Alcohol was the price we paid to pretend that we could feel wonder, when something broken inside of ourselves couldn’t grapple with the fullness of that reality with a clear head and a complete heart.
Dawn is gratitude’s hour. At least for me that’s been true for the past four years. One of the clichés you’ll hear in recovery is that nobody ever wakes up wishing they’d somehow drunk more the night before. The platitudes of sobriety vary in their efficacy, but that one has always struck me as estimably wise, which is to say useful. It’s true: upon awakening, we never wish we’d gotten drunker the previous night, and if there is one imperative which I’ve learned at close to four years of sobriety, it’s to hang on till that morning sun notches its arrival. You might not always be able to make the days count, but you can at least count the days; and no matter how dark the night, no matter how many times the sweet oblivion promised by Sister Alcohol, the awareness that you made it to another clear-eyed morning is its own form of sanctification.
It’s a form of what the poet Raymond Carver, ten years into his sobriety, called “gravy” (others call it “grace”). Carver writes of the simple joy of being “Alive, sober, working, loving, and/being loved.” Rather than the mad scramble or the sinking pit of jittery anxiety, that’s my mornings now.
Equal Parts Shakiness and Shamefulness
Before I got sober there were so many hundreds, thousands, of mornings when I’d startle awake as my hangover shocked my system into consciousness. That blind panic which an old drinking buddy (who knew the score) had christened “The Fear.” Mad fumbling towards a periodically broken flip-phone to see whom I’d bothered by text, the shuffling through of old receipts to fit together the narrative of a hazily remembered bar crawl, the moist, clammy feeling of heavy feet sticking to my hard-wood floor as I booted up my laptop to see what word salad I’d seen fit to post to Facebook or Twitter long after last call. A trail of Yuengling bottles lining a trail from my bed to the couch, where an antique ashtray designed in a faux Byzantine style was overflowing with cigarette butts. Equal parts shakiness and shamefulness.
That heavy, hungover feeling where the physical pain was such that the guilt surrounding the reality of how drunk you’d gotten (again) receded to a sort of personal background radiation, at least until you’d rehydrated and could focus on all of your iniquities before happy hour came, and you could do it all over again. What Caroline Knapp describes in her classic Drinking: A Love Story as the phenomenon whereby all that “you’re really aware of after a night like that is the hangover… You may feel a twinge of embarrassment, a pang of worry or despair, but most of the pain is physical in the morning, so you choose to focus on that.” At its worst, The Fear was a surprise visitor, a guest who came unexpectedly after you agreed to stop by for one or five at the bar after work, or who invited himself to Sunday boozy brunch and decided to stay until Monday morning. It’s a sickening feeling, that knowledge that you’d somehow done it again, even if the rest of what you knew was patchy.
Which is why that hour after I get up makes me feel positively beatified in my new life. In those (often shockingly early!) hours I make coffee that’s too strong and drink too many cups, I take my dog for her morning walk, I listen to The National or The Shins and think deep, contemplative thoughts (or so I pretend). I’m experiencing a type of peace. I’m happy. And most mornings, when I realize the contrast (often helped along by Facebook’s anniversary algorithm), I pause to reflect on a past life, one of painful awakenings and forgotten stumbling. They guarantee that when you quit drinking, you’ll be delivered the life which alcohol had always promised you, but lied about. For me, that guarantee of sobriety has been largely accurate.
The Pull of Euphoric Recall
But sometimes there is that electric pull, a slowing down when walking by a tavern window, hungrily eyeing the bottles of brown liquid behind the bar; or breathing in a bit too deeply when somebody at a bus stop lights a cigarette. Such an attraction to that feeling, to dwell in those moments, is what the old timers call euphoric recall. Maybe a neuroscientist can explain why my brain’s different, the malfunctioning neurons or compulsion for endorphins, but whatever the reasons, the moment ethanol diffuses through my blood, I sit in amazement that not everybody wants to feel that way.
There’s a thrum to alcohol through your veins, a magic whereby at some point between the third and fourth cocktail the very world seems to glow from the inside. And you’ll pursue that glancing feeling until you have no feelings left at all. This is a disease: You’ll make drinking your vocation even though it’ll make you miserable; you’ll head off to hold court at the bar even though you rationally know that you’ve got a better than average chance of getting hit by a car as you drunkenly meander home.
