My Imperfect Sobriety

I didn’t follow all the rules when I was new to program and I still don’t. And part of me knows that’s exactly how it should be.


When I quit drinking, I became a smoker. Bumming cigarettes gave me a reason to talk to people—mostly men—outside of meetings. I liked the way the cigarette looked in my hand and the way it felt, the way that first inhale would burn a little going down and then seem to tingle in my brain. Before sobriety, I had only smoked when I drank. Sure, my drinking had become a daily habit. Still, I didn’t consider myself a smoker and I refused to buy my own pack if that meant that I’d become one. Besides, I liked having an excuse to talk to people outside of meetings. I liked flirting with men.

This is how I met the man that would become my boyfriend. Mike was good looking, a dirty blond with a tough-guy face. Just my type, I remember thinking when he first caught my eye from across the room—not that I was particular. Outside the meeting that morning, I asked if I could bum a smoke. I had six days. I was lonely and scared. It was my first time around. He was on day 30-something. He had been there before.

“You want to stay for the next one?” he asked when we’d finished smoking. We stayed for the next one and maybe even the next one after that.

Some days after I met Mike, I began working with a sponsor I’ll call Zee. I knew one of Zee’s rules was that I wasn’t allowed to date, so when Mike and I started seeing each other, the best solution I could think of was to simply not tell her. I kept my relationship with Mike mostly to myself, knowing that dating in the first year was against most people’s rules. I knew that people in the program claimed that the rules were only suggestions, but that wasn’t how it felt at the time. Zee told me go to meetings where people “lived in the solution”—the kind of meetings where people were made to dress up when they stood at the podium and where newcomers were told to take the cotton out of their ears and stick it in their mouths. Today I know there is no one right way to get sober but at the time I believed what Zee told me—that by hammering themselves with rules, these people were doing it right.

This meant, I figured, that I was doing it wrong. I had started smoking. I was dating when I wasn’t supposed to. I was lying to my sponsor. What would happen when she found out?

Working with Zee and going to her kinds of meetings confirmed my worst fears—which is, I suppose, why I’d chosen Zee as a sponsor. A part of me wanted to believe that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t have the right clothes or say the right things. Because I was not like these people—because I was too big of a fuck-up—I wanted to believe that this wouldn’t work for me. Another equally powerful part of me wanted to get better. I wanted to believe that the 12 Steps were a solution I couldn’t think of on my own.

Whenever I was bored or lonely, I’d go sit at the meeting where I’d first met Mike. It was a meeting place Zee discouraged me from attending. But among the unemployed, sometimes mentally ill, “low-bottom drunks” was where I felt most comfortable. Here, I could relate.

The meeting—and Mike—seemed to take the place I’d tried to fill with alcohol and casual encounterswith the random men who, prior to recovery, I’d been meeting online. Though far from perfect, my relationship with Mike was the first one I’d had in years that felt even remotely more than physical. The first time we hung out, we bonded over anecdotes about our fucked up families. It was one night after a meeting in Washington Square Park. It was March, still too cold to be hanging out outside, but we did it anyway. He told me the funny stories behind all his scars. He made me feel, if not more normal, then at least less alone. It’d been a long time since I’d felt a reason to smile.

One day, Mike went missing. Some days earlier, Zee had cut me loose—not because she found out that I was seeing Mike but because at the time I was on prescription medication and she had a rule I hadn’t known about against sponsoring people on meds.

I remember the day Zee told me she could no longer sponsor me. She took me to the West Side Pier, where we sat together by the water. I sobbed. I needed her, I thought, and here she was rejecting me. This memory overlaps with my memory of the day Mike finally resurfaced. He smelled of vomit. His face was gaunt. There was a new scar across the bridge of his nose. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten it. He said he was sorry. I could see he was ashamed and I knew how that felt.

Mike felt the same way I’d felt that day with Zee, I imagined—lonely and afraid—and so I pulled him closer and he buried into me and I knew that he needed me and so I felt safe. I felt safer than I’d felt since the day that Zee had dumped me, safe like when I’d first found the meetings, before I’d been told they were not the “right” kind of meetings. Holding Mike in his miserable moment, I felt safe and strangely happy.

There are good reasons it’s suggested people not date in their first year of sobriety. Although I’m sure there are exceptions, it can cause us to take the focus off of ourselves. But for me, being with someone less perfect than me made me feel better about myself. Better enough to go easy on recovery. So what if I stopped attending meetings regularly? Mike had stopped going entirely. So what if I’d never worked the Steps? At least I didn’t drink. They say don’t quit before the miracle happens but, at 90 days, I thought the miracle had already happened. Thanks to recovery, I had a boyfriend and I’d gotten a job. On paper, life looked great. Sure, I still had trouble connecting authentically with others, especially women. I still didn’t know how to manage money. I still felt restless and unfulfilled. Instead of taking responsibility for my lack of serenity, I blamed Mike. He was supposed to fix all that, just as I thought I could fix him.

After Zee, it took months before I’d work with another sponsor, months after that before I would commit to attending women’s meetings almost exclusively and over a year to complete the Steps. It was then that I found a home group where I felt I could be honest—I mean really honest—and where I could begin to soften to the idea that I had a fear of people, that maybe self-loathing was an issue for me, that I had spent a lot of my life living in denial. In the meantime, my relationship with Mike would get worse before it got better. Then, it got worse again. Only then did I become willing to accept help.

It took years before I found Al-Anon, and still more years to work with a sponsor in that program. Four years in that program, I have only recently begun working those Steps.

And yet, in spite of my refusal or perhaps inability to let go completely, I wouldn’t say the results were nil. During the past six years of sobriety, I have grown and learned—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly—and often from mistakes. In this way, what appear to be “mistakes” just might be part of a plan that neither me nor any sponsor could ever completely understand. My not following suggestions in the beginning may have been exactly what I needed then. I remind myself of this when I butt up against suggestions I’m unable or unwilling to follow today. I remind myself what recovery has taught me, if anything: I’m not in control. I don’t have this figured out. I don’t always know what’s best. And neither do the people passing on their suggestions.

There was a period, a couple of months ago, where I truly thought I had “recovered.” Sitting in beginner’s meetings and listening to newcomers share about cravings, I could no longer relate. I had no interest in alcohol. The noise in my head had quieted. As far as I was concerned, I was practicing the principles in all my affairs. Maybe, I thought, I was cured.

And then Mike and I broke up, this time for good.

Finding myself single for the first time in my sobriety, I sometimes feel all my “outside issues” wanting to come back. Recently, the smell of alcohol has started to excite me in a way it hadn’t for years. I’ve even felt tempted to start smoking again. I don’t, but the temptation is there. Some days, when I’m feeling a little off, I choose to do everything “right”—I pray and meditate, go to a meeting, call my sponsor, call a newcomer or two, the works. Sometimes I don’t. Even without alcohol, I am frequently wrong and often afraid. Even today, at six years of sobriety, I don’t always trust myself or the decisions I make—including the difficult decisions of who to trust and how.

When I think of the mistakes I’ve made in sobriety and of some of my more willful moments, it can sometimes feel humiliating. That old voice returns. Look at how imperfect you are, I’ll tell myself. Look how misshapen your recovery has been. You’re not doing it right.

Then I remind myself that there’s no right way to recover. Nearly six years sober, have I let go absolutely? Absolutely not. But I’m still here. Article Link “the fix”…

Melissa Petro is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about sober jobs.

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