LEO's Sobriety Issue: Seven stories of sobriety for the new year


LEO’s Sobriety Issue: We love to drink, smoke but... put down that glass, ?blunt for a moment of ?self-reflection

It seems ironically subversive, maybe even canonically wrong, for LEO to write about sobriety, given our love of all things alcohol and all advertisers who sell alcohol on our pages. But who among us hasn’t thought at least once about how much they drink, or taken a break from the sauce (Dry January), or thought about slowing down? Especially with the new year.

And that is just the legal stuff. Opioids. Meth. Weed... We are a species prone to addiction, and only we can decide for ourselves when enough is too much.

Let’s consider alcohol, the most prevalent way to get loose. We know it isn’t good for you: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it causes about 88,000 deaths a year. But we also know that as with all things human, there are nuances and gradations overlaid on context when it comes to how we handle drinking. For instance, some studies also say light or moderate drinking may even be healthful. But what does that mean exactly?

Not every drinker is an alcoholic. And not every drinker who is not an alcoholic should continue drinking. Among the ways of figuring out where you are on the spectrum is to compare your... er, habits with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 definition of Alcohol Abuse Disorder. It says you have AAD if, in at least two instances in the past year, you:

— Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?

— More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?

— Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?

— Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?

— Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?

— Continued drinking even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?

— Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?

— More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area or having unsafe sex)?

— Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?

— Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?

— Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, racing heart or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?

Mild Alcohol Abuse Disorder is defined as two to three symptoms. Moderate covers four to five, and severe is six or more.

Should you quit or cut back? That is for you to decide. The above list provides some insight into alcohol use. The stories below are of people who answered the question for themselves about drinking and a few other, popular ways to lose sobriety. Check yo self.

Five stories of why and how people have sought sobriety

What follows are interviews with four Louisvillians who struggled with how they were living and whom they wanted to be. They are presented with minimal comment from me, but each story is pulled from much longer interviews, so they have been editing for length and clarity. Places of employment have been edited out, and full names are not always used.

Some struggled with alcohol, and some with other substances. The harder stuff may not be advertised in the back of LEO, but that doesn’t stop us from becoming addicted to it.

I guess I should say there actually are five people in the following article.... because, if there’s enough room, I’ll tell you a little bit of my story too.

My name is Eli. I’m an alcoholic. With the help of my higher power, good sponsorship and the love of my wife and my puppies, I have been sober for eight years, three months and 10 days.

M.A. is a 41-year-old small business owner. He didn’t have any problems with drugs. He quit drinking four years ago.

When did you start drinking?

I remember the first time I had alcohol I was like 6 years old, and it was kind of like the traditional sip of dad’s beer. In my family, my father never drank a lot. He’d have a drink with a meal. My grandmother would have a glass of wine, but I’ve never seen either one of them drunk. Drinking wasn’t a big deal.

When did it start being a problem?

I did the usual drinking in college, and then, after that, I’d kind of been seeing the same girl for a long time, and things went really bad, and I fell into a depression and started drinking just to. I was sort of...It was a crutch. Like, I’ll drink now so I don’t have to deal with reality. But as I got older, I kind of got hold of myself. But then, it started coming back?

How so?

The year before I decided to quit drinking, I had had a pretty major setback work-wise, to the point where I was potentially gonna lose my business. And we had a fair amount of financial stress. My grandmother had passed away. There had been a major falling out between my wife and my father. Just a lot of little things were not going well, and there wasn’t a place for me that I felt wasn’t stressful. And I noticed that I was using alcohol more and more as a crutch. And every night it was: Well, let me have one more so I can go to sleep, let me have one more so I can relax, and it was becoming a habit. It wasn’t: “Oh, I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner.” It was: “I’m going to have a few drinks so I can make this all go away.”

Did you think of yourself as an alcoholic?

No. I don’t think... That word gets thrown around a lot, and I don’t necessarily feel like I had ever had a physical dependency on alcohol, which in my mind is what an alcoholic is. But I realized I had an unhealthy mental dependency.

Was there a moment when you knew you had to stop?

Yeah, yeah there was. It was one of those things where alcohol stopped me from thinking of other people — how they felt, how it affected people around me. I clipped a signpost pulling out of a parking lot, and all of a sudden I realized, I saw outside of myself for a second. I realized that that could have been somebody, that could have been, you know — I could have had the kids in the car. I didn’t, but I realized everything I wasn’t thinking about.

Did you do anything to help you quit?

I did go to a counselor and talk about some of my depression issues, and got on a medication. I was on a medication that wasn’t working, so we switched up my medication, and my depression got better. I started reading some, I guess, self-help books about relationships and how to listen to other people, learning to communicate with your partner. So, I came around from the other end. Let’s fix the things that make me want to drink.

