Earlier this year, I attempted a sober January. The excess of the holidays had left me feeling worn out, and I figured that a month without substances was a chance to clear my mind and recharge. While I don't consider myself a heavy drinker, I quickly learned how much of my social life revolves around alcohol. Whether or not I was getting messed up at house parties, dinners, dates, even a concert or a movie, it usually involved at least one drink. My attempt at sobriety lasted two weeks. I gave in at a friend's birthday party after a stranger told me I was being a downer. I took a hit of a joint and later drank a cider.
My failed experiment got me thinking about sobriety in general. I believe the stigmas against drug use to be unhelpful and have had some genuinely positive experiences while drunk or on drugs, but because of addictive tendencies and problems with mental health in my extended family, I've always been very aware of how much or how often I'm partaking. I don't intend to stop any of my habits, but for a long time, I always assumed that I could if I wanted to. The fact that I couldn't go a month without drinking made me reconsider. It also made me want to know more about why and how people get sober.
In my life, most stories of sobriety had been fed to me through after-school specials or sensationalized retellings on the evening news. The following are stories from real conversations I had with friends about why they stopped drinking and drugs. At times, the stories felt both much bigger and much smaller than I had expected them to.
Krissy Howard, Writer at the Hard Times
From the very first time I got high, I knew I wanted to feel like that as often as possible. I smoked a bowl with some friends, and we went to the mall, and I just remember laughing so fucking much. I've always felt uncomfortable with myself, both alone and around people, so to be able to turn that anxiety off felt like I had figured out a way to just be better at life.
Using started out very fun and social. In the beginning, I mostly drank and smoked weed. Occasionally I ate acid or took painkillers. When I was 19, I shot dope for the first time. I didn't become a full-blown addict right away, but I knew I really loved it and used as often as I could. Then came oxys and Xanax. Somehow I was able to keep jobs throughout all of this, but it got harder and harder to show up over time.
After a certain amount of time, I absolutely could not function without dope or I would get sick. I lost my job. I struggled to keep apartments. I started smoking crack. I would stay in my bathroom smoking for days. I would only come out to stare out the peephole of my front door. I was very rarely enjoying myself, but if I stopped, I would get sick, and I just didn't know what else to do.
I remember being on the porch of my apartment in Austin and just thinking that this was my life. I was going to die a dope fiend, and I was weirdly OK with it. I rationalized that my life was atonement for someone else's bad karma. Someone else must have done something truly horrible hundreds of years ago, and their punishment was being reincarnated into me. I felt like I was truly stepping over to the other side of something in that moment, like I was really ready to just go hard using and die.
My body stopped functioning like the body of a 20-something. I wouldn't get my period for months at a time. At one point, I weighed 87 pounds. I had open abscess wounds all over my body that wouldn't heal. My body just didn't work. The rest of my life didn't work either. Maintaining relationships of any kind were absolutely impossible. No friends. No money. No goals. I was estranged from my family for a while.
I OD'ed three times, the last of which happened in my dad's bathroom. I mostly consented to getting help because I wanted to make my dad feel better. I moved back to my hometown in upstate New York from Texas. I had the intention of sobering up, but it didn't work out like that. I was kind of half in, half out at that point, I guess, and it took a long time for me to commit. I did finally get clean on May 19, 2010. I have been in recovery ever since.
I think the hardest part about getting clean was just deciding to do something different in those moments when the craving to get high was so strong. I remember feeling like my feelings were going to kill me. I remember feeling like I was going to physically catch on fire if I didn't go cop a bag right away. After I had practiced making those different decisions for a little bit, the obsession to get high wasn't so overwhelming. But I was straight-up pissed that I wasn't able to just have a drink with friends. There were a lot of things I couldn't do for a long time because drinking and drugs were just around, and it was too tempting, like going to shows or even driving through certain neighborhoods. It didn't feel like it at the time, but looking back, I can recognize how it got easier the longer I didn't use and found new ways to deal with things.
