In part 1 of this article, we began to examine the process of getting sober, and how real sobriety is not only a requirement, but the key component of a winning Michigan driver’s license restoration case. I pointed out that people ultimately decide to quit drinking when they’ve had enough and realize that there is no way to control, manage or limit it. I also pointed out that the perceived need to control one’s drinking is actually a clinical marker of the existence of drinking problem. We saw that to win a license appeal, a person must prove to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Administrative Hearing Section (AHS) that his or her alcohol problem is “under control” (meaning that he or she has not had a drink for a certain minimum period of time) and is “likely to remain under control” (meaning that he or she is a safe bet to never drink again). The idea of hitting bottom is key to the decision to quit drinking, but, as we noted, it’s “staying quit” that really matters. The state won’t give a license back to anyone who is seen as a risk to ever drink again, period. The most reliable indicator that a person is genuinely “sober” and will not go back to drinking is the extent to which his or her focus shifts to how much better life is without alcohol rather than merely on the negative consequences that would accompany the resumption of drinking.
What we wind up with is a kind of gulf, or valley, that separates those who have become sober from those who are still drinking. The sober people will easily and happily relate how much better their lives have become since they put drinking – and all the trouble it brings – behind them, while those who have not yet put the bottle down understandably fear a change that will take pretty much everything familiar out of their lives. No matter how great things have become for those who are now sober, there is no way to make that into a great sales pitch to someone to quit drinking when they cannot first even imagine life without alcohol. What takes place when a drinker finally resolves to stop, and as he or she grows into sobriety, is really the process of getting sober, and is also very much a process of self-discovery. Lots of my sober clients look back on what life was like when they drank and describe getting sober as kind of like lifting a fog, or taking off a blanket. This necessarily involves a kind of retrospective analysis from an obviously better place.
Think back to my client who said that drunks don’t “do” anything. They coast through life with a drink in their hand, not really feeling the moment, not really “feeling” the investment in relationships (this includes every kind of relationship, from family, friends and work) and not really feeling anything because pretty much the entire range of emotions they experience goes from wanting to drink to being outright drunk. They may change the places and situations where they drink (from a bar to a boat to a golf course), but it’s just the same thing against a different backdrop. This is why, after that fog lifts, the drinking friends are so easy to dump. It’s not that they were bad people, it’s just that when a person clears his or her head, it’s plain to see that all there ever was in common with them centered on drinking. It may take a little while, but once a person gets sober, he or she begins to earn back the trust and respect of the people who really matter, and begins to actually do things, even if it’s nothing profound. You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest or pick up some new hobby to “do” something. Even if all you do is begin to binge-watch TV shows on Netflix or something like that, the idea is that you’re actually “doing” something – anything – other than just getting drunk.
Once a person gets a sense that he or she is kicking a drinking problem in the ass, it’s empowering. “If I can do this, I can probably do just about anything” is a common thought. And from there, you can watch, in absolutely every case, the trajectory of a person’s life shift upward. People become better partners, employees, children and siblings. Lots of people finish up a certification or a degree, or go back to school and earn another. People leave crappy jobs for better ones, or become way better at what they do and get noticed for it. Nobody who gets sober simply stagnates. Nobody. And every sober person knows this because they’ve been through it.
The point I’m making is that there are all kinds of things happening when a person gets sober. Life doesn’t stay the same, just minus the alcohol. Everyone who has gotten sober knows that every facet of his or her life changed in the process, and it is a process that involves a lot of self-discovery. Getting sober is not, and should never be a guilt trip, but the ability to look back invariably reveals a level of selfishness that makes most people cringe. The difference is that drunks get all caught up in numbing out the reality in the moment, whereas sober people work through things, even if that means just letting go.
AA still holds a lot of sway in the context of a license appeal, not because you need to be in it, but rather because AA concepts really gave us the language by which we understand and talk about recovery. Think if AA’s first step: “Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” AA people know what that means, but for everyone else, it translates to admitting you can’t always control your drinking and that the only way to avoid future problems is to understand that you simply cannot drink again. This requires that a person accept his or her powerlessness, or to put it another way, to not just “understand” that you shouldn’t drink again, but to really accept, as a matter of indisputable fact, that you simply cannot ever consume alcohol again.
