afternoon and collapsed on my bed. I just couldn’t go on. I prayed the prayer of the desperate person who had absolutely nothing left, no straws to grasp or hope to find: God, please help me. I can’t stop. God, please make me stop.

A few weeks later, I made a decision to steal a bottle of pills with a plan to sell them and fund yet another geographical cure. In a random search of my bedroom, my mother found the pills and told my father, who called the pharmacy. My foxhole prayer was about to be answered.

I got arrested on federal drug charges and was put in jail as I could not afford bond. A positive pregnancy test confirmed what I knew to be true – that the drunken New Year’s sex that I’d had weeks before did result in me getting pregnant. I called the baby’s father collect and told him the news that he would need to pay for the abortion as I had no money.

I got out of jail and moved back in with my mother who insisted I must go back to AA. I was out of options so I agreed. Days after my release from jail and then having an abortion, I went to the AA meeting that changed my life forever.

That meeting had been on a Monday. I went to a meeting every day that week and it was now my first Friday night sober.

Cravings for alcohol gnawed at me. The meeting that night didn’t help. I drove to a gas station afterwards with a plan to buy alcohol. I just wanted the cravings gone.

When I parked my car, I had a moment of clarity. I paused before I opened the car door and two distinct paths came into mind. The first was of me going into the gas station for beer, and then drinking it in my car. I knew it would bring immediate relief, and yet, I also knew that with that one sip, I would be buying back all the pain and hopelessness that I was now five sober days away from.

The other path I saw in my mind’s eye was of me making a different choice. It led me to the nearby payphone to reach out for help. Beyond that was a hazy unknown, unlike the certainty of alcoholic destruction that awaited me on the other side of that gas station purchase.

I made a decision. I got a quarter, went to the payphone, and dialed a number from an AA women’s phone list. An answering machine picked up. I don’t remember if I left a message, but it didn’t matter. When I hung up, I went back to my car and drove home. The next morning I woke up grateful and hopeful. This had been the first time in my life I had desperately wanted to drink, and did not. I felt renewed strength and connection to my higher power.

This early victory paved the way for me to string together days that led to weeks, months, and years of sobriety. There were many moments where I had to again make a decision to say yes my higher power’s will for me to stay sober and no to drinking. Each time I did, it made the next time easier. It took thirty long days for the alcohol cravings to leave.

I got a sponsor my first week sober and we started into the steps. I was terrified of the possibility of having to confess the secret HIV fear that still plagued me.

My sponsor and I prayed the Step Three prayer together to turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power. In addition to staying sober, this decision enabled me to do many things that seemed impossible. One happened soon after as I worked on my fourth step inventory. I ended up scribbling my secret down out of nowhere.

My Step Three decision gave space for my higher power to do for me what I could not do for myself. I told myself that writing the secret down was good enough and that I did not need to tell my sponsor. I imagined if I did disclose it, she would likely react with shock, disappointment, and disgust.

When we later met for my fifth step, I surprised myself by blurting out my fear that I had HIV and given it to my ex-boyfriend and others. Again, my decision to turn my will over to the care of god demonstrated itself in this sudden willingness to do the hard thing - that was the right thing. Her reaction was one of love and acceptance. Although she suggested I get tested, she didn’t make me do anything. I left that experience floating on air, the crushing burden finally released.

It took a few months for me to gather the courage to finally get tested. My sponsor went with me to get the result. It was negative. The relief was indescribable, but then remorse for all that stemmed from my self-centered fear threatened to renew the self-loathing that had slowly been healing. I had to learn to live with myself and own my actions.

I continued with my step process, making amends wherever possible to all those I hurt and wronged. There were many. The Ninth Step promises were coming true, but I didn’t believe it was possible for me to “not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it,” as it says on page 84 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. That promise was slow to materialize.

My entire first year of sobriety was a gradual but continual spiritual experience. I finished the Steps in that time and did my best to live the principles of AA, however imperfectly. So much was different in my life both internally and externally. Outwardly, I had stability in my living situation, job, family, and friendships. Inwardly, I had a relationship again with a higher power that I prayed to daily. I began to feel self-esteem due to starting to live in integrity. I felt peace a lot of the time. I was unrecognizable from the past version of me, and so was my sober life.

I had once heard a speaker in an AA meeting say that if they had written a list when they were new in sobriety of everything they wanted in their sober life they would have sold themselves short. The same is true for me. My aspirations for my life when I got sober were for a studio apartment and a dependable car. Nothing more. Looking back over the decades I have lived sober, I would have sold myself dramatically short if that was all I received.

I live a life I would not have been able to fathom in my active alcoholism or even early sobriety. I have spent the past ten years living around the world and have had the joy of finding the fellowship everywhere I go. I would never have been able to manage the details of international living and travel if I was still drinking, much less have the finances to do so.

I am living on borrowed time. I know without a doubt I would have died a disastrous alcoholic death years ago had I not gotten sober. My life today is built on the foundation of the continued decision to let my higher power work through me to keep me from taking a drink, as I, on my own, have no power or control over alcohol. I will never be able to repay AA for giving me a life lived sober and free, but I can do my small part to help others in their own recovery process. I have a passion and commitment to working with other alcoholics, and I am uniquely qualified - as are all AA members - to do so because of my own lived experience. I’m deeply grateful I have continued to make a decision to say yes to my god, to life, and to AA.


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