Friday, January 17, 2014

Ninety Days

90 days sober, we meet again.

I don't know, it's strange. If you would have told the collegiate version of myself that in only a couple short years I would voluntarily abstain from alcohol for ninety days, I would have scoffed at the notion - and then I probably would have cranked up the Billy Joel and poured myself another bottom shelf whiskey cola. At the same time, deep down I think I knew the day would come. On some subconscious level I always suspected that I had the soul of an alcoholic; instinctively I knew, too, there was an underlying reason that I connected on an almost spiritual level with the written word of Kerouac, Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, Malcolm Lowry, Frederick Exley, Scott Fitzgerald, et. al. I just didn't know the day would come so soon. But I guess that's the way life goes: things never turn out quite the way you planned.

The popular notion of getting clean suggests that the road is all sunshine and roses; most rehab commercials will tell you as much. Unfortunately that's a painfully inaccurate and incomplete portrait of the reality of putting down the bottle, the blow, a bottle of pills, or whatever your drug of choice happens to be. There's a long and correlatively trying period of post acute withdrawal symptoms, which I've been wrestling with these three months.

There is serenity in bits and pieces, yes. There's peace in knowing I don't need to have a bottle handy on Sunday morning to combat the utter depression wraught by the comedown of another binge. There's relief in that I don't have to suffer through another grueling spin on the haunted merry-go-round of Sunday morning coming down, leveling out in a matter of days, picking up the glass again on Friday, and then visiting the desolate Hell of withdrawal on Sunday while I curse my failures, feeling like a terminally ill shadow of a man straight out of a Van Gogh painting. There's the strange, incomprehensible satisfaction that I do in fact have something in common with the characters within the Kerouac and Hemingway books that adorn my bookshelves - that it wasn't just hero worship after all - which is really just an elaborate way of stating that there's resolution in no longer having to struggle with the issue of whether or not I am an alcoholic.

But there's also boredom by the boatload. There's the nagging knowledge that my friends are out painting the town red, or Up North partying til' dawn (as they are this weekend), or celebrating New Year's Vegas style (as they did a couple weeks ago) while I sip Diet Coke over a movie and ponder what I'm missing out on. There are acute spikes of depression, the monster that visits when the sun goes down. There's lack of identity because for so many years alcohol played a vital role in shaping my identity. There's constant physical lethargy, accompanied by the concern for when I will ever regain enough energy to finally get out and start this sober life and search for that missing identity. There's the anxiety that no woman would ever want to date a boring old teetotaler, which I know is false but fear it anyways perhaps because only a year ago I wouldn't have even considered dating one myself. There's feeling out of place - which is a dangerous feeling in recovery - at some AA meetings amongst the poor souls who have fallen much farther than I and have gone and drowned every last meaningful component of their lives in a perpetual whiskey tumbler. There's the bewitching albeit mostly baseless premonition that I've let those closest to me down. And alas, there's the one thing that haunts me most: the past, that treacherous memory of yesterday, always lurking over my shoulder like a grim reaper of yesteryear, ready to pounce at an unsuspecting moment's notice. There's fear that I will drink again, even if that's an important fear to maintain. And there's unhappiness. And there's pills for the unhappiness that never seem to work.

Self-pity aside, what matters is that today I am 90 days sober. It's the second time I've been 90 days sober in a span of nine months; it was right about this benchmark in the journey during that first go-round that I began to falter. I didn't want to be an alcoholic, thought maybe I merely needed to rearrange the puzzle pieces, convinced myself I wasn't an alcoholic. Whatever the reasoning, I drank again. And I found myself rather rapidly back in alcoholic waters, desperately treading to keep my head above those whiskey-colored waves. Today I don't need that morning shot of vodka to extinguish a bonfire of nerves. Today I don't need to take that five mile walk in a withdrawal-induced fog because it's the only thing short of a pint that would keep the anxiety at bay. Today I don't have to look at the trees along the trails of my childhood and plea to them that my soul feels physically sick - truly sick - as Kerouac did in the Northern California woods amidst a losing battle with the bottle. I needed all those things 90 days ago. I did all those things 90 days ago.

Above all else, there's a light at the end of the tunnel, always Spring life at the close of Winter's gray doldrums, ever a new dawn waiting at the end of even the darkest of nights. I see it in the faces of my role models in this journey called recovery. I see it in Brian McGrattan when he pulls on that Calgary Flames sweater and when he sits down with the Hockey Night in Canada crew afterwards to discuss without hesitation how bad things got during his own bout with alcoholism. I see it in former Drive By Truckers frontman Jason Isbell and in Southeastern, the inspired and forthcoming album he wrote after accepting his own alcoholism and getting clean. I see it in Jordin Tootoo when he steps onto the ice at the Joe, alcohol free, sober for his younger brother who couldn't get sober and took his own life. I see it in the ink on the pages of recovery memoirs, whether it be nameless addicts such as Carolyn Knapp or JR Moehringer or larger-than-life icons such as Stephen King or Johnny Cash or Christopher Kennedy. I see it in the pages of Big Sur, Under the Volcano, and Tough Guy, too - tragic written accounts of losing this battle - because they remind me which direction the other trail leads. Most palpably, I see it in the battle-tested faces of men surrounding me at AA meetings - men who have overcome grave demons to make names for themselves as lawyers and plumbers and everything in between, who have persevered to start healthy families, who have left tragedies greater than I can fathom in the past, who have fought the internal war and emerged victoriously to find happiness, at long last, that ever-elusive thing called happiness.

Tomorrow is 91 days. And I don't want to take that ninety-first day for granted this time.


  1. Congrats Zach!
    Was Keith Richards book any good? I saw on Goodreads you've read it, I just picked up the audiobook as something easy to listen to when I commute to and from work.

  2. Eh, it was alright but I wasn't all that impressed. It was a direct recommendation from Dan, though, so that might give it some bonus points.

  3. Powerful stuff! Congrats on 90 days and on your continued sobriety.

    As a teenager I put so much stock in creation while being fucked up and it shows in my early work. Looking back I think "Was I stoned?" yes I was, and much worse.

    A girl I was seeing, and who will hopefully become my wife someday soon said to me "You know, all those guys you worship died alone". It blew my mind. Thompson had his friends, but in reality he was mostly alone in the end and that's sad as hell.

    I'm working on my own blog right now, I'd love some feedback.

    1. Much appreciated. Will certainly give your blog a look.

  4. Not sure I made a good decision with this Keith Richards audio book, 20 discs of Johnny Depp talking in his Jack Sparrow voice will be tough to get through...