I'm Afraid of Coming Out Sober

Dear Laura,

I have struggled with sobriety, in and out of the AA program for four years (I love AA for the most part, I just wasn’t ready). My drinking story is very dramatic with some big, crazy events during blackouts, but for most of my drinking I was high functioning. I’m a loving mom and my child (miraculously) still has no idea what alcohol is, he was shielded from it. For the last few years, I was either in sober periods, sort of managing it or mostly drunk late at night at home. He’s a heavy sleeper and my husband (who I thought was the rock) was always home.

I am also a writer and in seeing you shine your brilliant sober light, my spirit tells me that is what I must do eventually, too, meaning come out as sober - both to help others and to live authentically for myself. For years, I’ve led a double life with my drinking. I want to be fully integrated and live my truth. I believe you should write what you know and this is a huge part of my life, has been for decades.

My marriage has recently gone through a financial betrayal by my husband that was 10 years in the making, worse than anything I could have imagined, I had no idea. The revelations put me under great duress and I was “struck sober” so that I wouldn’t lose my son in the event I left the marriage. I am now almost 7 months sober (my longest time ever) and we are trying to heal our relationship. I’m doing fantastic (I’m even the secretary of a meeting here in L.A. and on Step 10)- so I’m optimistic.

My question (finally, ha) is about being public in your writing about your struggles with addiction and getting/being sober. Do you worry about your daughter being affected socially by your being “out” as a sober alcoholic?

Parents at my son’s school talk and I could see a mom not wanting their 8 year old to be driven home or come to a play date with a mom (me) who is an admitted “alcoholic,” even a recently sober one. Although I have never been drunk around any of their kids, ever (I have volunteered at the school for years, teaching art, gardening, etc., all totally sober), still- the stigma in our society is real, ya know? I don’t want to appear unstable, I’m not. I think they would be shocked if they knew how dark my struggle really was, I know that is not how they see me at all.

I would never in a million years want my son to lose friends or invitations because of this. This has to be a common worry among mothers who are in recovery, what do you think?


Newly Sober Mama

Hey, Newly Sober Mama,

Your letter has been rolling around in me for weeks. I called my friend to talk about it last night – something I rarely do – and she said, “Wow, you’ve been on this one for a while.” And I have. I think because there’s the question you asked, about affecting your son’s social life, and then there are the other questions underneath, which are deeper and stir up everything I’ve come to learn and believe in this process. Those questions are about coming closer to our truth, facing down fears, having the courage to bring forth what is in you, risking being misunderstood or judged. I relate to you as a mama, a writer, a woman, and a simultaneously delicate and fierce human being.

My initial reaction to your letter was so stark I didn’t trust it. It was: No. You write right now. You don’t wait – not another day.

And after weeks of weighing the variables in your situation, going back and forth with you a few times, I’ve landed close to the same spot, but will take you through my winding path to get there.

The truth is I didn’t worry about affecting my daughters social life when I started writing about my struggle. Why? I don’t know. Of all the things I worried about (and there were many) that wasn't one of them. Things I did worry about:

  • My parents and brother and how they’d feel learning such dark, troubling things about me.

  • My husband’s parents (he was still my husband then) and what they’d think about me writing things that had so intimately affected their son and granddaughter.

  • Not actually being able to get sober. I started writing well before my last Day 1.

  • The people in AA who had helped me so much, and violating the principles of anonymity by openly associating myself with the program. What would they think?

  • Revealing truths to friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, my employer, ex-employers and all those boys that had wondered what the heeeellll was going on with me (now they’d know!).

  • I worried mostly and very deeply about my husband. We were freshly separated when I started writing in earnest about it and things were still very shaky. He was angry sometimes. I was still drinking and scared. He didn’t know the full truth. We hadn’t even come close to settling our separation agreement. Friends and family warned me that certain information may be used against me, and they could have been right.

All this to say, there were many reasons for me not to write, as there are many reasons for you not to write. Some of them are very well-constructed, logical, neatly packaged and thoughtful arguments. Some are more irrational. But you know what all of them are? They’re fears. And you know the one thing all fears have in common? They’re full of shit!

