16 April 2020.
There are two birthdays with my name on them every year.
The first, on the 19th of March, is my actual birthday. It has no special meaning to me and despite me asking people not to celebrate it, and even with me having removed my date of birth from all my social media profiles, every year a flood of cheerful messages reminds me I’m a year older.
Why? Why are we celebrated on a day we had no choice in selecting? It would be more appropriate to send congratulations on a job well done to the doctors and nurses who delivered me all those years ago.
The second birthday on the 16th of April, by contrast, is very special to me, because this is a day I had 100% control and choice in selecting. This is MY day. It’s the anniversary of the day I gave up drugs and alcohol. It’s the day I chose to be clean and…er… well, it’s supposed to be ‘clean and serene’, but that last one is an elusive little rotter.
16 April 2012. Eight years ago today.
For the first six years, I’d write a big blog post celebrating my milestone, change all my social media profile pictures and shout out to the world, “Look at me, World! I’ve kept my promise! I’m still sober!” And every year, I’d be flooded with messages of encouragement and love. Friends would message me. Family would call. Fellow recovering addicts would cheer in private messages because anonymity is still the best place to recover. Complete strangers on the internet would applaud. It was quite the heady fix, all that digitally-derived dopamine.
I felt proud – felt that despite the messy years of addiction, I’d turned things around. But, as with every drug, that digital high faded with each passing year.
Last year – 16 April 2019 – was my seventh milestone of sobriety. I felt unsettled. I felt that broadcasting my sobriety milestone was just a dirty, self-aggrandising, drug-like social media hit. I decided not to announce my milestone to the world. It would turn out to be the most painful, most necessary decision I’ve made since 16 April 2012.
Because where in years past there was a flood of congratulations, now there was barely a trickle. Instead of the usual flood of sycophancy and momentary adoration, there were only three messages. Three. My own family forgot. My own goddamned family. And the close friends back in South Africa, my besties? Nothing. Not one message from them.
Sitting on my own in Dubai – some of my family was on holiday in the Netherlands, the rest back in South Africa – it stung. That old childhood fear of being forgotten rose up and sat like a poisonous lump in my throat.
And then the feelings came. Oh, the glorious irony! Addiction for me was a never-ending need to control a narrow range of emotions: euphoria and numbness. If life didn’t supply the glee, I applied the numb. My short-lived therapy sessions in sobriety were an attempt to embrace all the feelings in the human emotional spectrum. To know that fear was natural and survivable. That anger was human and manageable, and vulnerability was not weakness, but an act of self-awareness. And now, sitting all alone on the 34th floor of a glass tower in a desert 8000km away from everyone I loved, all those gory, alien, unwanted feelings came at me fast.
Self-pity. Why have you abandoned me?
This is a big one, a childhood anxiety that’s had me acting out and screaming for attention my entire life.
Resentment. It’s just one day. One day that I need you to SEE me – see my achievement.
Rage. Because you forgot me.
Feeling threatened, feeling dismissed, and feeling forgotten. Poisoned. All I wanted to do was strike out at everybody, make them feel the pain I felt, make them weep like I wept.
I spun between self-pity and rage for days. I could barely acknowledge the three heart-felt messages I did receive. It took a lot of effort to not act out, to send messages to friends and family and demand of them “Hey! Have you forgotten me? Have you forgotten what today is…the sacrifices I’ve made to get here? The constant choosing every single day to do this life thing, and to do it sober??? What the hell, man!?“
Yeah. It was ugly, up there in my head. Looking back on that day, a year later, I was a mess.
I didn’t act out, though. I kept all that turmoil inside. All that rage and ugly, ugly selfishness.
I needed time to think, and work this out. I needed to understand my anger at my family and friends for what I felt was their cruelty, their total lack of support. I’ll admit, I felt hurt and desperately unloved and unlovable.
Over the next couple of months, I had a series of what I like to call courageous conversations. The hard stuff. Feelings. Reality. Expectations. Some of them I initiated, and some were initiated before I got the chance to gird my loins and be brave enough to broach the subject. And boy, were they rough! Not one of these talks was easy. Not one was without painful revelation and all of them revealed some pretty hard and ugly truths. I came out of this phase feeling even more battered and bruised than before.
Once again, I needed time to work through all this stuff in my head, reacting to all this stuff in my heart. It’s taken me a year – a full year – to figure out what the realities are. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
This is my journey. Mine alone. And I’m doing it for me. Not you.
The saying goes that if you’re kicking the habit for someone else or because you’re being forced to, you’ll fail. For me, the hard-won lesson of 2019 is that if I’m only staying sober so that once a year I can get a spike in likes and website views, then I may as well quit now. I choose to stay sober for me, so that aside from all the other challenges that life throws at me, and which I complicate with my own set of foibles and imperfections, I’m giving myself a higher probability of doing life better.
Milestones are only special to the person celebrating them.
