Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
I quit drinking in 2009 without the help of AA or rehab. There was no intervention, medical crisis or new low that finally spurred me to action. I got sober as I had gotten f-ed up—alone, under my own power. Three weeks into my sobriety, a survey I took at a public health clinic flagged me to an outreach program, Project Link, and they hooked me up with an addiction specialist at Weill Cornell Medical Center. I’ve attended counseling sessions there for the last couple of years and my relationship with my doctor has been a huge help to both my sobriety and my overall happiness but we’ve been clear the entire time that I own my sobriety—it is my creation and I define its parameters. I got myself sober and I alone am ultimately responsible for keeping myself sober. I feel good about my sobriety but I don’t necessarily feel pride about it. As my parents pointed out to me when I was a little kid, you don’t get extra points just because, for once, you did what you were supposed to do.
Maybe a month after I stopped drinking, I took a job as night manager at a bar on 14th street, a bar I had drank in, fallen asleep in and gotten tossed from. It was a decision that everyone questioned, myself included. I took it for two reasons. First, I reasoned that alcohol was everywhere. “Avoiding temptation” was an illusion: there was a liquor store across the street, a bodega next door, my roommate’s beer in the fridge and Listerine in the bathroom. If I wanted to drink, I was going to drink. Second, I didn’t have another option. I needed that job. It wasn’t “sink or swim”—swimming was the only option I had. I worked there for two years and though I was sorely tempted many times, I never drank.
I’d been sober for more than a year before I admitted to anyone that I was an alcoholic and sober for two years before I submitted the general public to that ugly news. Initial reactions ranged from actual tears of gratitude and relief to the girl at the bar I was managing who looked at me slyly, swaying on her heels and said, “So what would happen if you took just one sip?” and tried to push her drink into my hand.
After their first splash of surprise (or lack thereof), I had to accustom myself to my peers viewing me through the distorting lens of alcoholism. My experience has taught me that most people—even intelligent, worldly people—have bad data about alcoholism. When others learn you’re an alcoholic, you immediately become a victim of the information shrapnel they’ve passively absorbed about the disease. They don’t see you, a specific, unique person burdened with a wily, tenacious affliction. They see Andy Capp, Charles Bukowski, Anna Nicole Smith, Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, any character from any pre-1990 Tom Waits’ song, after school specials, a faulty decision tree that always returns to alcohol, their drunken aunt/uncle/mother/father/whatever. Every sentence you utter, even the minutest gesture you make, is filtered through volumes of self-help literature, hours upon hours of well-intentioned talk shows and second- and third-hand paraphrasings of the aforementioned.
In my three-plus years of sobriety, friends, enemies and strangers alike have offered me their unsolicited, uninformed, condescending input on my life: I’m not an alcoholic because I was able to quit on my own without AA, I’m not sober because I don’t go to AA or work the 12 steps, I’m not sober because I infrequently indulge in psilocybin mushrooms, I’m a “dry drunk” because my soul is not infused with God’s healing light, I’ve become a caffeine addict/a “chocoholic”/an exercise addict/a sex addict, just exchanging one addiction for another.
Part of this is my fault. Usually, when we make the big declaration—“I’m an alcoholic”—we often leave off the last, most important part: “…so I’m going to stop drinking and work very hard to make lasting changes in my life. Some of them may seem bizarre or ill-advised to you, but I ask you to be patient with me and supportive of me because it’s not going to be easy.” I got to the first part when I was 17—piece of cake! It took me 15 years of hard drinking to get to the crucial second part. But lots of people will be tempted to pathologize your every move once they know you are an alcoholic/addict. Some of them will just be pricks with massive problems of their own. They will also be people you love and people who love you, making your tough situation even tougher by inexpertly expressing the ways in which they care for you.
So let’s go point by point. Just as alcoholism existed before AA, alcoholics have stopped drinking before AA existed. It strikes me as bizarre that my disease can be reverse-diagnosed by its “cure.” The only other instance of this I can call to mind is the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century where a suspected witch was subjected to the “ordeal of water”—repeatedly held under water for increasing amounts of time until she proved her innocence by drowning. (The few who survived were clearly witches, so they were hanged.) Oh, there’s also House, in which a maverick pill-popping doctor subjects patients with bizarre ailments to a battery of increasingly unorthodox and dangerous cures. Folks, that’s a TV show. It’s fiction.
I know that I’m an alcoholic. My family and my friends who have known me for 20 years recognize that I’m an alcoholic—they knew long before I did. It’s taken a lot of humiliation, soul-searching and grim self-evaluation for me to admit I am an alcoholic—first to myself, then to my inner circle, then to the world at large. Please don’t further demean me by telling me it’s not real or pushing me for proof.
There is no empirical data which proves that AA helps alcoholics get sober or stay sober. Yes, you can cite story after transformative, inspiring story, as can I, but that’s all anecdotal evidence. AA is a secret society with no accurate active member count and no measurable success rate. An article in Wired on the organization’s 75th anniversary reported that, from the best information available, AA doesn’t work. Multiple accredited sources report that AA members fail to stay sober more often than they succeed. Does AA help at all? Wired reports that it does and I believe that it does. Wired also reports that group talk therapy like the sharing that occurs in AA helps people recovering from cancer and pathogen-driven diseases like tuberculosis. My takeaway is that it benefits people suffering from a hardship to congregate with other people suffering from the same hardship to talk about their experiences. As such, I support AA as one potentially useful tool but it’s not one that works for me. In no way is AA or the 12 steps the alpha and omega of recovery its strictest adherents would have you believe.
