How to Be Sober

If you’re looking to stay sober, first: Shut up.

Photo: Manuel Alexiades/Getty Images/Glow RM
Photo: Manuel Alexiades/Getty Images/Glow RM
Photo: Manuel Alexiades/Getty Images/Glow RM

I was enrolled in a small private college in Providence, Rhode Island, where I’d lived in a dorm until the night I squeezed my mattress out through a small window and moved it into a tiny room in an almost entirely vacant flophouse. Here, the only other tenants were a drug dealer, an elderly man, and two gay Dutch sailors who’d gone AWOL together. None of us paid rent, because Viktor, the hard-partying guy whose family owned the place, enjoyed our diverse company.

On the ground floor of the building was a bar where legendary blues and reggae bands performed for enthusiastic college kids who probably didn’t know who they were watching. At the end of my bartending shifts, I’d invite a dozen stragglers up to my tiny room with the stolen mattress on the floor and we’d party until the sun came up listening to more music, hanging out on the fire escape, and getting high. In the morning, I’d wander downstairs in boxers and T-shirt, grab the plastic quart bottle of orange juice that had been sitting in the speed rack overnight, fan away the fruit flies, and pour myself a screwdriver.

We’d take turns running to the deli for bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches. Over breakfast, Viktor would tell me what I’d missed the night before, like how the elderly boogie-woogie piano player Pinetop Perkins, born in 1913, then age 75, though decades of hard living made him look much older, played to a packed house the night before, drank nine whiskeys, and hooked up with a college girl.

One afternoon, a handful of us regulars were day drinking at the bar when Rene, one of the sailors, shouted that some guys had beaten up our resident drug dealer. We jumped off our bar stools, raced through the hall that connected the bar to the hotel, and caught up with them in the alley alongside the building. I grabbed a tall, thin guy, and he punched me in the side of the head. I threw him across the hood of a parked car. I looked around, and between them and us, there were a dozen kids fighting on the street. A glass bottle exploded a couple feet in front of me. Seconds later, a couple more crashed behind me. The guys ran off, and we swaggered back to our perches at the bar where we drank free for the rest of the day.

I retain only the briefest of memories of actually sitting in class, but I do recall showing up for one or two sessions of an internship at the State Assembly, where I wandered in stoned, wearing a T-shirt and Timberland boots. I decided to not return, and as far as I knew, no inquiries had been made as to my whereabouts.

Shortly after my report card arrived in my father’s mailbox, he took me to my first 12-step meeting in Philadelphia. He parked in front of the church, watched me walk inside, and spent the next hour in his car waiting for me. After it was over, he took me out to eat and made a case for what my life would be if I didn’t quit drinking.

My mother had been an IV-drug addict, who’d been addicted to opioids for decades. Before it was a national crisis, it was a crisis for me. It was only a crisis for her when she didn’t have them. It wasn’t hard for me to believe I may have inherited the alcoholic gene from my mother, and I knew from living with her until age 12 what came with that lifestyle. Doors were torn off hinges, bills went unpaid, and we moved like marshals were after us, which ultimately they were.

I went back to Providence after Christmas and stayed sober, even after I returned to my old bartending job, where the beer would run over my hands and down my arms as I poured pints with the taps running continuously. The following year, I moved closer to home and enrolled at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and pledged the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. One evening, I stood in the basement of the frat house with close to a hundred pledges and brothers in a large circle. We passed a talking stick, and the speaker would share something personal about himself and his connection to the group. I’d become so accustomed to introducing myself as an alcoholic before I spoke up in the other meetings I’d attended daily for the previous year that when it was my turn to speak, I did just that.

Somehow, everyone thought I was making a really good joke. Instead of awkward questions or encouragement, I was met with thunderous laughter and a litany of jokes about everyone else’s addictions. Apparently, no one had noticed that I’d never had an alcoholic drink for as long as they’d known me.