Brian Finch, Activist
I was 13 years old, living in my hometown of Winnipeg, when I discovered my sister smoked pot. I immediately asked her if I could get some. The first time we smoked, I felt nothing. I was disappointed. I kept a joint for later on. My parents were divorced, and my father forgot to pick me up one weekend. Upset and feeling hurt, I pulled out that other joint. I smoked. I got really high. Fifteen minutes later, I heard a knock on the door, and it's him. He took me to a dog show where I was super paranoid. I came down watching the endless obedience competition. When I got back home, I went to my sister to ask for more pot. I never stopped after that.
My relationship with drugs continued and morphed over time. I got into the gay club scene, and I fell into the drug crowd using MDA, the precursor to MDMA. The using got more hardcore. I began dealing. With the money, I took myself on a geographical fix to live in the south of France. Things remained calm for quite a bit. I thought I was done with drugs. I returned home. I was OK for a number of years until I got into a terribly abusive relationship with an addict. He has the same last name as that serial killer. Manson. I didn't know he was an addict until I became one with him. He died recently. I have no idea if drugs were involved.
My inability to say no led me to very dangerous waters. The drugs escalated to GHB, a grand-a-month's worth. Then to meth, e, whatever we could get our hands on. I got to such a low point that I stopped caring and overdosed for the first time. I stopped breathing. I realized how easy it was to die and had thoughts of suicide. The pressure to make money and pay for our using, which was costing thousands, was high. I got into the sex industry. I put an ad out, and it started from there. I was making a lot of money and traveling a lot. New York and Amsterdam became my second homes.
The thing with being an addict is that there was this loud voice that says that I don't have a problem. I was not an addict. It was easy to believe.
Hazy memories from that time of my life. I met with another escort in Manhattan, and we soon became the two hookers of northern New Jersey. I spontaneously ended up bartending at the White Party in South Beach. High on meth, I found myself in a leather bar called Chains. I was doing coke with the manager in the back office. I was wearing only boots and a cock ring. You meet a lot of people that way. I met a very tough, tattooed, muscled biker-looking couple. I stayed with them for four weeks, having only having chatted with them for ten minutes. I never knew where I'd end up.
Everything started off great, but then it became a slow burn of spiritual death. I was a man of everywhere and nowhere with all the traveling. I became part of a subculture detached from mainstream society. I reached a point where I realized that I had stopped having any hopes, dreams, or goals. I called it my Peggy Lee moment.
The combination of travel and heavy drug use was gravely affecting my health. I returned to Toronto to fall apart, get it together, only to fly out and do it all over again. I was addicted to it all. There were some serious health consequences to my using that have ramifications to this day. They are things that I have to live with for the rest of my life.
The process to become sober was long. The first step I took is the road to harm reduction. The first step I took is getting rid of the meth, coke, GHB, ecstasy. The problem was that when I stopped the drugs, I also stopped seeing the friends who were doing the drugs. I was left alone with nobody to take their place. For a time, I was very lonely. I started using 12-step fellowships. Ten years later, I am here. I work very hard to stay here. There isn't a lot I miss, except the illusion of escapism. If only it were real. That and having the energy to go to clubs or do things later at night, but I'm also getting older.
Chris Popadak, Drummer for Hawthorne Heights
On my 19th birthday, one of my roommates bought me a hit of LSD as a present. Until that point in my life, I had only experimented with pot, but that night, I had an absolutely wonderful time, and it began a serious relationship with drugs that lasted for years. Once I started with LSD, adding a second drug, and later a third or fourth, didn't seem so scary. I had liked the acid. Why wouldn't I want to try something else?
Around that time, I befriended a group who were all into heroin. I got curious. I can remember the first time I asked a guy to cop for me he said no. He kept saying no for a while. He said he didn't want to be responsible for creating a junkie. Eventually I told him that if he bought me a bag, I would buy him a bag for his trouble. Fucking junkies. He agreed, and as with every other drug I tried, I loved it.
I had been lucky, or unlucky, enough to have junkies around in my life. I saw the bad aspects from the beginning, and for a long time that kept me from completely getting sucked into that world. I had the classic weekend habit. I kept things like that for years. I was convinced I had everything under control, but, looking back, I was barely getting by—not paying my bills or rent, getting kicked out of apartment after apartment. Still, somehow I was always able to find money to get stoned or drunk. It pains me to think to how self-absorbed I was.