This was a really tough lesson. My milestone is important to me because I know what it represents and what it took to make that decision, standing there on the cold, barren platform 8 years ago, when I fought myself to toss that last half gram in the trash, and step away and into a new life without drugs. Nobody else was there. Nobody else witnessed that act. And though friends and family had been heavily impacted by my destructive years of addiction, they did not owe me any gratitude or recognition for doing the right thing. I had to internalise the sense of achievement, take my pride from within me. My friends and family love me. Maybe they’re even proud of me. But that feeling is a constant for them, and not locked down to the 16th of April. No, that day is MY day, and mine alone. I don’t need the external validation, because the only affirmation that is meaningful, is my own. Without that, no amount of praise and cheers and congratulations from family, friends and friendly internet strangers is going to make this journey worthwhile.
Sobriety and recovery are not always the same thing.
The momentum of not taking drugs is not the same as recovery. This was challenging to get my head around at first, and then, once I had, I was more than a little embarrassed that it had taken more than seven years for the penny to drop. All right – for the penny to be forcibly thrown at me. Let me say that again: just not taking drugs is not the same as recovery. Because addiction is not just taking too many drugs. It’s so much more. It’s chaos and the destruction of relationships. It’s looking yourself in the eye, in the mirror and lying to yourself. It’s thinking you’re fine when you’re not. It’s thinking you have everything under control but even the basics of self-care are beyond your reach.
Though I’d not taken drugs, nor taken any alcohol in more than seven years, there was still a lot of chaos and poor self-care in my life. But I still had so much to learn. I tried to please people (another of my character flaws) and I rushed about trying to fix each point on the long list of self-care failings that everyone lectured me about (lectured with love – tough love – but lectured nonetheless. Necessarily so.)
It took a while to figure out that being forced to practice self-care to please everyone else was never going to work. So now, I mind my own business. I smile and nod and listen to the advice that is so lovingly sent my way, unbidden. I consider it. And I make my own decision, in my own time.
My journey does not have to look like your road map to recovery.
Everyone has their idea of what recovery looks like, and if you lose focus, soon you’ll think that their idea for you is the only right way to recover, and anything else is a failure. I am not a failure. I felt like one. I felt suicidal and like I had miserably failed my family, friends and myself. But that was a lie. Just because I’m not following your roadmap to recovery doesn’t mean I’ve failed. Goddamn you. Because every single day I wake up, I make a conscious decision to overcome the momentum of eighteen years of heavy addiction and choose sobriety – even on – especially on the days when I all I crave is the beautifully dead numbness a few lines would give. I’m letting go of my need for you to recognise the power of my daily choice. I cannot dictate your feelings, your opinion – if you think that’s a fail, then good for you. The only opinion that matters now, in this space, is mine.
Success looks different to me than it does to you.
This one needs no explanation, but since we’re here – we’ve all spent so much time chasing the idea of success. I remember eight years ago in a conversation with James, trying to understand what success should look like. We had no idea. What we did know back then was that the traditional idea of happy marriage, hoards of expensive possessions, and profitable business was no more a mark of success than the mountains of stress, debt and broken relationships it took to get there.
Now, eight years later, what I know for sure is that the idea of success evolves constantly, and it’s a destructive animal to chase. So the best I can do, is to find a moment of peace in every single day. I said at the beginning of this piece that serenity has been an elusive beast, and it is. And I think serenity is one of the purest, most honest forms of success in my personal journey. So that’s what I’m here for.
Your tribe will always have your back, even when the silence from them roars the loudest.
I feel most alone in the dark hours when the madness of my anxiety reaches fever pitch – usually just before dawn, when the fear pushes at my chest fit to burst. Those are the moments I need to step out my head and reach out to my friends and family. Because although the cheers and the adulation for each milestone reached are great, it’s when they hold me in the moments of chaos that I know I am not alone, and that even though I’ve had times when I have felt abandoned and unseen, that is just a feeling – it is not the truth. I see you, my tribe. I see you. And I am grateful for you.
Celebrate you. Be your own goddamned cheerleader.
Not putting a milestone piece up in 2019 was ultimately the right decision, because all the years before had been done for the wrong reasons. I’d craved the approval of my peers. And goddamn, but if that isn’t one of the textbook drivers of addictive behaviours, then I don’t know what is.
I don’t need the external affirmation of all the Captain Recoveries blaring at me to “Get with the programme, man!” and I don’t need the myriad Facebook likes, the digital exultation marking another year without touching drugs.
I celebrate myself – because I know what it took to get here. From now on, I’ll post a milestone celebration every year so that I can come back and read it later, and take pride in my success.
So here I am. Staring at myself in the mirror. Forgetting the world. Proud of the sober man I see looking back at me.
My name is Dave, and I am an addict. It has been 8 years since I last used. And I’m goddamned proud of who I am, and what I’ve achieved.
© Dave Luis 2020. All Rights Reserved.