It’s a little tough to make out, but the cracked and worn clay poker chip that accompanies this post commemorates “1 year” of continuous sobriety.
It was passed along to me by a dear friend who had found his way into recovery fourteen or fifteen months ahead of me. He’d picked it up at the “Tuesday Downtown” meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in San Francisco, one of the longest running meetings in one of the hardest drinking cities in the United States. I hung on to this talisman; carried it in my pocket for several years. Then, as you can see, the wear and tear cracked it in two. Since then, it has resided in a place of honor in my late Dad’s jewelry box, along with the cuff links and tie tacs I never wear. It means my life to me.
I’m sharing it with you tonight because today (January 16, 2018) I celebrated 36 years of continuous sobriety. That’s more than half my life and it has, in so many ways, made all the difference.
Look, I enjoyed more than my share of opportunities before I turned 31 to be present with exceptional people for remarkable events. One of the primary motivations for doing this blog is to pass along some of those stories while I still can. But here’s a thing that was true for me: I was never able to fully participate in those remarkable events because I carried so much of the classic alcoholic baggage with me.
I was always working so hard to keep the front up; to be “cool” enough, knowledgeable enough, useful enough. It was all an effort not to be found out for the fraud I believed myself to be. You could say I had some self-esteem issues (one of these days we’ll have to talk about what growing up in an alcoholic household and having to guess at what “normal” looks and feels like does to a child’s sense of self).
So, by the time I found myself trying to get a grip on what life might look like without drinking and using drugs — desperately wondering whether such a life was even possible for me, I had pretty well torn through all aspects of what most might consider a “normal life.”
And yet, I hadn’t overdosed (yeah, a few close calls); I hadn’t drunk myself to death (that sort of “suicide on the installment plan” takes a lot longer than you might imagine). So, I was pretty much at the end of my rope.
Fortunately for me, I fell in with a loosely confederated gang of folks in Santa Cruz County who, much to my surprise, seemed to be a lot like me in many respects. And yet they somehow seemed to have found a way to live, even enjoy the hell out of themselves, while not taking anything. I was intrigued to say the least.
And these folks (at a time when not many people were happy to see me coming any more) were willing to open their hearts and their lives to me, and show me how they were managing to pull this off. Virtually all of ’em had harrowing tales to tell of their “old lives.” Sometimes physically dangerous, sometimes just stories of living in that dark and desperate state of soul-sickness that no drink or drug can cure.
One of the things they taught me (a bit by talking about it, mostly by example) was a way of approaching life that meant confronting one’s demons and secrets, going to whatever lengths where necessary to make peace with them, and sharing that process both with fellow travelers and with those coming up the road behind us.
We live out loud and we pass it on, because that is what we do. It is what we MUST do to survive. An earlier generation of folks in recovery had been much more circumspect about such things. But by the time I stumbled through the door, a new sensibility was taking hold. One which was committed to acknowledging feelings and actively working to heal.
I’m talking about this in particular because word came this week that one of the pioneers of this more freewheeling approach has died.
This guy was a reasonably successful “medium big deal” out there in the outside world. Lived in Southern California and worked as a professional screenwriter. Any number of TV shows and films you watched and enjoyed if you’re “of a certain age” came out of Bob’s typewriter.
But Bob was a deeply damaged human being. He’d had an upbringing that made my alcoholic family look like Ozzie and Harriet. And he had generated plenty of chaos, and frequently behaved like an first class asshole, in adulthood. The man had serious demons to excise.
And as he did what he had to do to find his place to stand in sobriety, he by god told everybody around him about his process. He couldn’t help it. Storytelling was in the man’s blood. As a result, Bob E. had a hell of an impact within the recovery community. By dumb luck and happenstance, I’d fallen in with a mentor in recovery who had, in turn, been mentored by a man (another writer) who’d been Bob’s best friend for a number of years.
So Bob’s brave journey through the fires had a direct influence on how I came to understand what living sober looks like, and his hard won wisdom was passed from mouth to ear in a direct line.
But Bob had a significant, even life changing effect on thousands who didn’t enjoy that direct connection. Because he was so good at telling a tale, and because his message was in many ways a radical departure from what had come before, he was invited to speak at gatherings large and small across the country. And recordings (remember cassettes?) of many of those speeches were passed from hand to hand, copied and recopied like the most rare and transcendent Grateful Dead shows got shared around between Deadheads.
So, I’m 36 years clean and sober, Bob Earll is dead and gone, his dear friend Tom (coming up on a half-century of recovery himself) is on the other side of world, grieving a loss as intense (if not more so) as any blood family and staying close to many of us who love him through the mysterious magic of the internet. And we, those of us in recovery, continue to do our best to hold each other up, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Because that’s what we do. As best we can.
Edit: A handful of “morning after” edits for typos and word flow. 2018.01.17