Eli: I’m bipolar. It’s hard to say it out loud. For a long time, I ran from that diagnosis, first by drinking it away, then by focusing on dealing with my alcoholism. But the truth is, in my opinion, people don’t start drinking because everything is OK. They start drinking because they are hurting.

Maybe it’s social anxiety.

Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance.

Maybe it’s a response to abuse or violence.

But getting sober and staying sober, for me, has had to include getting my underlying issues under control.

Erica Denise is a 35-year-old, successful, local theater practitioner, who also teaches theater. She has been sober for five years.

So let’s talk about your addiction.

I actually went away for 30 days, about five years ago, to a rehab facility. I got the same kind of confused, why are you here looks and stares of judgment. Like, was I really there for marijuana? You know, people were like, “That can’t be — marijuana is not bad for you,” or, “Why’d you come all the way to California to get clean off of that. You’re lying.” No, it was just marijuana that I was highly addicted to.

How’d you get started with weed?

When I was 16. It was social, and then I realized if I started to buy my own, I could get a lot higher, and I didn’t have to share. When I found that out, I started to seclude myself, and I became a recluse.

How old were you when you became reclusive?

I was around 21. I was 29 when I realized it was a problem. You just get so exhausted pretending. I was in the closest. No one knew. I like to think no one knew.

Your rehab used the 12-step program. Did you interact with the program after you got out of rehab?

I did. I even — I was going to start [the first] M.A, Marijuana Anonymous. I kept in contact with the counselor I met there, for a few months. And then I used journaling and tracking my thoughts to keep clean and sober.

What was it like after you got out?

For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to reach my dreams, or become the person I knew I should be unless I was able to get clean. For years, that would be my New Year’s resolution: stop smoking, stop smoking, stop smoking. I felt like once I was able to do that, everything would fall into place. And sure enough, not even four or five months after I got back from California, I started [working at a summer camp], and from that opportunity landed at my [current job in arts education]. I never thought I’d be able to work in the performing arts — never thought I’d be able to do a career that I love.

You recently performed a one-woman show about your struggles. Can you tell us about that?

I was hospitalized at age 21, and when I came out of that I just kept thinking, “I got to tell my story, I got to tell my story.” But I never had the outlet, never had the resources. Last January — I have this box that I put things that I want to happen in, like a manifestation box — last January I wrote down that I was going to do it. And then I put it out on Facebook. “Hey, if I did this show, would you wanna come to it?” It was over 200 people that said they would. So the very next day I went and got pictures made, and then I got a flyer done. I thought, “OK, this is going to hold my feet to the fire. I’ve gotta do it now. There’s a flyer out there now.” A month later, I was on stage doing my one-woman show.

Anything you really want to get on the record before we finish up?

It’s a daily process. I don’t believe that you’re ever fully recovered.

Eli: It took me over a year to get back on stage after I quit drinking, and it was a couple years before I started writing again. All my ego and self-hatred — it was all perfectly tied up in the arts. I knew I needed the arts in my life, but also knew I had to be stronger before I could tackle that challenge, but once I did, it came to mean everything to me. In my life, sobriety isn’t about taking away alcohol — it’s about all the wonderful things I can fit in now that my addiction is out of the way.

Chelsea is a 27-year-old part-time fitness instructor and part-time mom. She was addicted to pills and meth, but has been clean for five years. She occasionally has a beer or a glass of wine.

How did you get started with drugs?

I had a couple of surgeries in high school. They gave me Percocet 10 for that. My mom dispensed them to me as needed, but once I got to a point where I was good without them, she didn’t even think about it, and they sat in the cabinet, the rest of them. Because I got, like two full bottles. So then I was like, well, those made me feel good. It was probably a year or so after that that I got into the hard stuff. And as with anything it started off relatively slow. Like Loretabs, pain pills here and there. Then I got introduced to, what was it? I think, Oxycontin. Started using that, and then it got to a point where I became dependent on it. Once you get to that point your tolerance skyrockets. So that became a daily thing. Then, I found Xanax, and that was my drug of choice, especially when you have anxiety. I didn’t have to worry. I could go out and live in the world. It’s perfect.

Were you a pill popper or did you crush it an snort it?

Crush and snort. I had to. That was part of the whole ritual of it all.

How did college go?

I dropped out. Because of my anxiety. It wasn’t the drug use. I think that contributed to my drug use — it catapulted me further.

You said anxiety: Is that something you’ve been treated for?

I started seeing a therapist when I was 12 or 13 for anxiety and depression and stuff. I was given different medications and stuff that didn’t seem to work for me. Which is when I found the Xanax and stuff. I was like, well, this is what I need, not the bullshit Zoloft or whatever.

What made you want to stop?

Like most addicts, you go through recovery and then relapse. I think most addicts are going to have a period of relapse. My husband and I were living downtown and had really become secluded.

And your husband was using too, right?

