Playlist for this post:
“Sober Song” (Noir Desir)
“Clean” (Depeche Mode)
“Straight Time” (Bruce Springsteen)
“Beautiful World” (Colin Hay)
“Vipassana” (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis)
“I’m Straight” (The Modern Lovers)
“One Day at a Time” (Joe Walsh)
“It’s been While” (Staind)
“Good Day” (Paul Westerberg)
“That’s Why I’m Here” (Kenny Chesney)
“Twist in my Sobriety” (Tanita Tikaram)
“Little Rock” (Colin Raye)
“Double A Daddy” (Wayne Hancock)
If my sober friends are any indication, sobriety is neither boring nor thrilling. As far as I can tell, sobriety involves getting up, maybe eating a little breakfast and drinking a cup of coffee, showering, going to work, having lunch, coming home, eating dinner, maybe socializing or watching a bit of television, and going to bed. Repeat with slight variations. So when I suggest that sobriety is boring, I’m not really talking about how people live their lives sober. That seems to be a crapshoot, as it is for most of us involved with the living of our lives: sometimes boring, sometimes thrilling – or embarrassing, or scary, or annoying or fulfilling. You know, life.
No matter what we think about sobriety, addiction is not – cannot be – a static concept. The word “addiction” involves change over time, history, narrative. It implies a story of experimentation, adventure, intoxication, pleasure, dependence, pain, and chaos. As such, it traces neatly along an inverted story arc in which the rising action is downward, the climax is the bottom, and the denouement is sobriety. Recovery depends upon telling that story honestly and completely to fellow sufferers.
The storytelling model so popular in recovery highlights the way alcoholics and other addicts need to shape their chaotic experiences into a coherent narrative in order to achieve and maintain sobriety. It’s easy to see the pattern inherent to these stories of recovery throughout the testimonies in 12 Step Big Books, addiction memoirs, and reality TV shows like Intervention. People tell their stories in the hope that others might benefit from their experience and so that they don’t slip back down that slippery slope of addiction. We consume these stories to be inspired, to learn, and – well, let’s just admit it – to be entertained. The drunk-a-log makes for a pretty ripping yarn, after all.
Nowhere is this entertainment-value more evident than in Intervention, which poses as a “documentary about addiction” to gullible(?) addicts each week. I doubt we are any more fooled than the people on the show. This is no documentary; it’s a voyeuristic spectacle. In the interest of research, I recently watched – and timed – two random episodes of the show.
Each 45-minute episode can be broken down into introduction, background, chaos, pre-intervention, intervention, and resolution. In each episode, the majority of the show is occupied with the spectacle of intoxication, family dysfunction, and confrontation (i.e. the intervention). The last section, in which we see the (former?) addict a few months later, was two minutes in one episode and a whopping one minute in the second (followed by three more minutes of chaos, I’m afraid, in the case of Kimberly).
The reason for this structure is obvious: when it comes to narrative, sobriety is boring. In Intervention, sobriety is represented by a brief interview and a few shots of the person walking, playing basketball, making art, or reuniting with family. All kind of boring. The forty-plus minutes of chaos that come before? Now that’s the money shot.
What does it mean that addiction is fascinating and sobriety is boring? How do you tell a story when the ending just sort of fades into the unremarkable present and, hopefully, less-chaotic future? What does it mean that addiction and recovery stories dating as far back as De Quincey’s Confessions have always been infused with a concern for entertainment? What if a story is boring but important anyway?
Such questions lead to the problem of narrative itself. The way we understand our lives is though storytelling. The stories we tell are always influenced by the stories we hear. When stories about addiction make their way into the realm of entertainment, they are necessarily edited, filtered, and contorted to fit a formula. The bar for entertainment keeps growing higher.
Yet, if we figure addiction as a form of trauma (and, often, a reaction to trauma), then the function of the story works counter to these external pressures. The goal of storytelling in the treatment of trauma survivors is to insert the traumatic experience into a larger life story, to set it into the past rather than the perpetual present, to shrink it down to a manageable size.
I like to imagine people in recovery revealing the truth, telling chaotic stories, letting the plotline follow the complexities of their own experience. Then I like to imagine them living their lives and sharing those stories too. Never having been to a meeting, however, I have no idea if this is the case. I understand that the intention of the storytelling is to help people learn from others’ experiences as well as help people maintain their sobriety. Do members of a meeting also need to be entertained? Is there also room for the pleasures of sobriety? Is it ok for stories to be boring?
Outside the meetings, I’ve noticed that many authors (all the way back to De Quincey) frame their stories as cautionary tales, despite the fact that “scared straight” interventions don’t tend to work. Having heard a good number of distressing stories, and read a good number of addiction memoirs, I can say I’ve never been scared straight, but I have learned a great deal. I’ve come to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the ways people have suffered and found ingenious ways to solve their problems. I’ve learned about prison and hustles, communities and isolation, resistance and abjection. I’d say I’ve even been entertained.
In a search for artists who write about sobriety, I came across an exhibit, The 12 Steps by Chuck Connelly. I read an awful memoir, My Lush Sobriety, in which an unpleasant woman mostly reminisces about being drunk. I listened to Bill Hicks joke that he got sober because “when you’re taken aboard a UFO, it’s kind of hard to top that.” I’ve listened to Colin Hay sing,
My, my, my, it’s a beautiful world
I like swimming in the sea
I like to go out beyond the white breakers
Where a man can still be free — or a woman if you are one [. . . ]
And still this emptiness persists
Perhaps this is as good as it gets
When you’ve given up the drink and those nasty cigarettes
Now leave the party early, at least with no regrets
I watch the sun as it comes up; I watch it as it sets
Yeah, this is as good as it gets.
So maybe sobriety is what you do when the crazy gets too crazy, and maybe it’s laced with memories of intoxication, and maybe it requires accepting the everyday as good enough. So maybe sobriety is boring. So what? If sobriety is anything like living life, then maybe as good as it gets is good enough.
N.B. Charlie Sheen begs to differ.