When first getting sober, my biggest problem was figuring out what to do after 8 p.m. The beginning of the day was easy: wake up, go to work, go to 12-step meeting at lunch, go back to work, go to evening meeting. Then came the gap until I went to sleep. My former self was usually wasted during these hours. What do fully alert adults do at night? I had no idea. The weekends were even more perplexing.
I needed to stay away from places where I drank. The problem is that I drank everywhere. I went to poetry readings, comedy clubs, and rock shows where alcohol was common and drugs were acceptable. I took a flask to the library. I never went to a movie without a pint of whiskey. One day after hitting bottom for the third time, instead of just making plans or talking about it, I really quit for good.
My first step in keeping myself entertained was to buy a VCR and TV from Community Thrift. They matched the décor of my lumpy futon and cigarette butts. I had boxes of books everywhere, but my mind was too stormy to concentrate on the reading. Every night on the way home from a meeting, I'd stop at Lost Weekend, get one of the cheaper back-stock titles, and head home.
After watching the movie, I'd pack up my bag and hit 24 Hour Fitness in the dead of night. The clientele at that hour are eclectic to say the least. People off work from swing-shift jobs, a small group of prison yard types who worked out in jeans, one frighteningly skinny woman who used the elliptical machine like she was trying to generate the city's power, and the Bryant Street RV dwellers who came for the showers. It was a weird time to go, but the gym was mostly empty, and weightlifting did a lot to relax my mind.
If that didn’t calm me, I ended up at Hunt's Donuts. By then the sign said Magic Donuts or something, but everyone still called it Hunt's. It was open all night, for 25 hours if you believed the sign posted outside. All forms of humanity went there. Hunt's was the Nighthawks diner of Mission Street.
I felt like I was hiding from the world. Life couldn't be all meetings, the gym, videos, and donuts. That wasn't enough. I had to get back out there. Besides, the kids at the video store were giving me shit for being in there so often.
I muscled up and took myself down to the old CW Saloon to hear one of my favorite punk bands from the '80s. I had never seen them before, and didn't think I'd get the chance again. I felt good about facing my fear of seeing the show sober and went in.
From the moment I was inside, I was hit with waves of fear and regret. The club smelled like a hamster cage, bong water, and well whiskey – the smell of Bay Area punks. I wanted a drink.
Then I spotted a group of guys who looked familiar. They were all from a men's meeting I had been to that week. I approached the one who looked like Fonzie crossed with Edward James Olmos. "Hey, I met you on Tuesday," I said.
"Oh yeah. The thing at 7:30?" he asked. I nodded in agreement. "How you doin'?"
"Not good," I admitted. "First sober show."
"Hang out with us," he said, hitting me on the shoulder.
Suddenly I didn't feel like The Sober Guy at the club. I was with a bunch of guys, and we were all sober. As the night went on, I was surprised at how many people weren't totally wasted. Maybe it was just me who was wasted back then. I hung out with this new crew, and as we watched the bands they told me about the next meeting they were going to.
Something strange happened that night. There was no drama. I didn't get asked to leave the club. I didn't get into a fight. I didn't lose my keys. I didn't get the lens of my glasses knocked out in the pit. No one puked on me. I remembered going home. I didn't wake up naked with a trail of clothes leading to the door. Weird.
That's when I got it. What is there to do sober? Everything there is to do drunk, it turns out. I had no idea that people went to dinner without drinks, went to movies sober, and saw bands without being high. I really thought that everyone who wasn't a fundamentalist drank as much as I did. Not only could I do things sober, there were no negative consequences, and I actually remembered what I had done that night.
There was another big difference I hadn’t noticed before: my attention span. Drunk Me could stay on the same barstool for eight hours, from after work to last call. Sober Me needed more stimulation. I went back to the comedy clubs, poetry readings, and rock shows, but often I could hit two in one night, rather than being so blitzed after one that the second was impossible. Still, I’d often get restless upon entering a venue, places where I’d encounter bad memory ghosts or a bartender who’d once told me to leave.
The cure for this was bringing other people with me. Most of my old friends were in one of two categories: always at home with the family, or getting hammered somewhere. But there’s nowhere like 12-step meetings to make new friends. It’s like orientation in the freshman dorm all the time. The new guys were always fighting Poverty Boredom, that horrible feeling that comes when you really can’t afford anything but the free coffee and cookies at the back of meetings. It was pretty easy to find people to come with me to just about anything, as long as it didn't cost anything or I was on the guest list.
I took bored recovering alcoholics all over town. I invited one to a comedy open mike where we were the only two people in the audience. I brought a guy newly out of rehab to hear poetry at City Lights bookstore. I used my comedy connections to secure a table at the Punchline to watch the late Ron Shock. I crammed myself into full cars going to watch another sober person’s band play down at the Knockout. You can still find me with these types of folks at the Lucky Penny late at night, sitting in loud groups and pushing the tables together.
I’ve never had more fun than I do now with San Francisco’s 12 steppers. They’re a diverse crowd, from kids too young to buy beer legally to old Vietnam vets. They’re yuppies and ex-cons. Former doctors and gang members. Guys who stole thousands from work and others who smashed car windows for their fix. They’re housewives, hustlers, and hipsters. The one thing they share is a really dark sense of humor – which gets cultivated when life shows you that you’re blatantly, horribly wrong about the way you think things are.
Most importantly for me, I began creating again. In 15 years of drinking, I had one book published. In the last 10 years of sobriety, I’ve published five books, and released a comedy CD and a poetry record. Alcohol was a weight around my neck, keeping me from the creative output of which I was capable.
My gym visits transformed into girevoy sport, the Russian art of kettlebell lifting. I could write a whole article trying to explain what this is, and you still may not get it. Just look up Ivan Denisov on YouTube – he’s like the Michael Jordan of a sport you’ve never heard of.
I also started a weekly gig at The Dark Room called the Business. It’s a comedy show I collaborate on with five other people. Drunk Me was never able to work with others. Sober Me is still learning how, but at 43, it makes me feel as excited as when I was on my first Little League team.
These creative parts of my life weren’t possible drunk. It wasn’t a matter of talent or desire, but execution. Alcohol didn’t allow me to follow through on the things I actually wanted to do.
My sober life is a life of action, not reaction. Instead of sitting on a barstool waiting for something to happen, I’m out doing things. I’ve found new people to hang out with, rediscovered parts of myself I had lost, and seen old things in a new way – and best of all, I remember it all.
If you think you may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, quit. If that's difficult, you probably do have a problem. There are a bunch of people out there who will be glad to help you. You can try local AA meetings and NA meetings.
When you feel like being social, the SFMOMA is free every Tuesday. The museum is a great backdrop for walking around and talking, whether you're catching up with an old friend or spending time with a sponsor.
I've also always liked going to author readings – which are usually free when they take place at bookstores. Sometimes, there's a bottle of wine there, but it's not really a drinking crowd. City Lights is one of my favorite spots.
At small theaters, you can see a night of entertainment for a fraction of the price of the downtown venues. The Marsh is one of my favorites for solo shows.