He was an addict too, or is an addict, recovering. My husband was worse off than I was back then. And he had started stealing shit from friends and family. Just seeing him that way and knowing I’m gonna end up there made me quit. And I sort of did it cold turkey — moved out, went back home. My family still didn’t know. I started working at a pizza place. And this girl there could get Oxycontin. And I thought, just for old-times sake. That time it got way worse. I was like 22? And those people had access to meth. Then, I started stealing shit, just because I had a kid to support. All the money I made working had to go to her, so to get money to pay for my shit... I would take money from my parents. Steal from stores.

You had moved out of your parents’ and back in with your husband?

He was clean at the time. And we got back together. I hadn’t gotten to the meth by the time he came back. So he had no idea. Eventually, he found some shit in my purse. Like a Xanax. And he put it together. So the bomb dropped. And that’s when I was like: Fuck it. I can’t do this anymore. Again, I did it cold turkey. And that’s when I got into fitness.

But you drink sometimes?

Drinking was never an issue. When I stopped everything, I wasn’t drinking. I don’t know. One day I was like, I want a beer. And had one. And I didn’t need another one. Ever since then, I’ll have a glass of wine, or a beer or two. It never turned into an issue.

How long ago did you start drinking occasionally?

It’s probably been three years.

How big a part of your sobriety is the fitness stuff?

It’s way better than any medication. I did go to a psychiatrist for a while. Eventually, I got to the point where he was like, come see me in six months, and I’ll check up on you.

Eli: When I quit smoking, I started running. I thought it was for my physical health. But when I don’t run, or workout, I get weird. I get crazier. The natural endorphins I release fight my depression and slow down my whirling thoughts. It’s become integral to my happiness, but it’s still just one tool. To stay sober I need as many tools as I can get.

Damon Thompson is a 39-year-old artist. He’s an alcoholic and has been sober for six years.

You went to college and then discovered booze?

Yeah [laughs]. It doesn’t always happen in that order, but it did for me. I went, for one semester, to the Art Institute of Atlanta. I had a full scholarship, but took out loans, less to pay for books and more to pay for booze. I could come up with a lot of reasons I lost my scholarship, but it was a direct result of my staying up all night drinking and partying. I traveled the Earth, just hitchhiking for two years. Surprisingly, the drinking was... I wouldn’t have said I had a drinking problem at the time. It was just wanderlust. It was a roller-coaster life.

So you moved back to Louisville. When did your drinking start getting out of control?

It’s hard to pinpoint. It’s way before the most recent sobriety date I have. I had like... well... this is... it’s sort of hard to put on the record. I sort of had my called-out-by-friends, Weinstein moment for behaving like a total creep at a party. And the situation was, I had blacked out. I don’t remember it, but I have memories of others times I behaved badly. So yeah. I realized then, and I made stumbling attempts. I think that time I made it a year and half. I stopped drinking. But as I went on through my 20s, the times I was drinking heavily outweighed the times I was sober. I collected a stack of chips [from AA] and big books. And eventually threw it away and said, I’m going to go straight to drinking as heavily as I can and blot out existence. I started hitting heavier stimulants, so I could keep drinking longer. And 2011 is when I finally got to the point I knew I had to really give it a try, or get busy dying.

And did you go back to AA?

It’s hard to go on the record, because of...

The 11th tradition?

Yeah. And also I’ve seen other people only do half and do fine. I’ve seen people in the “marijuana treatment plan.” I’ve seen people go to a counselor and get their shit sorted out. I can’t diagnose somebody else, and I can’t tell you AA is gonna work for you, but, for me, it was the marching orders I needed, the simple plan I needed. And I went to counseling, which helped.

Was there anything that finally made you quit?

Right at the beginning of 2010, I found out from a girl I’d been on a couple dates with that she was pregnant. And I had been dating this other girl, and she calls me up, and she’s pregnant. So that happens. The first Christmas that comes along, I’m barely getting by, and this $170 I saved up to buy them presents, I spent it on cocaine and whiskey. And I wake up, looking at myself after this bender, and I’m like: This is not going to happen again. I can destroy myself. I can burn every bridge possible. But these babies are innocent and it just can’t happen like this.

Eli: The 11th tradition basically says AA members should stay quiet when it comes to the media. I got sober with AA, and I respect it more than I can say. The idea of the 11th tradition, and the feeling behind it, says that we stay quiet because we don’t want our personalities to keep anyone away from the program. I’ve struggled with it, and eventually came to the decision that a rule — not even a rule, a suggestion — written before computers, social media, cable TV, handheld phones, etc. can’t rule the way I engage with my addiction. In some ways it boils down to this: If you think you need help, but you think I’m a prattling asshole, don’t let it keep you away from the program.

But it’s also that I’m afraid I can’t ever capture in words how much sobriety means to me. I’ve added a couple of thoughts about my sobriety, just riffing on what the people here are talking about. But if I can’t really capture sobriety importance, am I betraying it by writing about it?

