What I wish I’d known – a guest post by Robert

The thought of being 30 years sober makes me feel a little giddy, dizzy even. How does one stay sober that long? Does it have to involve meetings? Is relapse still a threat? Do you even still think about being sober anymore?

Robert, who blogs at the wonderful, wisdom-filled Process Not An Event, shares candidly about his recovery process and some of the most important things he’s learned in nearly three decades of sobriety. 

This August I will be sober for 30 years. In 1984, three months after I was released from the detox unit, only one other person from my cohort of 20 remained sober.  I have often asked: Why Me? Why have I stayed sober and others have not?

I know sobriety has nothing to do with who drank the most or who had the most dysfunctional childhood or arrests or job losses. When I reflect back on my first recovery meetings, the old timer drunk-a-logs and their long-term sobriety held little meaning for me.  I wanted to hear how people put together just a couple of weeks or months of sobriety.

Over the years, below is some of what I have learned and wished I had heard at my first recovery meetings:

  • It’s not that I can’t drink today, rather I don’t have to drink today.  If I want to live life on life’s terms, then I don’t need to anesthetize myself to simply exist in a passive world.
  • AA meetings, sponsors, reading the Big Book and all of those practices ultimately are not the reason I stayed sober.  Making a decision to live in recovery and not in active addiction is the reason. Until I made that decision, all of the recovery tools were pretty useless.
  • Making that decision led me to explore a diversity of recovery tools.  In my first year of sobriety, I attended over 300 meetings.  From years 10 – 15, I don’t recall attending any AA meetings. Today I go to about 4 AA meetings each month. I don’t know if I will go to more or fewer meetings in the future.  Ditto on reading the Big Book. But I do read something or listen to a podcast or engage with some other recovery based material on a daily basis. I have not had an official AA sponsor in about 25 years, but I have honest and self-searching dialogue with others about recovery on a regular basis.  I also share my experience, strength and hope of recovery with anyone.  In essence, on a daily basis I remember that I am a recovering alcoholic.
  • I very truly believe that both recovery and relapse are processes and not events.  When I was first sober, I was warned that the sky was going to fall, that alcohol was “cunning, baffling and powerful” – which it is. One dude who was perhaps the most unhappy several-year sober person I had ever met had a line that “each day I am sober, I am one day closer to my next drunk.” Based on my experience, I completely reject that notion.  A healthy fear of “slippery places” is good, particularly in early recovery, but it’s not going to keep me sober.  I am either on the recovery road or the relapse road in the same way I can either travel north or south.  I can’t get south by going north, nor will I relapse if I am going in the direction of recovery.
  • Today, what keeps me sober is not so much fear of drinking as is my total love and embracing of life in recovery.  I have learned over the years that my very existence today is the complete antithesis of my life when practicing my addiction.  Today, I am a role model for my step-children – that’s not a label I use but one given by my wife and children.  I am able to play a leadership role in my career.  I enjoy working with students, especially those who struggle to live into their true selves.  I don’t say this out of grandiosity, but out of humility in what recovery offers.  Without question, all of that is out the door with the first drink.
  • Recovery is about living life on life’s terms, and not the dictates of what others think I should be doing.
  • I often end my shares at AA meetings with “I have not a complaint in the world today.”  A bunch of years ago I decided I was going to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were, and live life fully in recovery.

These are the most important things I have learned about recovery.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known on Day 1 of your recovery? Please feel free to share in the comments. And check out Robert’s blog if it’s new to you. I find myself going back again and again. Thanks for the great post, Robert!

Stripping down

My first year or so sober, I remember being obsessed with relapse. I took every mood swing and longing as a warning sign. I heard horror stories, often secondhand, about people who drank after years of sobriety. I looked for similarities and clues. I didn’t drink. This last step is the only one that brought any measure of relief. Eventually fear of relapse faded from a constant roar to a fainter, warbly hum.

By now, I’ve stripped away a lot of the so-called protective layers that allowed me to numb and check out and avoid. This sounds like a big accomplishment, but most days it feels involuntary and like I’m standing naked in front of a mirror in the harshest light. This is me, cellulite and stretch marks and that scar from kindergarten from when I fell on rocks in the parking lot of a fair and limped on to win a stuffed donkey. It is possible to feel horrible and happy at the same time.