I’ve developed an armor to deal with those moments, and so far, it’s worked well. What polishes that armor, what oils its hinges, is gratitude. I know that that sounds at best abstract and at worst preachy, but gratitude is nothing less than the currency with which I purchase the rest of my life. Explicit in such personal negotiations must be the understanding that, without getting into those tired debates about faith and recovery, I’ve undergone a conversion of sorts. But just as every day I make the decision to not pick up the first drink (and every morning I feel gratitude for at least that fact), so every moment I must occasion that conversion anew. Philosopher Costica Bradatan writes in Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of Philosophers that the “convert is not a new person, but a renewed one… A convert is the impossible mixture of nostalgia and hope, past and future; in such a soul the fear of a relapse lives side by side with an intense passion for the newly found self.”
Reforming your life, living through that conversion, is one thing; being aware, thankful, and grateful for it is what’s necessary to not let it disappear, so that you find yourself sitting with your feet upon the brass rail after twelve pints again. So, what is gratitude then? If it’s just a “Thank You” sent to some higher power, it’s an anemic (though perhaps necessary) thing, for gratitude is not merely sentiment, feeling, or affirmation. Gratitude is an entire way of inhabiting reality; a philosophy, a metaphysic, a method. Specifically, a method of living within the fullness of a moment, an embrace of that shining, luminescent glory of existence that at its most complete undulates with a vibrating glow of wonder. In a word, gratitude is hard. I fear I’m not always the best at it, but of course I go on.
The problem, if you’re an alcoholic as I am, is that that particular state is very easy to acquire for the price of a shot or several. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by the Nazis, often castigated what he called “cheap grace,” and the phrase works well for the feeling you think you’re getting once your blood alcohol level rises. Euphoric Recall? I remember sitting in a pub, hitting that sweet spot between the first drink and intoxication, feeling every nick in the grain of the bar’s wood underneath my fingers, and marveling at the beauty of a beer swag neon sign hung up haphazardly near the liquor bottles. In my mind I was positively divine, for alcohol has always been an apt tool in “turning the volume down,” as the author William S. Burroughs used to put it. If you’re a dipsomaniac, that most metaphysical of afflictions, it’s pretty easy to buy benediction at the bar or liquor store.
When faux-grace is so cheap, it becomes preferable to doing the hard work of actually experiencing the wonder of existence, the joy in simply being. I’m not sure if alcoholism is all about using liquor to desperately plug a God-shaped hole in the human heart, and just feeling the vodka, scotch, or gin rush out into a splash on the other side, but based on how the damn thing makes you feel, I figure there must be some truth in Carl Jung’s contention that alcoholism is a material solution to a spiritual problem. So frightened are we of abandoning our vices, that we fear sobriety will only offer us mundanity, prosaicness, boredom. Eventually we become possessed by our afflictions, at which point they choose not to abandon us. What Tom Waits, crooning in that sandpaper cigarette voice of his, translated from the poet Rainer Marie Rilke: “If I exorcise my devils, well, my angels may leave too.” Worth mentioning that he’s been sober for 18 years now.
If gratitude is not just about feeling thankful (good enough in its own way), but is also a precise method of awareness, of presentness in the moment, it’s helpful to clarify what exactly we felt in those moments when we were enraptured with wine, liquor, and beer. Another one of those helpful clichés for me is, and I paraphrase: “When you’re drunk, you always think something amazing is going to happen in exactly 15 minutes from whatever time it happens to be, but of course that 15 minutes is never over.” That seems exactly correct to me; the illusion of intoxication is something where you never actually feel wonder, just the admittedly powerful sense that wonder is about to occur. The horrible irony of the substance itself is that the drunker you get, the less possible it becomes to be present or appreciative for any actual moments of glory.
A Clear Head and Complete Heart
By contrast, in sobriety there’s no need to wait 15 minutes – wonder is available now. To feel the nicks of wood under fingertips, to acknowledge the cracked transcendence of a neon sign, to feel gratitude at every second of our fallen, flawed, limited, beautiful lives is an issue of simply “cleansing the doors of perception,” as William Blake wrote, so that “everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.” The irony is that for its reputation, alcohol is a remarkable bad disinfectant for perception. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin, writing of the Kabbalah, said that for believers “every second of time was the strait gait through which the Messiah might enter.” Every second of time is a portal through which awareness, wonder, gratitude may enter. It’s important to remember that, because in forgetting we may return to the easy cheap grace.
Knapp explained it in a more elegant way: “There’s something about sober living and sober thinking, about facing long afternoons with the numbing distraction of anesthesia, that… shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances…. But from the simple accumulation of active experience.” But to have active experience, you have to be present, “When you drink, you can’t do that.” Existence can be overwhelming – simply being can be terrifying. Alcohol was the price we paid to pretend that we could feel wonder, when something broken inside of ourselves couldn’t grapple with the fullness of that reality with a clear head and a complete heart. We have deep grooves in our souls; fractures, fissures, cracks, and crevices. We are broken grails, but our shards can be held together with that cement which, for lack of a better term, we call gratitude.