I was 19 and in rehab when I met my boyfriend, five years later he drowned.
Seven years into recovery, I relapsed after my boyfriend's death.
I realized I'd been "sober precarious" for a long time.
I was 19 and in rehab when I met Jeff. He was a volunteer and brought me cigarettes. Cartons, not packs. Before him, my primary loves were drugs and alcohol. We'd dated for five years when he drowned.
Jeff died sober, but he'd had a teenage Dilaudid habit, and his heart gave out at 26.
I have a photograph from that summer taken at my first professional job. My oversize striped shirt is askew. My face and eyes are splotchy red. I was always crying somewhere, but I was clean.
I was sober precarious
"You can do everything right, and your life can still suck," I announced in a 12-step-recovery meeting months after Jeff's death. Before I'd made such pronouncements, people in recovery had called my youth and sobriety "inspirational." That stopped. Not that I would drink or use. Sobriety had saved me from dropping out of college, getting into trouble with the police, and a bleeding ulcer.
I'd bought the great myth about recovery, that removing the substance is the cure. If abstinence alone worked, there would be no relapse. Instead, we grapple in secret, white-knuckling sobriety until the battle is lost. I hid my thoughts in my journal.
"No one will ever love me like Jeff did," I wrote. "I hate myself."
My secrets put me on a path I now call "sober precarious." I wasn't thinking about drinking, but my thoughts weren't conducive to sobriety. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, from 2021, found that of US adults who'd reported ever having a substance-use problem, 72.2% described themselves as recovering or in recovery. The challenges don't disappear.
Two years after Jeff's death, I became obsessed with caloric intake, training regimens, and getting high while preparing for a bike race. Everything was body chemistry. Everything went in my diary. "Coffee comes from a plant that changes my mood," I wrote. "How is weed any different?"
After the race, I called a friend whose dad was supposedly the biggest dealer of Hawaiian-grown marijuana in the US. That first hit felt like peeling out of a wetsuit two sizes too small. My thoughts stilled, and I felt swaddled in a gauzy tenderness I hadn't known since Jeff died. Why had I not been availing myself of this comfort?
The next day, I went to a bar for my first legal drink — I was 27. During the following two years, I proceeded to drink and use my way across three continents and into three mental institutions, recreating the problems I'd had before I first sobered up, except instead of dropping out of college, I lost my job.
I got sober again
My return to recovery was strictly to dry out. Between losing my job and moving into my parents' basement, I stopped drinking and using again by returning to 12-step meetings.
I had no intention of actually staying sober. My big plan was to wean off all the psych meds in my system. I celebrated my 30th birthday with my sister at an Olive Garden because I had a buy-one, get-one coupon, and she was willing to pay for her own meal.
With nothing but time on my hands, I started reading through my old journals. That was when I grasped how lucky I was to have stumbled my way back into sobriety.
The years I'd spent fostering my sober-precarious state before I ever started drinking came as a shock. And it didn't start with Jeff's death. Long before he died, I'd concealed the insecurity I felt around launching adult life outside college. Reading over my own words, I saw how my thoughts could move in one of two directions, either away from or toward recovery.
The further I let my thoughts wander, the more precarious my sobriety became. This process didn't begin with thoughts of drinking. I went from being annoyed by too much perfume in an elevator to shopping compulsively to obsessively monitoring my body fat. When the chance to get high materialized, I hadn't been thinking clearly for a very long time. Moving forward, I vowed to take any necessary action to stay on the path that led toward recovery, whether that was therapy, antidepressants, or quitting an unhappy situation.
I was 37 and married and had been sober for eight years when I moved to Qatar with my husband. This was, I thought, a stake in our shared future. But the new home made both of us unhappy. Because I was on a three-year work contract, we kept our feelings quiet while my partner of six years left to find work in the US. Then he called to say he wanted a divorce.
My heart felt this loss as deeply as Jeff's death. My mind went into overdrive — "What's wrong with me? Does everyone else know? Can my assistant tell I've been crying?"
Though I don't like to admit my sobriety can be vulnerable, moving toward recovery is more important than protecting my ego. I got (mostly) honest with my employer and resigned. While I haven't had a drink or substance since then, I've thought about it.
Once, on an ordinary day after yoga, after I had moved to New York, the smell of a Union Square vendor's chicken skewers mysteriously prompted the horrified thought: "Sober? For the rest of my life?" It's been 27 years now.
Grief will happen whether I'm sober or not, but relapse doesn't have to. Remembering that my addiction multiplies, hurting everyone around me, helps keep me on solid ground.
L.L. Kirchner can't believe she hasn't had a drink or drug in 27 years even though she wrote all about it in her forthcoming "Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution" (Motina Books, 9/26/23).
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