Did getting sober make me more conservative?
There’s a popular and important distinction in 12 step groups between the terms “abstinence” and “recovery”. “Abstinence” refers to the bare fact of stopping the addictive behavior, while “recovery” refers to everything else that you do to ensure that you don’t go back to the addictive behavior somewhere down the line. “Abstinence” is a precondition for “recovery” - you can’t recover from alcoholism and keep drinking at the same time - and “recovery” is a precondition for sustained “abstinence” - without digging into the causes and conditions of your drinking and doing something about them then you’ll probably wind up back where you were, sooner or later.
For me, coming into the rooms of 12-step programs, sustained abstinence was pretty much the only goal I had left in my life. I used to have giant dreams, I had thought myself entitled to all kind of effortless and frictionless success, I had thought myself to be a leader by some kind of elevated birthright - and then I found myself quivering alone in a pitch-black room unable to even drink myself asleep, not even able to achieve the goal of going to bed sober even if I wanted to.
I really can’t overstate the shock of radically lowering my own expectations for my self. When I failed as a kid I didn’t react to the failure by working harder or seeking help, instead denying that I had failed and insisting that even if I had failed that I would effortlessly succeed at the very next task I was presented with. That attitude of entitlement and denial carried me all the way down to my bottom, accumulating unacknowledged weakness and powerlessness until I got to a place where I couldn’t deny them anymore.
My early sober ambitions, then, were extraordinarily limited. The entire point of my life became focused on maintaining abstinence. There was no point in even trying to do anything else if I couldn’t do that. Just go to bed sober tonight, that’s it. Keep it simple (stupid). One day at a time. Long-term, the way to do that was to fix what I broke and help other people fix what they broke too. When not doing those things, the best way to stay sober was to stay humble, stay helpful, and stay out of the way.
I’ve come a long way since I felt that way, at the beginning. I’m a lot more secure, I have plenty of resources available when I need help, and I’m no longer shy about asking for it. The dark stories are still worth remembering for me, both for empathizing with people who are telling those dark stories and also for understanding how my life and my priorities dramatically shifted.
My focus shifted from grand visions of spectacular success and shifting the winds of history to tiny-scale day-by-day goals that were right in front of me. Go to bed sober, leave rooms cleaner than they were when I entered them, if I lie then come clean about it as soon as possible. My focus eventually shifted from the present to the past, to the people I’d impacted with my drinking, to setting things right and paying my debts. My identity shifted from seeing myself as being some kind of renegade badass who played by their own rules to seeing myself as someone who had to struggle to learn and play by the rules later in life, someone who had a lot of cleaning up and catching up to do.
I took on a common identity - “Hi, I’m Max and I’m an Alcoholic” - and with that common identity took on the possibility that the tools and solutions that worked for others might work for me too. The collective organic experience of the community could carry me farther than anywhere I could get with the limits of my private imagination alone.
Shifts in my personal story occurred alongside changes in my stories about other people. I had been a horribly pretentious person, seeking superiority over the people around me mostly by reading more books than they had. I didn’t really accomplish much in my life beyond reading books, but that’s beside the point - I’d placed a ton of value on book-knowledge, seeking one day to become one of the priestly class of the professionally intelligent, since they were ultimately the good guys. All the bad things in the world were due to stupidity and ignorance in the areas that I cared about. Most people were less intelligent than me, by my estimation, so I held some kind of moral distinction - both by default due to my superior general intelligence and also by virtue of my amazing breadth of reading.
No amount of reading stopped my life from falling apart. I woke up from many blackouts to find a dozen “Neuroscience of Alcoholism” tabs pulled up on my web browser; there’s a lot more to healing and growth than successfully modeling the world, as I learned when I finally staggered into 12 step meetings.
I ultimately got taught how to live and supported in my new life by people who I would have considered miles beneath my dignity. People who work blue-collar jobs, people who used to live on the streets, people who spent a lot of time in prison - all of them proved to be not only wise but good role models too, people who had figured something out and who were willing to pass it along to me for free.
As far as I could tell, it wasn’t on account of any technocratic government intervention or mass collective action that my life became better - it was through taking responsibility for my shortcomings and through reaching out for help from my family and from communities of common value.
I used to think that it was blindingly obvious - to right-thinking people, even if that was only me - what the problems of the world were and what the solutions to those problems were, who the bad guys and good guys are, that the only thing holding us back from utopia was some sort of lack of will. I thought that the villains of the world were either stupid or duplicitous or both - the bad guys saw themselves as enemies of truth and love and would confess to this if cornered, or they were just irrational animalistic fools who couldn’t countenance reality and do the right thing even if they tried.
Getting sober complicated this image in a two-step process. Being in 12-step groups meant doing a lot of work to deal with my own finitude, my own inevitable inability to live up to my ideals, and to listen to others as they worked through the same terrain. I dug into my own motives and got in touch with the needs animating me whether I acknowledged them or not, getting to see my own “bad behavior” as being a survival mechanism for meeting some desperately-felt needs, seeing my growth as finding new ways to meet those same needs and find an acceptance of them in my life. I learned that there’s always something to acknowledge and admire in people, including myself, including people I’m mad at and who are mad at me too.
My emotions stabilized as I became more connected to others and more secure with myself; the feelings that animated my revolutionary days, the rage and frustration and despair, gradually faded. I’d seen that if personal problems can be framed as political problems, then at least some political problems can be reframed as personal problems, and that this was a good thing - I have had a lot more success in changing my thoughts and actions and passing those possibilities on to others than I have had in passing laws and organizing general strikes.
In sum: for me sobriety has disclosed and illuminated the utility of stories that are typically only found somewhere in the political right. These stories carry themes and values of personal humility, the importance of local community, skepticism about innovation and individualism and revolutionary “clarity”.
I am also a white man in America. Society is extremely, unfairly forgiving of me - I got caught green-handed smoking pot twice in college and the cops let me walk away both times. (Although one had to ask “Are you majoring in dumbass, son?”). I don’t think it correlates with any kind of general intelligence, but I am at least capable of writing code and getting paid comfortably to do it. I’m lucky enough to have a job that I like and to feel fulfilled in what I do, even when it’s hard and frustrating and demands a lot of me. I had a family who was open to me and cared about me and had a place for me to stay. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I am among the luckiest people to ever walk the earth.
So I think the conservative stories find purchase in the comfortable, privileged parts of me. But I also don’t think that they’re completely without a more general value. Even if federal legislation and mass political action will take us to a better future, even if the present is painful and unfair to most people, I still think that there is some power and well-being to be found in the idea of taking responsibility for your life and working on the relationships you have with the people who matter the most to you.
Attention and time are finite, and I don’t know where the balance is between focusing on changing the world and focusing on changing your own individual life. I can assert that focusing on changing my own life has worked really well for me, but I also have a position in society due to my identity that isn’t available to everyone. I nevertheless hope that something in my story can disclose some new possibilities; if not for the revolution, then at least for the well-being of people who find themselves caring for and fighting for a better world for everyone.