Photograph by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Photograph by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Of all the passages in our recovery literature I find unintentionally amusing—and there are many—one stands out. It is a memorable paragraph about those alcoholics who “for a variety of reasons cannot have a family life.” They are consoled with the wildly thrilling prospect of transforming themselves into “prodigies of service.” It’s supposed to be inspiring. I remember one friend who used to sigh audibly and cross her arms angrily when this portion was read aloud at Twelve Step gatherings. No doubt she was shuddering at the thrilling plans the program had in store for her. Perhaps she, like me, imagined armies of childless drunks and addicts, dressed in colorless work uniforms, dutifully sweeping up after their happily married fellows had gracefully departed the meetings, en route to the Hamptons. At least the industrious spirits left behind would be lifted by the thought of helping another alcoholic.

This patronizing pat on the head is by no means an isolated theme in recovery literature. The approved texts are very big on the idea that life, in essence, boils down to staying away from the bottle and helping others. We hit the jackpot when we find ourselves “arranging for the coffee and cake after the meetings” while being observed by “skeptical, suspicious newcomers.” Sober Utopia begins to sound like life in North Korea.

Now, before my words are misinterpreted: service, in proper balance, develops self-esteem, reins in ego, and establishes connectedness to the recovery community. Unquestionably. But there’s more to recovery than arranging cookies and stacking folding chairs in church basements. So now that we’re clean and sober, what next?

Life before getting sober didn’t exactly point me in the right direction. In lieu of developing interpersonal skills, crafts, facilities, or know-how, or for that matter developing a skill that could feasibly result in employment, I mastered the fine art of consuming alcohol in quantity. Liquor-store clerks had a bottle of Jameson’s set aside at the counter for me; bartenders kept a stool empty; fellow patrons took to drinking gin, knowing it was the only form of booze I couldn’t abide (I had a bad habit of stealing people’s drinks). An ex of mine took to distributing my spent bottles in the garbage bins of various neighbors. Apparently she wanted to put on a good front for the sanitation workers who removed our trash. So removing alcohol from my life meant, unquestionably, depriving me of my one highly developed skill. At 35, I faced life with the aptitude and smarts of a teenager—perhaps a decent scenario for a film starring Tom Hanks but not for a real-life adult.

In early sobriety I answered this mighty existential dilemma by honing my cigarette smoking technique, forcing down tuna melts at diners from hell, and flirting tirelessly with disinterested and emotionally unavailable women. The notion that life should mean more hovered before me like a disappointed tutor at an English boarding school. My early efforts were, to say the least, dismal. So I turned my attention to the various “cleaning house” projects bluntly recommended by gruff Twelve- Steppers with long-term sobriety: resentments were acknowledged; apologies made; funds owed were repaid. Fine ideas, yet I still longed for the big answer: What do I do if not drink?

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