Next month I’ll be coming up on 3 years of not drinking. It seems impossible it has been this long. (This probably sounds good if you recently stopped!) I wonder if others feel this way or is it like how I can’t believe I’m already 40? Time flies when you’re having fun or oldish or sober. I wonder if other people have recently, suddenly found themselves unsubscribing to emails and avoiding Target like the plague and deleting entire inboxes with glee. I think sometimes I’m shrinking my life down so small there won’t be anything left.


You can tell a lot about a company by their unsubscribe process. I would consider taking this one back.

I’ve worried before about shrinking my life too small. It might be an introvert thing, but free flowing information and interaction inevitably burns me out. For example, when I go on facebook regularly, I compare my reality with other people’s carefully presented posts and it’s not a good place for me. Hell, even my fantasies don’t measure up. I have options here – I can deactivate my account or pare down my list of follows, or just not log on as much – but I think what bothers me is how bad I feel about something that brings people together. I accept I am this way, but I feel bad about it.

Maybe I’m shrinking to grow in another way. This feels right. Above all, I am still an optimist. I am still fall-to-my-knees grateful to be sober. I am grateful that I am grateful. I’ve seen visible, exciting progress from the last not-quite 3 years. I run regularly and lost a good chunk (ha) of weight. I yell less and laugh more. I have a sense of spirituality that continues to sprout and grow. (I am most excited about this.) I cook less than I did when I drank, which is puzzling, but I read more. I find lately I don’t enjoy television as much and in fact find having to keep up with shows tedious. I love my bed more than I thought humanly possible. We’re practically engaged to be married.

This is where I am today, right now. Everything I just wrote could likely change in months or years, except hopefully not the part about not drinking. This is the gift that keeps giving, even as it strips away.

Phase 3. Pickle purse. Bonus bat. I hate making up titles.

I don’t want to alienate male readers, but I think maybe women do midlife crises better. Or at least slower.

Phase 1 of my midlife crisis was Excess and Debauchery. It lasted nearly two years and was a heluva blast – occasionally and from what I remember. Actually, I wish I could forget.

Phase 2 was Getting Sober. I dropped the spirits and a funny thing happened in that my spirit came back. Slowly. This has been a nearly 3 year process. I was late getting the blueprints and some of the necessary permits, but I’ve heard from others this sort of timeframe is normal.

I am now entering Phase 3 and very excited to see what it’s called. Early peeks indicate it might be about Letting Go, though this might also be because of some recent influences and the fact that I’m embarrassingly suggestible. If you were to casually say “you know, you’d look pretty good with a purse made out of pickles” I’d probably have one next time we bumped into each other. (You would probably get pickle juice on your new blouse, so we would be even in my book.)

I discovered Leo Babuta of Zen Habits through Jill Kelly of Sober Truths (who Christy at Running on Sober turned me onto some time ago). The thing I love about Zen Habits and Sober Truths right now is how simple and to the point they are. This is where I am right now. I only want to want what I need.

It is probably no coincidence that I am craving simplicity after an extended family vacation at Disney. It was a great trip. Probably my favorite one there and I’ve been a lot.

Our last visit to Disney was in August of 2012. It wasn’t a great trip for me. I was a little over a year sober and while I was past the point of craving a drink, I recall feeling raw and trapped in expectations. I distinctly remember being on a ride and noticing a patchy paint job and feeling any hint of magic sucked away.

This trip was so different. My youngest daughter just turned 6, so that probably had something to do with it. Six year-olds are pretty magical, or at least the way they see the world is. When we arrived at our destination airport, we continued at breakneck pace and picked up the rental car in record time and were on our way before noticing she was uncharacteristically quiet in the back seat. Her older sister noticed first and asked what was wrong, to which she replied “I like this car, but I’m kind of sad that we stole it.” First time in a rental car + first visit to the most magical place on earth that she was old enough to appreciate = pure magic.

A key difference between this family trip and the last one is that this time I felt better able to let go of expectations and attachments to the good and the bad. Shit still went wrong on this trip. It wasn’t perfect. There was solid rain the first two days. I got a weird rash on my legs from sun or sunblock or standing in too many lines. My hip hurt from all the walking. I still noticed all the folks around me enjoying vacation cocktails. Oh, I also noticed that same patchy paint job in the same ride this trip. It all just felt real, it felt right.

That’s all from a little more sober time. Every day is a precious gift that keeps on giving. It sounds quaint and corny but it’s true.


Here is a picture of a bat hanging out at disney’s animal kingdom. Related: I want a pet bat. Kind of.


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