It’s fair to say that being an alcoholic makes most things more difficult.
Work, relationships, climbing short flights of stairs… all these things become meaningful harder when you’re either paralytically drunk or so vomit-sweatingly hungover your heart feels like its about to give up beating.
Still, during the decade or so I spent as an alcoholic, there was one thing that being a drunk actually made easier: Knowing who the asshole was in any given situation.
In any given situation, the asshole was me.
Every obliterated relationship: My fault.
Every firing, or breached contract, or missed deadline: Also my fault.
Every vicious argument, every betrayal of trust: 100% me.
Every time I woke up in a police cell, or in a stranger’s bathtub: Nobody to blame but myself.
For over a decade I’d internalized this simple worldview: I’m entirely bad, therefore everyone else around me is entirely good*. Ergo, if I were to ever stop drinking, my world would be free of conflict, free of negativity, free of drama. Kumbaya.
So you can imagine how I felt, back in 2009, when I finally got sober and realized the hideous truth: I wasn’t the only asshole in the world.
Not ever sober person is nice, or kind or honest. Some lie. Some cheat. Others steal. A few even – gasp – use your drinking to deflect blame for bad things they did. A ridiculous number of people in the world are just plain mean.
I’ll give you the clearest example I can of how this realization caught me unawares. A year or so after I got sober, I had a meeting with Byliner – an exciting new publishing company that specialized in publishing essays and short stories as Kindle singles. Their author roster was already ridiculous -Margaret Atwood first published The Heart Goes Last under their imprint. And now they wanted me to write a book about getting sober without using AA.
Damn right I would!
I worked hard on the manuscript, snatching hours in between meetings to raise money for NSFWCORP. Working late into the night in my Vegas apartment, I poured my heart and liver into offering sincere and helpful advice to folks like me who wanted to get sober but couldn’t entirely get on board with AA’s “admit you’re powerless to change, trust God and everything will be fine” mantra. Still, I took pains not to dismiss AA out of hand. If their 12 step program works for you, that’s great!
Whenever I write about Silicon Valley or tech awfulness I expect a backlash. Similarly, when I used to write memoirs about my own drunken awfulness, I knew there would be loud critics (alcoholic internal monologue: I deserve this criticism, I am a terrible person and everyone else is right to hate me). But I’m not joking when I say I expected Sober Is My New Drunk to be the first thing I’d ever written that every single reader would love.
I mean, come on: It was a story of a guy who used to be terrible, and now wasn’t. It was a guide book for addicts to get sober in a way that worked for them, even if that way wasn’t AA. But it also was a book that acknowledged the benefits AA has to many millions of people. What’s. Not. To. Love?
And then, right before the book was officially published, the Wall Street Journal published a short extract as their ‘Saturday Essay.”
Five minutes later…. Well, I’ll just quote from just the first page of comments…
“I bet a dollar he drinks within the year. This is an example of a “dry” alcoholic, running on self-will and self-obsession.”
“I will take THAT bet all day long and twice on Sunday”
“I bet he falls off the wagon.”
“I wouldn’t take that bet, it’s a sure thing”
“CONGRATULATIONS!!! Let us hear how YOUR steps are working for you in 20 years.”
“I have one word to describe Mr. Carr: Nacissist….I would label you nothing but a dry drunk.”
“This story was self-indulgent, narcissistic schlock with false humility tossed at the end. Paul Carr: Let us know how you are doing in a few years- maybe 5. I’ll be curious to see whether you’ve made any personal growth.”
After that I stopped reading. But the hate mail kept pouring in, by email, by Tweet, by fucking carrier pigeon. More vitriol than I’ve ever received in response to a piece of writing, before or since. Hundreds and hundreds of messages from total strangers predicting that I was surely on the verge of relapse, or was just flat lying about having quit in the first place. There were even death threats. Death threats!
The truly jarring part was how much of the abuse came from current or former addicts. How is it possible that even they hated me? Weren’t we all ont he same team?
I remember turning to Sarah and asking, genuinely baffled, why is everyone being so cruel?
Her response: This is why you don’t read the comments. (She also wrote this great response on Pando)
Another friend put it more succinctly, with a shrug. People are assholes.
Seven years have passed since that Wall Street Journal piece was published (“Paul Carr: Let us know how you are doing in a few years- maybe 5”) and I now have enough data to offer a slight edit to my friend’s judgement.
Most people are not assholes. But a really surprising number are.
You only need to look at the news to see them. Our president is one. Every Republican in Congress is one. Millions of Twitter and Facebook trolls are. Every pro-Brexit person you know is. Everyone who has ever started a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” or “We’re going to use the Blockchain to…” Every dude who has the hashtag “#feminist” in his bio.
Assholes, assholes everywhere.
It seems like such an obvious truth now. But I wish someone had warned me when I announced I was quitting drinking. Putting down the bottle won’t make everything better. In fact, it will make precisely one thing better: You will no longer be a drunk.
Your liver will thank you. You might live a little longer. But that’s it.
Even when sober, you will still have unsuccessful relationships. You will still get into drag-out fights with people you love. You will still forget to set your alarm and miss important meetings. People will lie to you. People will steal from you. You will do well-meaning things that result in you getting punched in the face (maybe even by thousands of Wall Street Journal readers.)
The big difference is, now you’re sober, you’ll have figure out how to deal with it all like an actual adult, without access to your previous solutions of either a) assuming it’s all entirely your fault and apologizing profusely or b) drinking an entire bottle of Captain Morgan and ending up in a jail cell, or c) both.
That part – figuring out how to interact with the harsh reality of the world, unmediated by booze – will take weeks or even months. It will feel like the hardest thing about sobriety. Sometimes even harder than the actual process of quitting.
And that’s when the next kicker comes. The realization that really knocks you off your feet: If the world really is full of assholes, there’s a pretty huge chance that you’re one of them. Even without the booze.
Or, put differently: Congratulations! You’re no longer a drunk asshole. But statistically you’re probably still an asshole. Maybe that’s the reason you became a drunk in the first place.
And that’s when the real recovery begins.
* That moral clarity is why those “intervention” type TV shows are so satisfying. All of Johnny Addict’s well-meaning, well-adjusted friends and family members, gathered together in a hotel ballroom to help Johnny understand precisely how much of an asshole he – and he alone – is.
At no point does Johnny get to turn to his best pal or his parish priest and say “hold on a minute, Steve, before we go back to listing all the horrible things I’ve done, can we take a moment to talk about your racist Facebook posts, or the money Dad embezzled from work? Or “come on, Father Joe, we’ve all heard the rumors.” Now *that* would be great television.