Five Years of Sobriety: Smiling and Waving and Looking so Fine
by Paul Curreri
“Drink a lot?”
“I guess it varies.”
“Hmm,” she said, considering her clipboard, “would you say you drink a shit-ton?”
“Did you say a ‘shit-ton?’”
“Uhhhhh… I don’t know… how much is a shit-ton?”
“Like thirteen or more a day?”
“OH! No. I guess I don’t drink a shit-ton. I can’t wait to tell my wife.”
I don’t carry around a five-year AA chip, but I do still have a wedding ring on my finger. This morning I woke up at 6:15am. Devon was already with our daughter Ray, because currently that’s how we do it. And the morning sun was pushing through the arc of trees out back—the trees I loved so much upon first seeing them that I had actually run from the bottom of the yard and into the kitchen to whisper, “Honey, I think we should buy it.” So now the sun behind the trees casts the wildest shadows up the walls of our bedroom, and I can never decide if it’d look good if I traced those shadows, and then painted them in permanently.
And I can never decide whether I’d appreciate the shadows as much without the sound of Devon and Ray in the kitchen. Or if I’d have a kitchen. Or if I’d be awake or alone or alive to dig shadows at all if I hadn’t stopped drinking five years ago this May 19th. I really don’t know, and I really haven’t decided how I feel about it one way or the other.
As the five-fucking-year mark approached, I considered writing something, and also not writing something. Because what if I’m not comfortable being an inspiration to your husband? Because what if I’m not entirely sold on not drinking? Does anybody need to hear me expand on that? And, no matter how I feel, I wouldn’t want to be someone’s romantic excuse for excess.
But it has been five years. Sure, thanks. Five years since I didn’t drink one night on May 19th, 2013. I’d lost my voice a few months prior. My left hand was throbbing so bad I couldn’t sleep. My entire shit was evaporating like Michael J Fox. I was just getting acquainted with rock bottom when one May 18 night, Devon and I strolled into a rough patch too, and my foundation crumbled and dropped even lower. Partially to show I meant business about saving our marriage, and partially to lower my odds of being overdramatic and killing myself, I stopped drinking the next day. There was no plan. It was just, “I’m not drinking today, and probably not tomorrow.” Five years.
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People still ask if it was difficult to quit. Physically, for me, it wasn’t at all, which I admit was a relief. I think it took a bit longer to fall asleep the first night, and then that was that. Psychologically, well… it also wasn’t a problem, but maybe I had special circumstances. Everything was happening at once. Repairing my marriage was distracting me from the hand pain, the utter sorrow of losing my ability to play guitar, my career. Not playing guitar instantly ate my self-worth and confidence, which lead me to stay home, avoiding the hyper-hip Austin bars. Avoiding bars helped me avoid booze, people playing guitars — helped me avoid who I used to think I was. When one string is out of tune, it’s all you can hear. When all the strings are broken, who thinks about individual strings?
No, I never went to any meetings. Actually, Devon did drag me to one—a group meeting for addict musicians. But I didn’t fit in. Those poor folks were there to dodge heavy, heavy drugs—and I mean dodge them at that very minute. They were fighting on an hour-to-hour basis. I actually didn’t even get to talk. The way we were seated, Devon got called on before I did. She introduced herself, then began: “Yeah, ok, I probably have about two drinks per night,” and started to cry. I tried to interject, to clarify why we were there, but the group leader—ironically, also Devon’s counselor at the time—made clear I should shut my ass. And then we were out of time. We didn’t go back. I still wonder if anyone there remembers the pretty young woman who was struggling with her two drinks per night.
Really early on, someone gave me a AA handbook. I don’t even remember who. It sat on top of a wobbly dresser for a few weeks until I decided to use it to prop steady the dresser.
If you’re a musician in Austin, the city pays for your healthcare. So I was seeing a shrink for the bulk of the time I was there. He was a recovered addict himself. And maybe he wasn’t busting open the walls of my brain, but he was a solid and sympathetic listener. He repeatedly told me I’d eventually have to take the time to mourn the loss of the guitar. I stopped seeing him when he fell off his own wagon, dodging two weeks of our sessions, and then showing up high to the next. So I wrote him a goodbye letter: I’m not gonna rat you out, you need to cancel all appointments, you helped me and here’s how, thanks for having that power, and sincere good luck in relocating that power.
To be sure, the benefits of sobriety were almost immediately apparent. No more breath like a factory smokestack, venting the cranking and processing of your guts. No more night sweats. No more constant guilt of disappointing folks, fairly or not. And so much less to conceal: the fat face and red eyes that give you away, the money situation, your true mood on the occasions when you’re feeling downright poisoned. One of my personal favorites: ditching the basic matter of moderation—so endless, so boring, so open for dispute. None is a far easier number to conceptualize than maybe a few now and then, sometimes.
But it got harder in the years that followed, and harder still today. The longer I didn’t drink: the longer I didn’t go out. The longer I didn’t dive into pools with my clothes on, or spontaneously jump on stage, or hahaholyshit late with folks with my whole body, or tell a friend I loved them: the less I could.
Plus, the more time goes by, the more folks grow accustomed to your not drinking. The bigger the pile of rubble if you started again. It’s a sneaky transition but, at some point, you realize their expectations have flipped. The momentum flips. Gravity flips. Like you’d been inching your way up a roller coaster hill—for months, for years? Meanwhile, people bump around the world raising children, changing their car oil every 3,000 miles. And then one sleepy Sunday their pastor says something that reminds them of you, and they stop listening to the pastor and think of you, notice they haven’t heard anything terrible in months, in years?—and decide it’s safe to assume you’re surely zooming down the fun bit of that roller coaster by now.