For years, the real focus in my life was riding my skateboard and getting high in some fashion. I was playing in bands here and there, and I had it in my head that I wanted to pursue drumming, but there were points when I didn't have my life together enough to even own a drum set. I was drifting. There are a number of different stories I could tell, but to be honest, the biggest thing it amounts to is a lot of lost time.
Changes came slowly. There were two things that really influenced this: I saw that I was ruining my relationship with my son. I remember him being just a baby, about 2 years old. One day, he was crying, as babies tend to do, and I was getting so pissed off at him because I could not deal with the noise. I couldn't handle my son crying, and I was furious with him. Something finally clicked in my head, and I knew that it had nothing to do with my son. Drugs were making me short-tempered and pissed off. That was the start of realizing that I really had a problem. I did not stop using at that time, but I started cutting certain substances out one by one. Shortly thereafter, I had a pretty heavy weekend of partying, and I woke up feeling absolutely horrible. I realized that I actually paid money to wake up feeling like shit. That was the final straw, and I made a decision to quit everything right then and there, and it's something that has stuck ever since.
Once I stopped drinking and doing drugs is when I got really serious about being a musician. I was in a band with two guys who were straight edge. While initially I had some negative feelings about-edge kids, based on some past experiences, they showed me the positive side of straight edge that I never knew.
I would not call myself militant by any means, but I'm pretty against using substances in pretty much any form at this point. And the straight-edge community has been really positive for me. I feel that for anyone wanting to quit any sort of substance, they might have to be in that place where they really hate what they are doing. Getting off of drugs is not just about not using. You may have to cut ties with the people you call your friends and really shut out a lot of that negative energy.
Marilla Wex, foreign correspondent at the Beaverton
Getting sober seems like a big, hairy deal before you do it. I think my perception of it before I made the decision was that there had to be some giant, awful fuck up or disaster that had to occur before you really hit rock bottom and decided to stop drinking. I guess I'd watched too many episodes of Intervention. Then I spoke to a friend of mine who told me he'd just realized that, after he hit 40, drinking was making him depressed. That really resonated with me.
I noticed that my body's reaction to booze had changed dramatically—I seemed to get drunk much more quickly. I became belligerent and had the absolute worst, crippling hangovers. It took me a few goes, but eventually I just made the connection that the fun part of drinking did not outweigh the horrible physical consequences. For me, the process of getting sober was about just making the decision. There was no AA, no 12 steps, no Jesus. Just the dawning realization that I didn't want the paranoia, the depression, the feeling of being out of control anymore.
Stopping drinking has been one of the best things I've ever done for myself. I can wake up, reflect on the previous night's shenanigans, and not be pulled into a paranoid spiral of Oh fuck... did that person take offense at that? Did I come off as a dick? Did I seem drunk? I can own all of my behavior knowing full well I was stone cold sober.
That said, the hardest thing about being sober is other people's reactions. I was a pretty insecure person for a long time and the piss taking and teasing would have been impossible to take in my 20s living in the UK. At my age and in Canada, it's easier, but I've still had some absolute dipshit comments and thoughtless remarks: If I'm drinking, you're drinking. Do you ever have any fun? What about weed or coke? How am I ever gonna get into your pants? I don't consider myself an alcoholic, but I am sometimes tempted to respond to someone's ill-conceived bullshit by saying, "You know, it's hard enough resisting booze every day without morons like you making fun of an alcoholic."
And if we can be honest for a minute: Can we address the lack of decent soft beverage choices in bars? I know it's a stupid, first world problem, but when you're being asked to pay five fucking dollars for a shitty fountain Coke, it sticks in the craw a little. If I'm in a decent bar, I will ask for a mystery virgin cocktail; a good bartender will enjoy the challenge and the opportunity to make something where you have to guess the ingredients. I did a storytelling show at a fancy bar once that had kombucha on tap. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I do sometimes miss the taste of beer, but kombucha is really great because you get that yeasty taste and the fizz.
