sober questioning

Following the Rules Won’t Keep Me Sober

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

They say that when you first enter sobriety, you revert back to whoever you were when you started drinking or using. For me, that would be 13-year-old Ana — which is the best excuse I have for how it is that 38-year-old Ana got busted for sneaking out of the rehab dorm. To meet some guys.

For most people, drinking is the key to lowering inhibitions and acting out. I, however, was stone-cold sober when I tiptoed out of my room past midnight trying to avoid waking my two roommates. The other malcontents, fellow rehab patients, I met behind the gym (behind the gym!) were also sober. Some alcoholics, it turns out, don’t even need to be drunk to break completely reasonable and common-sense rules.

If you have an alcoholic or an addict in your life, chances are you already know this. Even the highest-functioning among us, even those of us with some time clean, tend to have corners of our lives where adolescent defiance hinders our decision-making. Sometimes the rebellions are relatively small, like, say, having more than ten items in the grocery-store express lane. But I’ve also heard my fellow sober alcoholics talk about shoplifting and cheating on their spouses with the same bewilderment at their own sober behavior that I had that night: Stripped of the excuse of chemical impairment, what is our fucking deal?

It is nice to have the “you go back to your pre-drinking age” folk wisdom to throw back at people when trying to explain yourself in those situations, but that framework (“I was behaving like a child because I felt like a child”) doesn’t offer the teen in us much of a lesson. And I suspect I’m not the only chemically dependent person whose opposition to authority runs deeper than the rules I wind up breaking. Some sullen part of me, up until pretty recently, hated most of the rules that governed adulthood. I just followed them anyway. I viewed society as a set of stern parents, and my choice was to be a good or bad girl.

The behind-the-gym escapade didn’t last very long. It had been maybe 15 minutes when I literally said, “I’m too old for this,” and booked it back to the dorm, only to find one of my roommates awake and waiting for me outside our door. She told me that I’d better fess up or she would tell our counselors for me. I had 24 hours.

I wound up in the counselor’s office the next day, where I confessed everything, including, after an embarrassingly short period of strong-arming, the names of the other clients involved. Call it narcing if you want, but I thought of it as part of being a good girl.

After I’d recounted everything, my counselor pulled out a form I recognized from patient gossip: It was an agreement that I would leave if the staff determined I was unwilling to abide by their recommendations while in the treatment program. It was the step before getting kicked out. It was your final warning.

Thinking of all the nonrefundable money my family had paid the treatment center and having intense flashbacks to principals’ offices over the years, I started to cry. And, I’m not proud of this, beg. I protested that I had admitted to my wrongdoings! I had given up the names of my co-conspirators! Shouldn’t that count for something? I would follow all the rules from now on, I promise!

My wonderful counselor, an imposing woman with 30 years of sobriety and a sensible buzzcut, stopped filling out the form and turned to me: “Ana, you didn’t break a rule. You broke a contract. You signed an agreement when you checked in that you’d follow our recommendations or we’d discontinue treatment. This is what happens when adults agree to something and then one of them doesn’t follow through. This isn’t a punishment. This is a consequence.”

Right, I thought, right. As a freelancer, I’ve probably dealt with contracts more than most people. When someone turns down an article, you get a kill fee; it says so in the contract. You turn it in on time because the due date is there in the contract. Your pay rate, it’s right there in the contract.

And, she pointed out, technically all that was happening now was written documentation of my having gone against their recommendations.

Right. Sneaking out of the dorm, as naughty as it felt, was really just not doing what they suggested. They weren’t the law; they weren’t even lawyers. I hadn’t broken a rule. I had cheated myself out of the very expensive guidance I was paying them to give me.

Something clicked in my brain as I signed the form. I am an adult who has the agency to agree or disagree with suggestions rather than a child who might be chided for disobedience. (I’m not saying that I’ve since never struggled with an impulse to reject perceived authority. And, of course, sometimes the authorities — and the rules — are wrong or unjust. Even more often, the rules are enforced unjustly.)

The Alcoholics Anonymous aphorism “this is a program of suggestions” sounded different to me after my misguided adventure behind the gym. Before my confession, I interpreted it as a way of brushing off the criticism that AA is too strict. I now see it as a description of the relationship between myself and my recovery in general, in or out of AA: I’ve entered into a contract with my sobriety in which following recommendations from those who have gone before me gives me a smoother path. Should I choose to ignore those recommendations, the contract is broken. I may relapse, I may not, but whatever happens is a consequence of that breach and not a punishment for misbehavior. My sobriety isn’t something that can be taken from me because I was “bad”; my sobriety is the product of doing the work I agreed to do. I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that, but looking at it that way can help me sidestep the impulse to shame oneself that comes with seeing sobriety as a sign of moral rectitude and relapse as a failure.

I believe that embracing this framework has kept me from the kind of shame spirals that really could pull me out of recovery. There have been times in life when I’ve gone against the counsel of therapists or the folk wisdom of AA: I got into a relationship way too early, for instance. I’ve isolated and skipped meetings. I’ve lied, and I’ve cut corners. All of those things at least partially undo the bulwark of self-esteem and honesty that my recovery is built on. But beating myself up over transgressions will only weaken the underlying structure further. When I remember that my sobriety is an agreement, it’s a lot easier to look at my behavior without judging myself and see my actions as mistakes rather than personal failings. It feels so much easier to face, and correct, mistakes.

This wasn’t just a shift in what I thought living sober would look like — it was a profound shift in how I perceived the point of acting like an adult. No one gives you a grade on your performance of adulthood (which is how I used to think of it); being a responsible, full-functioning human is just a practice you can choose to engage in, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. There are benefits, and occasionally it’s okay to decide they aren’t worth it. I still procrastinate, but not as much now that I consciously ask myself if I’m prepared to deal with the late nights and feelings of anxiety that will come with leaving things to the last minute. And I’m on equal footing with the rest of the world in this formulation. I cried in front of bosses so many times in my 30s; it always felt like being sent to the principal’s office. I no longer think of my editors as authorities to please (or sometimes hide from); they are my partners in making a piece better. (No, really.)

As long as I thought of myself as someone who might get in trouble for breaking the rules, I couldn’t take credit for the good choices I made, and my bad choices only mattered if I got caught. But following or not following the rules is not the only way to navigate the world; sometimes, maturity comes from not thinking in terms of rules at all.

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Following the Rules Won’t Keep Me Sober