Like it or not, your struggle becomes part of the social fabric. Everyone wants the best for you. Do you honestly have the pluck to turn around and walk the wrong way up the busy escalator? In my experience, tending a small fire of resentment toward one’s people is part of the deal. Everybody gets to be so thankful, and you get to maintain, like, 7% consta-mad. I’m kidding.
Devon and I ate dinner at C&O the other night, a deeply civilized joint where I spent many a cosmo evening by the fish tank solo or with buddies in the corner, a couple different girlfriends, cigarette smoke, scotch mostly. Maybe they still do, but the Rick Olivarez Trio used to push tables aside and really go for it, transport the place, make you imagine everybody gets their own heaven when they die. I saw Sissy Spacek in there, Rita Mae Brown, and—inconceivably—Wallace Shawn. Ducking and dodging all this the other night, looking around, I saw zero indication of sadness. Just folks enjoying an evening, how life should be, like kids in movies hanging out before the internet.
Wouldn’t everyone live differently if it weren’t for loved ones? I’m not suggesting the idea’s much deeper than a fortune cookie, but I guess I asking. Some of us would eat more if it didn’t make us fat. Some would fuck more if it didn’t make us single. For my entire adult life—and way lucidly in the past five years—I’ve daydreamed a sort of sandpapery twin out there in the distance, a scabrous gnarly cowboy out the window of a train, racing along, making the choices I didn’t. Our two paths aren’t exactly parallel, but at any given moment close enough to get a good look. Sometimes he’s calm, lives in Hawaii and runs a little business. Sometimes he’s furious, lives in New Orleans, though not for very long. Either way, he’s usually alone. Either way, he always drinks.
For better and worse, alcohol fit into my worldview, or my life view. I associated it with both the earth and air, both a blooming and a noble destruction. At its best, appreciating alcohol’s magic, complexity, and deliciousness was an important component of appreciating life. I took very few sips, swigs, or glugs lightly nor for granted. I’m not saying it’s essential for everyone’s life. Neither is having children, making the team, seeing Japan.
If I asked, you’d probably say something kind like, “It’ll get easier with time.” I would have expected that too, but it hasn’t been my experience. Instead, the effect of not being able to hear Led Zeppelin quite the same is degenerative. Headlights oxidize. Then one day you realize you’re living in a skim-milk version of the present, a catch-that-lamp-it’s-falling version of the present. If anything, the present should be the most dimensional moment of all. But there you are, catching a lamp, putting a lamp back up, without a blip of context or greater significance. Time stands still, and yet somehow I always feel late.
As kids, my uncle used to razz my mom: “Better watch out. You only get so many words and then you die…” Ahh, the beautiful silence that surely followed. Devon and I have joked that maybe people only get so many glasses of wine, and then you’re done. And I’ve got no one but myself to blame for not spreading mine out better. Like, if I hadn’t been such a pig about it, maybe right this minute I’d be checking yes +1 to your summer-fun e-vite. If maybe I’d played it cooler. If enough had been a lower number. There’s probably something to that. I’m not talking about turning eight into one, but maybe eight into five? Christ, I’m struggling to type another sentence after that. A lot happened in those last three glasses.
And maybe that’s it: that hesitation is the short of all this long. Maybe that’s the sound of the car’s squeaky brakes pulling back into the driveway. A melancholic meander around the old neighborhood, out to the country straights where the motorcycle use to hit 100, back into town down Main where so much has changed. Turn off the radio, click, and nope: I’m still defensive about turning eight hypothetical drinks into five. Wow. Is that scrappy stance still current, still me, or just leftover? Because sometimes you have to tell an old joke to know it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it’ll be different now, after a 5-year timeout, as a homeowner and a father, humbled and reassembled. Maybe I’ll go out to the old musty drankin’ shed with another dad guy and just totally renovate the space. We could do it on a weekend. Look how nicely our daughters play.
I allow people to think I stay sober for their sake. I don’t like to tell them that there’s real fear. I admit I almost always envision the loss of stuff first. The house—the studio and gear, the yard and the trees, the shadows on the walls. Flickering visions of my elbows on a small table alone in my apartment behind the Target. Stuff cut in half. Second comes the catalog of deeper, priceless loss. Slow, just for a moment—always, always Devon’s face. From there it just bursts, gushes with such pressure, and there’s a loss of pressure in the cabin and we’re going down as a flipbook tells a single story in an instant. There’s real fear.
So here we are. Home again from a drive. Back home from a walk around the loop of options. I’m not drinking tonight, and probably not tomorrow. All this, and I’m still too polite to tell you how angry I am. All this, and I’m still too proud to tell you how thankful I am.
One last thing. About a year ago, my extraordinarily chill brother Matt was walking around our music studio, checking stuff out and reconsidering all the choices he’s ever made in his entire life (ha). “Aww man,” he playfully whined, “I wish myyyy wife would let meeee buy tons of stuffffffffffff!”
“Oh dude,” I said, “It’s easy. All you do is drink a whole lot of wine… pretty much every day for years and years… like at least a decade… and then kinda outta nowhere… you just stop doing that. After that, they’re just super-thankful, and you can buy loads of stuff. It takes a bit of long game. But it seems to work.”