When you’re a recovering alcoholic and everyone around you knows it, you’re suddenly exposed. People know what to expect. You don’t have to hide much. But when you’re an alcoholic who’s suddenly a recovering alcoholic who’s trumpeting it on Facebook and showing off your 30-day sober coin while you’re secretly drinking again, it becomes ten times harder to achieve the escape velocity your brain so desperately needs from reality. You can’t just make quick, random trips to the store without getting asked a dozen questions. You can’t excuse all your stumbling, mumbling, stuttering, and confusion and sweating and puffy-faced mood swings. (Well, you can, but it’s not easy.)
Because I’m an alcoholic, I cut every corner imaginable. If there was a shortcut, you could sure as shit find me taking it. If I could make people think I was sober and still reach alcoholic bliss, that wasn’t cheating. That just meant I was smarter than everyone else around me. Of course, you can’t sustain that sort of charade for long—especially when you’re dealing with booze. Drunks aren’t the most meticulous people on the planet. Details get fuzzy and things get overlooked. Very often, I’d forget where I’d hidden my half-drunk pints of vodka, which simply turned my house into the world’s saddest version of The Hunt for Red October: my wife and I silently circling the house, not speaking, but both keenly aware that there was something lurking in the dark. In the end, it was just a matter of who’d find the bottle first.
Carrie found three empty Smirnoff bottles tucked under a pillow in the spare bedroom, a particularly lazy hiding spot. I didn’t even know what to say other than, “Oh well. You got me.” Her face was pinched with disappointment. She was more upset that I was talking about sobriety with other people who were actively trying to find it. I’d scored the cartoon version of sobriety—the one that gets played in late-night syndication.
At the height of my secret drinking, I apparently texted my sister at 2:30 am. All it said was “Help me” or something to that effect. I heard about this much later from my mom, when I’d finally gotten sober. I don’t remember sending the message, but it sounded like something I’d do—especially after putting away a pint of cheap, bright-smelling vodka. But it was a far cry from the messages I normally sent out into the world at two in the morning: garbled Facebook status updates, random messages to long-out-of-touch friends, the occasional phone call and slurred voicemail. Near the end of my drinking career, I dimly knew I was in trouble, but it was only in my darkest, blurriest moments that I tapped into truth. Turns out, drunk text messages were some of my first, most important steps into recovery.
When my alcoholism was finally clear to me after seeing some of what I wrote, I no longer had just a drinking problem—I’d hurtled way past the point of no return. My texts and Facebook messages pointed to my troubles. No one needed the Rosetta Stone to translate those; it was pretty clear. But the nature of my messages started to change. They started to get more precise, like smart bombs surgically finding a house instead of flattening an entire city block. Some part of me knew I needed help, and it started to reach out even when the rest of me didn’t want to get sober yet.
With my wife and kids asleep, I zoned out and started aggressively posting music videos, movie clips, and funny cat videos on people’s Facebook walls. But something that night was different. I was lying there on my couch, wondering why alcoholism had happened to me. Bad news is always supposed to happen to other people, not you. So I searched my phone, closing one eye as I scrolled through my contacts, and found the number for Mike from Parkside. I sent him a quick hello.
I was horrified to see, immediately, the ellipsis appear on my iPhone. Those three dots told me this guy was texting me back in the middle of the night.
“How are you?” it asked.
The question stabbed back at me there in the dark. It was just too real. More than that, I didn’t know the answer to his question. So I did what I always did when I was drinking—I hid. I didn’t reply. I went back to Facebook and eventually passed out. The next morning, I went through my normal routine of surveying what public damage I’d caused just hours before. I assessed the nonsense I’d put out into the universe. When I saw the text to “AAMike,” I winced. His reply just sort of hung there against a white space, orphaned. I ignored it for a couple of days. Then, when I drank myself into watching old Twilight Zone episodes online, I summoned up the courage to text him back. It was well after midnight and right around the time William Shatner thought he saw a creature on the wing of that 747.
“Sorry, man,” I wrote back. “Got busy.”
This was a bald-faced lie, since I was unemployed and both of us knew it. There was no excuse. Either way, once again, the three dots popped up almost immediately.
“Hey, no worries,” he replied. “How are you?”
Again, I had no idea how to reply, so I went for broke: “Will you be my sponsor?”
It was like asking a stranger if I could accompany him on his Caribbean cruise.
There was a pause, then the dots came.
I was taken aback.
I watched as that sky-monster lumbered across the 747’s wing in black-and-white, with Shatner not believing his eyes. I felt the exact same way. Then again, it’s not like I even knew what the hell a sponsor was. It just sounded like something I needed to ask, and I’d been rejected. I had to face the Twilight Zone monster that was my alcoholism, which still lurked just beyond the window.