Felix Hagan, Singer for Felix Hagan and the Family
I never saw booze as a simple pleasure in and of itself. It was a device to get drunk. The idea of just drinking for pleasure was completely alien to me, but I loved the lazy ease of drunkenness, the warmth in my bones, and the feeling of comfort and confidence that it brought. As puberty hit, I felt awkward and very unhappy in groups of people, and I found that when I drank I could be engaging and fun. It was also around this time that I became utterly seduced by the idea of the drunken artist. I saw nothing at all wrong with drinking on my own. Except instead of writing great novels or composing brilliant music, I was watching the Lord of the Rings DVDs with the commentaries on. I was just pretending to be the thing I idolized.
My first band after high school was a sudden drop into the real world of gigs in proper venues. I hurled myself into the hedonism of it all, like I had to fulfill some sort of nonsensical archetype of the drunken rock singer. The performance was just a small part of it. I wanted the party, I wanted the adventure, and I wanted to be this odd swashbuckling caricature that I had invented. While I would come off the stage feeling like I'd blown people's minds, I cringe to think of it now. I have seen footage and the bloated, slurring thing that stands behind the mic, missing every note and occasionally falling over. It is a horrifying thing for me to watch.
Despite hindsight revealing how terrible I was on stages, the gigs felt utterly glorious. But the thing about living as an alcoholic is that the good bits are just islands in a sea of gray, numb oblivion. I was getting drunk to the point of passing out every single day. My first year of university was an absolute car crash. I got used to keeping a pint glass full of wine by my bed, to be downed when I woke up so I could function, then taking a Sprite bottle full of gin to lectures. My parents were the first people to start pointing out how destructive my drinking was becoming. They began locking the big cupboard where all the booze was kept. When I found the key, they installed a combination lock.
This arms race reached its pinnacle when one day I woke up lying on the floor covered in my own blood. Apparently I had been driving a quad bike around in the garden, completely hammered, and had careened into a big barbed-wire fence. I tore open my arm, which is scarred to this day. I left the bike stuck in the mud and tried to pull it out with a car until that got stuck too. When I came inside, I took a big fucking ax to the combination lock on the booze cupboard and drank all the gin. My parents came home to find me completely broken and sobbing, but I still kept on with it.
It was my girlfriend who was finally able to guide me into the process of getting better. She had been gradually bringing up my drinking after a series of incidents. She says the first time she realized that something was up was when she dropped me at the train stationm and I bought a bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka for the journey, which she later found out wasn't a joke. It reached its peak when we were staying at my parents' house, due to drive home that evening. She went to bed for a nap, and I secretly drank two bottles of champagne to stop myself from shaking. It wasn't until we were about to drive home that she realized how pissed I was. She was heartbroken and took the train home alone. It wasn't fun anymore. I was 21 and checked into rehab for the first time two days later.
I spent five weeks in that place (minus a very strange day out to go and play my then band's first ever slot at Glastonbury) learning how to exist without booze. The most difficult part of the whole thing was when I left the safety of the clinic. In my head, I was looking for an excuse to relapse. Three months or so after I left the clinic, I was doing a gig and arrived early at the Water Rats in Kings Cross. The place had that pub smell, that glorious aroma of old beer that seeps into the brain, and just like that, I ended up drinking as much as before. This time, I drank in secret. Eventually my dad found me stumbling about at home. It is one of the very few times I ever saw him cry. The second time in rehab, things stuck. That was eight and a half years ago now.
Always having a clear head has allowed me to stop fucking pretending to be a musician and start actually being one. Like anything, to get better at something, especially a creative thing, it takes self-control and discipline. And that is what I have learned through my process, though I feel like I'm really not responsible for my recovery. It was the people around me—my family and friends and the amazing staff at the clinic and the people in AA. It's a process. While every addict has a different story about what brought them there, they all have pretty much exactly the same story about how they got better.
The biggest misconception in any addict's mind is that they are alone. The community of AA, NA, and Alanon is right on your doorstep, and without the people at AA, I wouldn't be here now. Getting sober is very hard to do on one's own, but it never has to be like that. There are meetings every day, everywhere. The help, love, and support is there. And all you have to do is reach out.
Lead image of Krissy Howard
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.