A few weeks ago my sponsee* Erika called me. She sounded excited, happy. “What's going on?” I asked. "I'm going away for the weekend and I just packed. I just packed my suitcase!" she said. And then, with the relief in her voice quite palpable, she said "Sober. I just packed my first suitcase sober. And I did a good job. I can pack sober. I didn't think I could do that." Erika was positively giddy, as was I on hearing the news. Then she paused and suddenly sounded sad and ashamed. “Now I'm embarrassed. Isn't that so stupid? I feel like such a loser. I can’t believe I always had to be high to pack. That I had to get loaded to pack a suitcase for a 3 day getaway.” I sensed her shame, so I tried to set her straight. “NO!” I almost yelled into the phone “This is a shame-free zone. Don’t be embarrassed. Congratulations. Really, I'm so proud of you. You should be proud of yourself." And I was proud of her. Her first time packing a suitcase not high on drugs was a big freaking deal! Something she should feel good about.
Then we started in on a long and hilarious conversation about all those firsts in recovery and why going one full year without a drink or drug is so amazing, an opportunity not to be missed. Your first Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's Eve, sober. Your first birthday and Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July and Memorial Day sober. Your first vacation or wedding or date or job sober. There are all of those important milestones, and then there are the everyday things that we get to do for the first time sober too. The first Friday night sober. The first hangover-free Sunday morning. The first time cleaning the kitchen and doing the laundry and going to the movies without drugs or alcohol. And the travel. That's a biggie. I have friends who have tried to lay off the sauce but then of course they "had" to go to France or England or Florida for business or pleasure. "Well of course you can't go to France and not drink wine.” “No one goes to England and does not enjoy a beer at the pub.” “Who goes to the beach and doesn't drink?” News flash! Sober people do. Non-alcoholics who just choose not to drink do. And we have a good time. After months and years and decades of ALWAYS having Champagne on New Year’s Eve and drinking on vacation and getting zooted to pack a suitcase we need to make new habits. New traditions. And it's not easy. But it's worth it.
My first few years in recovery I wouldn't celebrate my birthday or New Year’s Eve and I loathed the arrival of summer. What would I do without my birthday drinks, my New Year’s Eve numbing, my summer rosé? So I felt sorry for myself and would mope about when those days (or the entire season, that first year, when summer came around) but I don’t do that anymore.
Thinking about these first reminds me of the day, December 28th 2018, that my father passed away. He died in his apartment and I arrived right as his heart stopped and the paramedics were trying to revive him. They had him on the floor and were "working on him". As I ran to the bedroom a kind policemen stopped me with an outstretched arm and said "you really don't need to see this" so I stopped. Once my father was pronounced dead the paramedics put him back into bed and told me I could go in and say goodbye. His body was still warm so I kissed his forehead and held his hand and told him that I would miss him more than I could say and that he was the best father ever. After a few hours they came to remove his body. Everything was sort of foggy that day; I felt as though I was in a thick shrouded nightmare. They put my father in a black body bag and then into the elevator to bring him to the funeral home. And I thought what a kick he would have gotten out of that. Some poor soul from his building pushing the elevator button to go down for The Post and a cup of coffee suddenly seeing all the cops and the black zipped body bag when the door slid open. He would have found that funny I think. And practical. "Well how else would they get me down?" I imagine him asking. "Throw me off the roof? Use the garbage chute?" I wonder too how my father would have felt about going down the elevator for the last time with an esteemed NYPD escort. I don't think he would have minded at all.
After that I went out on to the streets for a walk. It was quite warm for December. I was in shock. It was raining but it felt more like a fall shower than a holiday freeze. I walked down Second Avenue without an umbrella or a hat, my coat unzipped, just feeling the cool mist on my tear-stained face and I had this thought in my head, very clear and loud. “This is it then. The worst has happened. You will never be happy again. From this day on your life is irrevocably changed for the worse.”
And it has changed irrevocably, but not for the worse. It's just different now. That first year without my father felt very much like that first year without drinking. All those firsts once again. His birthday, Father’s Day, Easter and Thanksgiving at my house when he would always say a short prayer before the meal. Hardest of all were the phone calls. I had a weird superstition that if I spoke to my father before I got on a plane it would not crash. I travel all the time for work and I know 3 people who have died in plane crashes so I am a very nervous flier. I would call my father from the cab on the way to the airport and we would chat. "Where are you off to now?' he would ask, and I would tell him where I was going and for what client and then we would chat some more and then he would say "well thanks for the call, Dear. Call me when you get back" and I always felt that because I had made a pact to call him when I returned that I couldn't die in a plane crash. I had a plan for when I returned home. Call my dad. That would keep me safe.
So I realize that it's not just alcoholics getting sober that have these firsts. We all do. If we are lucky we will experience love and if we live long enough we will experience loss. It's just part of the human condition. The author Glennon Doyle writes “Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world “Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price”.
That kind of loss, of a loved one, is perhaps a more understandable grief than getting sober but when we give up our drug of choice there is a real mourning period. We are giving up something that we have fooled ourselves into believing we cannot live without. Something we loved. Our best friend, our greatest comfort, our source of succor. So that first year is hard, it can test us unmercifully.
Every time we lose something important to us we will have that first year without, and the pain and the struggle of that is real. My first year without a drink was rough. But I got through it. That first year without my father was breathtakingly painful. But through those rough and painful experiences we are given the opportunity to learn that we can do the hard things. We can emerge from grief intact. We can do everything sober that very first time. Now when Erika has to pack her second suitcase sober she will have her first suitcase as her reference point. And that’s how it goes, one first after another, one day after another, day by day.
And miraculously, after 365 days, we see that we had the strength to get through it all. The pain of loss, the cravings of early sobriety, the discomfort of being without our loved one, or our drug of choice.
In recovery we encourage people to keep coming to meetings and not to quit before the miracle happens. So that’s what I told my sponsee that day. That her packing her suitcase sober was a mini-miracle. That if she keeps on going, staying sober, day after day after day she will begin to see that there are mini-miracles happening all around us every day, and by staying sober we get to experience the magic of them all.
*The sponsor/sponsee relationship is designed to build on the sense of community we find in the rooms of 12 step programs. It’s a close, connected partnership between someone who has experience with the program and someone who is new to recovery. Together, we work the program of recovery and keep one another on track.