When I moved to New York City in 1993, I was 23 years old and five years sober. I became a nightlife reporter, and I attended half a dozen parties a night. In my first year, I interviewed Donald Trump, Ed Koch, and countless fashion designers. I was accustomed to refusing drinks. As a reporter, I was content to watch.

At age 28, I celebrated ten years sober. By this time, I’d attended thousands of 12-step meetings in Manhattan. I was active in a recovery community here, but ultimately I grew tired of hearing people just talking about drinking, so I decided to celebrate my anniversary with an experiment in moderate drinking. I wanted to join the big messy crowd of glamorous weirdos who could pop a pill or take a drink and switch off their brains for a few hours. I was no longer content to just watch.

My first legal drink, my first drink in a decade, my drink to see if I was in fact an uncontrollable alcoholic or merely a problem drinker, was at an upscale pub a couple blocks south of Central Park. I met a Vogue writer friend of mine who worked nearby, knew my story, and had agreed to come along in case of emergency.

I still remember the time it took for the bartender to pour a proper pint of Guinness. I remember the curves of the glass, the feel of it in my hand, and the velvety sensation on my tongue. It was the greatest thing I’d ever tasted, rich and creamy, bitter and astringent, and my world didn’t fall apart all at once. I finished my drink and went home with a light buzz and no desire for more. I couldn’t believe what a fool I’d been, wasting a decade with a bunch of losers complaining about how they couldn’t drink.

It’s not unusual for someone who’s gotten sober to have a slip; sobriety loses its priority, they say. Sometimes a slip can last for a day or a week, months, or even years. In my case, it’s hard to call it a slip when it lasts for 18 years.

How do I sum up two decades of drinking? I didn’t always get in trouble when I was drinking, but I was always drinking when I got in trouble. Over the next two decades, I got, held, and lost jobs and relationships like a lot of young people, perhaps more dramatically that most though.

I was slipping out of the office early on a Friday to get to the airport because I’d started dating a chocolate heiress who was flying me to San Francisco for the weekend. That’s when Ed Nardoza, then the editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily, caught me by the elbow and escorted me to a conference room where I was met by my boss Bridget Foley, who said, “Apparently, Michael, you’ve confused this job with a cocktail party.” When I told my new girlfriend what had happened, she said, “I guess you don’t have to hurry back for Monday morning.”

I’d say drinking became a second job, but I rarely had a first job, and when I did, it wasn’t for long. Watching people on their way to work when you’re leaving a stranger’s apartment in a strange neighborhood at 9 a.m. doesn’t feel victorious.

On my last night of drinking, my wife, Keisha, and I brought three bottles of wine to a party in Carroll Gardens. I wanted to be sure that I drank at least as much as we brought so that we’d break even.

“Do you want a glass of what you brought?” the host asked me.

“Fuuuuuck that! Gimme the good stuff,” I said.

“Your face changes when you’re drinking,” Keisha said.

I tried to pretend I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I’d heard it before. In the beginning, all my muscles relax, but there’s a point where they tense up again, my lips tighten, my eyelids get heavy, the result is something of a smirk, ready for jousting. How far I’ll take it is anyone’s guess.

There was an argument with Keisha and a fight with an Uber driver, which accelerated into a fight with the two guys who tried to help the Uber driver. I lost my glasses. I thought the cops might be tracking my iPhone, so I turned it off and took a cab to my friend Joey’s.

I got there after three, but there was no answer at Joey’s door, so I curled up on the concrete floor in the hallway. I woke a couple hours later when Joey stumbled home from some girl’s apartment.

“What are you doing here?” Joey said.

“Keisha and I had a big fight. I think we’re through,” I said.

“Just come in and go to sleep,” Joey said.

The next morning, Joey said, “Maybe you should lay off the booze for a while.”

“I need help,” I said.

“Maybe you should go to AA. I know tons of people in L.A. that go,” Joey said.

“I think I should go right now or I’m afraid I won’t go,” I said.

