Joining the party of sobriety

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WELCOME TO the club, Lindsay. Hope you stay awhile this time.

Though it seems unbearably frivolous — this incessant celebrity hopping from bar to rehab and back — it's anything but. Life and death are at stake, and believe me, I know. I almost died like Anna Nicole Smith and her son did, but after ER docs saved my life, I woke up in intensive care, strapped down tight. Quite right: I was a booze-and-drug-addled lunatic.

That's the bad news. The good news is, that was 23 years ago, and life has been getting better ever since. And the same joy and meaning I've found are available to anyone who truly wants to walk this path.

Back then I was the quintessential pathetic drunk who, to give just one example, awoke one morning on my front sidewalk, after a blackout, stark naked, looking up at a very startled milkman.

Today I am a proud and grateful husband and stepfather. I derive huge pleasure from growing fresh food and fragrant flowers in our backyard. I ski and hike and bike and trek into the wilderness for alpine trout fishing. I'm an expert garlic and loganberry grower. I laugh more, and I cry more. I glory in summer sunrise and midwinter frost.

Yep, I'm in recovery. That puts me in conspicuous company these days (Gavin Newsom, Mel Gibson, Tara Conner, Keith Urban, Lindsay Lohan and on and on), so much so that it's a cultural joke. "Good news, Britney — there's now a revolving door at rehab," scoffs David Letterman about one of our brethren seeking her way. I can't blame the cynics; we read far, far more about drunks behaving badly than we do about the remarkable successes that occur.

The message I'd like to get across is not only that long-term recovery is possible, it's the doorway to a wonderful — and worthwhile — life. It takes unflagging courage and commitment; it's not for casual embrace, like a new diet. With honest effort, despair and destruction become love and redemption.

Yes, you do have to change the way you think, feel and live. Why wouldn't you? Death, insanity or prison are the alternatives. The whole process is one of the most widely misunderstood phenomena of modern life. It's simple but not easy. It's fun but not frivolous.

First and foremost: Don't drink. No drugs. Nothing — no near-beer, no tranquilizers, no prescription painkillers. They're all the same.

Drugs and alcohol are so pervasive in human life ("Don't hold back!" say the ads for a beer company that claims to support responsible drinking) that harebrained researchers are forever trying to concoct ways for addicts to keep using, especially alcohol. Why? Because it's "too hard" to expect them to stop completely. In 2000, the poster girl for one such program, Moderation Management, killed two people driving drunk after she'd spent several years promoting the idea that drunks can learn to drink "safely." No, we can't. Period. That's like teaching "safe" Russian roulette, only it endangers other people.

I've learned I have to be the one responsible for my sobriety. I turn down foods cooked with booze and have had chefs storm out of the kitchen to tell me I'm a moron — that it cooks out. No, it doesn't.

I've been pitched out of a hospital because I refused Demerol. "But the doctor ordered it!" I enforce a rule on my medical charts: No mood-altering drugs. "Are you sure?" nurses invariably ask. Yes, I'm sure. I have no idea whether my approach is common, but it's what I find most appropriate for myself.

The second point is simple, and easy: Get help. There are hundreds of treatment centers, thousands of capable substance-abuse treatment professionals and millions of people like me who have learned to live — to thrive — clean and sober. It's not just our responsibility to pass on what we've learned, it's uniquely fulfilling.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a help line in virtually every area code on Earth. Every state and every city has addiction-help agencies. The celebrities whose follies we see daily can visit centers founded by genuine heroes, the Betty Fords and Eric Claptons of the world.

I found early on, much to my surprise, that people want to help. When I left the residential treatment center, I immediately suffered an anxiety attack. I stopped at the nearest emergency room, and the folks there kindly calmed me down and sent me on my way, no charge. Because I was scared to death of being alone, a friend offered a spare bedroom. Another friend invited me to — no, actually he required me to — join his family's Thanksgiving celebration so I would not spend the day by myself.

The third key point was succinctly explained to me by a memorably no-nonsense counselor: "Maybe God can save your soul, Eric, but only you can save your ass." That means one can't live a sloppy life sober. The day I left the treatment center, for instance, I was $18,000 in debt. I was biochemically sober as dirt, but true recovery demanded I take responsibility for my daily existence. I paid off that $18,000 in $10 and $20 increments for the next two years. I got a job. I stopped smoking, lost weight, began exercising.

Last September, I celebrated my 23rd birthday, as those of us in recovery call our anniversary date because it is far more significant than our "belly-button" birthdays. It was a beautiful day, and the most beautiful part of all is that I saw it clearly in the company of family and friends.

So Lindsay, by all means join the party. We welcome everyone from Britney Spears to Bubba next door. Alcohol and drug addiction recovery is actually fun. But it's not a lark. It's a lifelong journey from despair to fulfillment. It makes love, work, hope, worth and meaning possible. Recovery is life.


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