As alcoholism is not dependent on AA for its diagnosis, neither is sobriety. I describe myself as sober because I don’t drink alcohol and I am habitually abstinent from drugs. It’s not just that I don’t drink hard liquor or wine or beer; I don’t drink non-alcoholic beer, I don’t drink kombucha, I avoid food I know has alcohol in it, I even threw out the vanilla extract my ex used to bake with when I saw its alcohol content. One of my best friends, Steve, is sober. But he is a devout Catholic so several times a year, he drinks a mouthful of wine as part of religious services. I don’t do the steps; Steve puts a great amount of faith and effort into them. When we vacation together, Steve smokes pot all the time; I rarely do. I eat mushrooms a couple of times a year; Steve would never think of such a thing. Once in a while, I’ll make a stupid bet with a friend or play cards; Steve has a gambling problem so he won’t bet a nickel or even play solitaire. Do we both understand ourselves as sober? Hell, yeah. I get to define my own sobriety because my sobriety means almost nothing to you compared to what it means to me. Steve taught me how to drink. He and I have pushed against our addictions long enough that we have mapped out the entire floodplain. We have placed the sandbags, we have carried the stones. We know the difference between a harmless trickle of water and the precursor to a flood. And we’ve become experts at differentiating between the two because it’s our own selves that are at risk of being washed away.
The mushrooms are a constant sticking point and it’s ridiculous. I mean, even my mother ate shrooms once, and not when she was in college. I once tried to date a girl who had grown up a straight-edge punk rock musician with a deep investment in questioning the government and the moral majority. By the time we met, she had relaxed her stance enough that she allowed herself to get hammered regularly and yet she mercilessly mocked my infrequent use of mushrooms. When I tried to get at the essence of her objection to them (since she thought alcohol use was okay), it came down to the fact that alcohol was legal (according to the government) and everybody drank (the moral majority). So much for thinking for yourself, or even thinking at all. This year, the BBC reported that new analysis of LSD studies performed in the 60s published in the Journal of Pharmacology indicated that “a single dose of LSD has a significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse.” Point blank, they said LSD “helps alcoholics give up drinking.” Furthermore, they suggested that “more regular doses might lead to a sustained benefit.” AndTime reported that a recent Johns Hopkins study stated that the correct dosage of psilocybin mushrooms “offered long-lasting psychological growth and helped people find peace in their lives—without the negative effects.” Anecdotally, how many mushroom addicts do you know? A beer and a line of coke only ever fired me up for another line and another beer but every time I do mushrooms—well, they not only make it clear to me what needs to stay in my life and what needs to go but they also cure me of any desire to do mushrooms for a while. And all you Big Book beaters—surely you must know that the devout agnostic Bill W. had his religious epiphany on December 14th, 1934 when he was tripping on belladonna, right?
I don’t believe in God or a Higher Power or spirituality of any kind. I’m indifferent to AA. I’m resistant to the 12 steps. I suffer bouts of melancholy and fits of anger. All of these things taken in sum cannot make me a dry drunk. Why? Because when I stopped drinking, I filled that gaping chasm in my life with the opposite of drinking. I wrote, I learned how to fix and modify guitars, I learned to run, box, kickbox and suffer gladly the torturous workouts my trainer Tracy Helsing devised. I ended a lot of hollow friendships, deepened my relationships with friends who, sober or not, were good for me, repaired my relationships with my father and older sister and invested deeply in my relationships with my nephews and nieces. I ate my vegetables and took my vitamins and did my homework. I stopped doing fun things I wasn’t proud of and did a lot of hard things I knew were good for me but somehow still couldn’t feel proud of because they were so “recovery-by-the-numbers” like raising plants and doing yoga. Of central importance to my transformation was keeping my appointments with my counselor, Chris Sturiano. I didn’t want to go so I forced myself to go. I didn’t want to be honest so I forced myself to be honest. When I didn’t want to tell him something because I knew his response was going to annoy the fucking shit out of me, that was the first thing I forced myself to tell him. Some of it was really rewarding, a lot of it sucked and all of it was hard work. Don’t erase all my vigilant efforts to change by calling me a dry drunk just because I get pissed when I get a parking ticket. Parking tickets suck—that’s a universal constant.
Have I replaced one addiction with another? You bet. Just like you, I am addicted to pleasure…and air and water and just life in general. Human beings are biologically programmed to seek pleasure and avoid fear and pain. Eating, drinking, sleeping and fucking bring us pleasure because those activities ensure the survival of the species. I swore off alcohol, not pleasure. It’s not necessary to pathologize my every move simply because I am an alcoholic. I don’t run because I’m an exercise addict, eternally chasing the “runner’s high.” Occasionally, I enjoy running but mostly I endure the discomfort of running because I know it increases both the length of my life and the quality of my life and I hate running less than I fear death and the sensation of dying. Just because I have been addicted to alcohol, it doesn’t mean my life after alcohol is necessarily just an empty series of dire cravings and desperate injections of pleasure. When I pat your dog, I am not chasing “dog patter’s high,” I am just patting the dog. Because, at the end of the day, yes, I’m an alcoholic, but I’m also a bass player, a gear nerd, a writer, an ultrarunner, a guitar wrangler, a songwriter, a mediocre kickboxer, a solid friend, an uncle, a brother, a step-brother, a foster brother, a son and a flawed, imperfect but mostly happy human being.
Mishka Shubaly lives in Brooklyn, where he writes music and plays bass for Freshkills. His Kindle Singles—Shipwrecked, The Long Run, and Are You Lonesome Tonight?—have all been bestsellers and his latest Kindle Single, Bachelor Number One, is currently #9 on the Kindle Single list. This is his first piece for The Fix, though he has been profiled by the site.
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