I looked up AA on my phone and found a meeting at noon on Perry Street. It was 10:30, and we were only a few blocks away.

“I need to eat something. I’ll buy you breakfast first,” Joey said.

We went to Sant Ambroeus, an Italian café that shares a wall with the AA group next door. I was still drunk at the time and thought about having a whiskey with breakfast to steady my hands, but I was too afraid that I wouldn’t stop and that I’d miss the meeting.

I ran next door to the meeting just as it was starting. There were about ten people in the room. After everyone else had shared, there was still a few minutes left so I put up my hand.

I said I was an alcoholic, it was my first day back, I was in trouble, my marriage was in trouble, I’d slept in a doorway, I was a writer, and I was finishing a book about being sexually abused by my mother and that I’d been drinking more to get through it. I said I’d been sober for a long time a long time ago.

A guy came over to me, said he was a writer, too, and told me what he wrote. I’d heard the title and knew it was big, but I wasn’t personally familiar.

We took a walk at the break, and when we returned to the meeting, I held the door open for him.

“After you,” he said.

“I got it,” I said.

He put his hand on top of the door, adding, “Get the fuck in there.”

At one point, we both took out notebooks and silver pens. Neither of us commented on this.

After the meeting, we were walking in the same direction. He stopped in front of Mary’s Fish Camp.

“Do you know anything about this place?” he asked.

“It’s like a bohemian rich person’s place,” I said.

He stared back at me with confusion on his face.

“It looks really good,” I quickly added.

“Hang out. I’ll buy you lunch,” he said.

I was embarrassed with what I’d said, but I agreed to join him. I’d just finished breakfast a little over an hour earlier, but I was so afraid I was going to start drinking after I left him that I ordered food to fill myself up so there wouldn’t be any room.

While we waited for our lunch, I texted Keisha and told her I was with a guy from AA. A couple minutes later, a close friend texted me to say he and some people were getting cocaine, that I should come over. I showed the text to the guy, maybe as proof that I was an alcoholic and my friends were too and that I needed his help. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to stop drinking but I didn’t know how.

We ate lobster rolls and fries, and I thought if being sober meant that cool guys took me out for fancy breakfasts and lunches, it might not be so bad.

The guy told me to call him every day, and I did. Most of the time, it went to voice-mail and I’d leave a message. Occasionally, I’d leave him a message and say I didn’t know if I could keep doing this. The guy would call me back on his way home from work that night or send me a text right away telling me to pray to my higher power to keep me sober. I did this and it worked.

He had other advice too. If you’re looking to stay sober, first: Shut up. Seriously, shut up. This isn’t a joke. You’re not here to learn about healthy living. This isn’t therapy. I know how to be sober and you don’t, so shut it. If I wanted to learn how not to be sober, I’d shut up and you could talk. Listen. Stop making decisions because you’re not in a position to make good decisions. Don’t drink. This is important. You can’t be sober if you’re drinking. Go to meetings. This is also important because you’ll learn stuff that will help you not drink. Talk to other alcoholics. It doesn’t matter if you like them or if they like you. Pray to God to keep you sober. Get on your knees. Pray for patience. Pray for willingness. You’re not sure if you believe in God? It doesn’t matter. Do it anyway. All you need to know is there’s a God and it’s not you. God is your new boss. I know other people with egos as big as yours, I just don’t talk to them on the phone. You’re not as interesting as you think you are. Pretend you’re interviewing for a job to be your wife’s live-in companion. It’s a job I don’t think you deserve, but try and show that it should be yours.

Three years later, I still follow that advice. I give that advice to guys who ask me for help. I don’t wonder what my life would be like if I were still drinking. My 22-month-old son has never seen me drunk. Now, the only time I’m curled up on the floor is when I lay beside his crib to help him fall asleep. I do my best to make up for lost time. I listen to Pinetop Perkins as I walk to Perry Street, and I remind myself I’m not that interesting.

How to Be Sober