Counting Days

Counting Days December 11, 2017

Some notes on Advent & addiction.

I’ve said before that David Carr’s Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life–His Own is the best addiction memoir of the many I’ve read. So much of it rang so true to me when I read it, in late 2011, when I was locked in a terrifying and all-consuming struggle to quit drinking. The bit about how your own words ring false to yourself because you’ve heard all these broken promises before (This time I’m really about something! No, this time…), the tagline he cribs from Mailer about how lost and trapped you feel in your own life (Who could tell any more where was what? Liars controlled the locks). It’s actually one of the few addiction memoirs which is really and substantively a book about sobriety: the work and joy of a life of recovery. But I noticed that less because I had no experience to compare it to.

The book is about Carr’s attempt to report out his own life, using interviews and documentary evidence. And he finds that he misremembered a whole lot of things. He had known he was not a great dude when he was using, but he’d still painted sunshine all over his memories.

Among many other things, he accordioned time. He told himself this story where he had a really bad night, where he endangered his little children in pursuit of a hit, and it shook him up so much that he went to his parents and then to rehab, gave in and got better. But as he was piecing the past together he realized that the story couldn’t possibly have proceeded that swiftly. In fact there were–I lent out my copy so I don’t remember how many months–but two or three months, I think?, between the harrowing winter night when he left his kids in the car outside a crack house, and the final decision to seek help.

Everything in life takes much, much longer than you think you can bear.

(ETA: Cf. yesterday’s readings! Tenuous connection to the liturgical season: ACHIEVED.)

There’s an AA phrase I’ve always found ridiculously poignant: “counting days.” This is what you’re doing when you have not been sober very long. Eventually, with God’s grace, you may reach a point of counting your sobriety in months, or years (it will, I hope to God, be six years for me in January), but you start out counting each precarious day. Waiting it out as best you can.

For me, most of every day for a long time was spent in trying not to drink or giving up and drinking. It’s a game you play against yourself: a game of attrition, where if you win your prize is that you get to do it again tomorrow. If you lose you get to stop thinking about it, but you are not allowed to count that as a prize. Anyway, I had a real textbook trajectory where my very last intense craving to drink, the very last time (so far) I genuinely didn’t know how the day’s game would end, was very nearly bang smack on the nail of the three-month mark. There’s a pop-psych thing where supposedly three months is about how long it takes to form or break a habit; this corresponds to the AA advice to do “90 meetings in 90 days.” (Which I did not do because meetings make me want to drink.) So I fit that quite nicely. After that it no longer felt like I was counting days.

Or, better, you start to count days in a different way. There are times when it really does feel like an Advent calendar: What weird new thing will I learn or experience today, that I can only have because of my sobriety? There are times when it just rushes past you, the days go so fast once they’re not agonizingly slow. There’s so much more to do and see. In moments of recollection I try to be grateful for the dandelion clock of the day before it blows away. To have the rapt attention of childhood with all the gratitude that only comes with hard adult experience.

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