Am I betraying other people who need to get sober? Betraying them by not finding the right words?

Here’s the thing: Every person in this story had a moment when they knew, for themselves, that they had to get sober. It wasn’t a court order. It wasn’t an intervention. They realized they had to pick between hope and death, and they picked hope.

If you need help, get it — in whatever form works for you.

God and Flossing

Many don’t realize it’s hard work being an alcoholic.

Trying to remember all the stories you tell and the creative perspectives can be tough. Why did I withdraw that cash? Why was I late? Where did I leave my phone this time? Why did I neglect that responsibility? There are so many unwanted opinions to share and judgments to pass. For me, I was lucky. I wasn’t burdened with a relationship with God. Although I did have the responsibility of removing myself from pesky tasks that didn’t apply to me. Like flossing.

Weird as it may seem, much of my drinking life revolved around God and flossing, stuck in the orbit of one deeply-rooted emotion — fear. Raw, often unfounded, debilitating fear. While unique, much like every other alcoholic, I would drink because I didn’t know how to cope with inconsequential things such as life or family. But eventually I drank for so long I became terrified to stop. I lived in fear of consequences. So I invented a mindset that created loopholes for me to operate outside of the rules. Take flossing — a normal person would just do it. An alcoholic like me — well I would put it off until my next cleaning. Then, I would obsess about not doing it.

Are my teeth going to fall out? Is there a disease such as teeth cancer or something? There’s no doubt I have it. I bet my drinking caused it. What if I have to cut back or even stop drinking? Oh God, please let me still be able to drink.

This is where spirituality would appear in my life. It was right where I left it — in the waiting room of the dentist office. Cue the scat prayer negotiation: God, if you cure me (from my still-undiagnosed tooth lupus) I’ll start flossing again. I’ll stop drinking. Wait, no I won’t. I want to be genuine with my sacrifice. I won’t drink today. Wait, yes I will. I deserve to celebrate if I do recover. I’ve been through a lot, you know. How about I pray a lot, or some? More, I’ll pray more.

Negotiations would begrudgingly continue.

This clumsy dance would happen a couple times a year, usually in the waiting room. And just like any self-created crisis, it was totally avoidable. Just floss. Easy enough, right?

No. I was special. Different. Things were much harder for me. You wouldn’t understand.

And that’s the story I told myself. For 14 long years.

It wasn’t until I started to get sober did I realize I couldn’t do things on my own, and there were things I didn’t have to do on my own. I invited my spirituality to finally escape the waiting room. Flossing works only if you floss. Spirituality only works if you try. I no longer had to make things so complicated. I accepted the fact it wasn’t a weakness to ask God for help. I no longer had to wait for something as silly as flossing to try to form a relationship with my understanding with God.

One of the biggest misunderstandings I have as an alcoholic is the misconception that I’m in control. There’s a burden and responsibility there that for some reason I have to fix, manage and control all the details around me. Once I came to the realization this show was not mine — I could finally enjoy how beautiful this life can really be. Cheesy, I know. Hopefully, you’re not lactose intolerant.

As of today, I’m 382 days sober. This has been the happiest I’ve been in ages. I’m not perfect. But the life I live is so much easier now that I don’t have to keep up with the burden of hangovers, whom did I piss off, or what did I forget to do this time.

Believe it or not, I even occasionally floss today.

I no longer know what the big deal was about.

All I had to do was try it. One day at a time.

Holier Than Thou

To start my Jesus Year — 33 y’all! — off in a place of serenity, I decided to temporarily step back from the bottle this past holiday season. I don’t weather my feelings well any time of year, but I’m particularly bad at it in the winter when everything is dark and gray and cold. Booze then becomes a conduit for my emotions in the form of public crying and drunk dialing. This is an aspect of my personality that I haven’t necessarily embraced, but I have come to terms with it over the years. Or, at least, I thought I had.

Finally, in my 30s, I’ve begun getting hangovers. And something about suffering through the physical manifestation of a night of excess was giving me what Dr. Google diagnosed as “Hangover Anxiety.” Fun. While the headaches and nausea only stayed a day, the anxiety kept me awake for several nights in a row and made me feel embarrassed about my behavior, even if I hadn’t behaved in a particularly embarrassing manner. It was just the fact that I’d done it again: drank too much.

My six-week stint in sobriety, gave me some peace from all the self-reprimanding I’d been doing. And I’ve found, at least in my social circles, that people don’t care as much when you’re in your 30s if you’re not getting shit-faced along with them. Peer pressure now comes in the form of people wanting you to go on trips together none of you can really afford. My self-imposed booze ban ends now, but I won’t be headed into 2018 acting all sanctified because the biggest lesson I learned while drying out, is that it’s a whole lot easier to say no to one than it is to say no to one more.