The key difference that separates mere abstinence from real sobriety is that when a person really does accept that he or she cannot drink again (and remember, acceptance is more than just an intellectual understanding. We all understand that we’re not likely to win the lotto, but we buy a ticket anyway because, however remote the chance, there is no reason to accept that it cannot happen), they close the door on it, and the compulsion to drink goes away. This doesn’t mean that a person never has thoughts of drinking, but thoughts are much different than cravings. From time to time, I think about what it would be like to go skydiving, but I don’t crave trying it, and I’ll probably never actually do it. Once a person really puts drinking in the past, they have no use for dwelling in that past and can therefore move forward. As much time as anyone may have spent partying, the awful experience of being stone-cold sober and having to talk to a drunk person is a real eye opener. Anyone who is sober or otherwise doesn’t drink knows that if you go to a wedding, by about 10 or 10:30, most people are getting lit up, and there is just no joy in being around them once they’re drunk. It’s a dreadful experience, and one that really zings home what a waste of life it is to spend so much of one’s precious little time on this planet just getting f-ed up.
I have a real-life analogy for this. Almost all of my blog articles are written over the weekend. A couple of times a month, my wife and I will go out on Friday to do our shopping and get groceries. This always involves dinner out, and, at the end of the night, my wife will often suggest a quick dessert before we head home. There is a nice little self-serve frozen yogurt place we go to (the kind of place with a bunch of different machines and flavors, and then a toppings bar in the middle where you put all kinds of goodies on your creation) that happens to sit across the street from a certain, well-known yuppie bar. By the time we get to the yogurt place, it’s usually after 10 pm, and the we’ll sit by the window where we can look out at the street. The yuppie bar is part of that view. In the warm weather, the bar puts out a patio, but even in the winter, you can see many of the bar patrons, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, standing outside and smoking. You can hear, them, too, because they’ve been drinking and they are loud. I imagine that some of them may look across the street and into the yogurt place and kind of laugh as they see me, in my early 50’s, eating yogurt on a Friday night. I also imagine that they may think something like, “Man, if my life ever gets so boring that I’m reduced to eating frozen yogurt at 10:30 on a Friday night, just kill me.”
Yet I look across the street and think, “The day I ever work my ass off all week long and all I have as the grand prize for all my efforts is to waste my Friday with a bunch of drunk people with no better ideas than to spend all their time and money getting f-ed up, just kill me.” For everything that life throws at me, I’m supposed to accept that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is blowing my money getting drunk? I know that on Saturday, I’ll be up by or before 8:00 a.m., and starting my day. I’ll have had my coffee, and be feeling just fine. The drunk yuppie, however, probably won’t get up until after noon, and will probably only be able to nurse him or herself back to just enough health to go out and get f-ed up all over again that night. That’s the life, or rather the excuse that passes for a life. It’s really no life at all…
Who’s missing out? I know I’m not. I’m actually enjoying my yogurt as the “nightcap” to a nice evening with my wife, where we got all our shopping done. The drunk yuppie will have probably had some very “deep” (and loud) conversations with all of his drinking friends, only to wake up and not remember a word of it. We’ll probably have spent the same amount of money on Friday night, but my pantry will be stocked, whereas the yuppie will have nothing better to show for his money than a hangover.
You probably get this. And it is precisely this that defines sobriety in real life and what I have to translate into the framework of a license appeal. No one quits drinking because it’s working out great. People quit drinking when the cost of continuing becomes more than they’re willing to pay, and we’re not just talking money. People stay sober because being sober is better than drinking. Sober people like who they become, and they realize that life as a drunk was a boring, go nowhere waste of time. There is an AA saying that sums it all up: “My worst day sober beats the hell out of my best day drunk.” If you’re really sober, then you’re probably nodding your head in agreement right now.
Sure, everybody needs a driver’s license. In the “Zen” world of sobriety, however, your recovery comes first. For probably a lot of reasons, including some I don’t even know about, for most people, getting back on the road is really the last piece of the puzzle. If you have done the work to get sober, then you understand, first-hand, the process you went through. AA people have more terms to describe it, but that doesn’t change the experience, whether you’ve done AA or not. My job is to help you describe and use what you’ve been through to win your license back. If you’re genuinely sober, I can do just that, and I guarantee it, as well. For almost every person I help, getting back on the road is the last piece of the puzzle of their life that needs to be put in place. If you’re ready to do it, call my office anytime Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (EST). We’re here to help, and can be reached at 586-465-1980.