Pema Chodron says, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth,” and I’ve found that to be invariably true (also, Pema is The Mothership in my eyes, a good one to trust). My guess is subconsciously your mind has specifically latched onto the fear about your son because it seems like the most real, noble, true fear on the list; it’s about your child, after all. It's a healthy anxiety, but I think it's misapplied here. While it's certainly possible that people will misunderstand or judge you (no matter what you do), I can promise things won't play out the way you imagine.

Baba Sheikh Farid has a beautiful quote:

“I thought it was I alone who suffered. I went on top of the house, and found every house on fire.”

While your story may frighten some, it will relieve so many more. We all have a fire in our house, even if it doesn’t look the same as the one in yours.  Some parents in your circles might be surprised by your story--particularly since you’ve presented so well--but many will be impressed you have the nerve to tell it. I’ve had far more doors open than close because I opened up. I’ve had people pull me aside, email me, message me, text me and say “thank you” and “I wish I could be so honest” and “I’d love to talk sometime.” I’ve no illusion less compassionate conversations have happened without my knowing, but I've learned those conversations really have nothing to do with me.

As for those who don’t get it, in your world? Those that might, by chance, talk negatively and whisper “did you hear” behind your back? Or by an even slimmer chance, leave your son off the party list? I’ve no more sophisticated way to say it than this, lovely: f*ck ‘em. Getting sober has been the perfect litmus test for the kind of people I want in my life, as I suspect it has been for you too thus far. Trust that even in the case of burned bridges and lost opportunities, the universe is working in your favor.

There are a few more specific things I want to touch on:

You have control over what you share. Being “out” doesn’t mean you suddenly lift the lid on every horrid detail of your drinking past and it all comes gushing out without your control and then gets delivered to the inboxes and Facebook feeds of all the people you’ve ever known. Yes, you must start from the place where you’re willing to be honest about everything, but that doesn’t mean you tell everyone everything all the time. You use discernment. You choose the exact words. (Example: I don’t walk around saying I’m an ‘alcoholic’, nor do I write it anywhere, because I think so much of the stigma comes from thinking there are only ‘normal’ drinkers and ‘alcoholics’ when in fact, there’s a whole spectrum of problematic drinking in between….this is an entirely different post.) The point is, I reveal a lot but leave plenty on the table, too. You get to decide.

Which brings me to this: nobody thinks about us as much as we think about us. We all imagine other people are watching our lives intently and care very much about how we live, but the truth is, they don’t. The truth is most of us can barely manage the world in between our own two ears.

Lastly, I want to remind you what you get to convey when you share your truth about this thing that is so stigmatized and deeply misunderstood. One of the big reasons I started to share my story is that I am so many other things in addition to someone who’s struggled this way. I’m a mother, a professional worker-bee, a marathon runner, an ice cream eater, a lover of books and good music, a terrible but dedicated meditator, an ex-wife and a daughter and a sister and a friend. Being sober is the most important thing as it's the basis from which I'm allowed to have all those other things, but it's not my whole identity. Like you, I’m just another student here on Earth School who also happens to understand what it’s like to get buried under addiction and crawl out. When you share that, today, just as you are, with the dark stories and the beautiful ones, with exactly the amount of sober time and responsibilities and involvement and place in your community, you get to say – See? THIS is what it looks like. That's the stuff of change.

The line I love from your letter most is this: “I want to be fully integrated and live my truth.” YES. That’s a huge reason I started writing, too. I needed to finally have one version of me out there, and it needed to be the same one that was living inside my skin. I also had a burning fire in my belly to finally write after a lifetime of thinking and dreaming and toying at writing and it had to come out of me. I sense you are the same and that this - this - is the thing you need to write about now.

When I was in your place and considered all the women I most admired, the ones I truly want to emulate: Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, Mary Karr, Lena Dunham, Brene Brown, Glennon Melton, Pema Chodron, Annie Lamott, I realized they all had one thing in common: they told the truth about their lives, and their truth included other people. At some point, they all had to jump off a cliff into the unknown. I dissected their lives and thought, Well, it must've been when this piece was in place, or that was buttoned up, or that was resolved, but no. There is no perfect time and there never will be. Jumping off a cliff is always going to be scary.  

I wish you all the love and light and courage possible on your journey. I can’t wait to read your words.

My daughter and me, in Colorado, 2014. Just barely coming out of the shadows.

My daughter and me, in Colorado, 2014. Just barely coming out of the shadows.