Six thousand, eight hundred and thirty-four days ago was a bad day. It was another in a long string of bad days that would continue for months to come. I can’t recall what, specifically happened on most of those other days that made them bad, but August 6th, 2004, was highlighted by particularly memorable moment — a bad one. It was also the first day since that past December that I had not used any drugs or alcohol. That was not my plan — my plan was to numb the badness of the day as much as possible, but my failure to do so made an already bad day worse.
In the early evening, 6,834 days ago, my middle son (who was not quite 17), his girlfriend and two puppies dropped me off at the Wayne Brown Correctional Center in Nevada City, CA. It was my second extended stay there, my first was just two years earlier. This time I would be serving 40 days (two thirds of a 60-day sentence) for a probation violation — a violation of the terms of my release two years earlier. After my release, I would spend a week free before reporting to the Calaveras County Jail to serve 60 days of a 90-day sentence — the conviction that violated me in Nevada County.
I was lucky in that my crime was a non-violent misdemeanor and that the old Calaveras County Jail was seriously overcrowded. Every night a count was taken and every night the possibility of my release was palpable — and every night that I missed it by “that much” made that day a little worse. I was released after just eight days — a bit of goodness in what was a long stretch of only bad. Upon my ultimate release sometime in late September, I had almost 60 days “clean and sober” (I had nine months from March to December of 2003). I could not find a job and, although I did return to school in 2003 (with two semesters under my belt), by the time I was free, the fall semester was well under way. More bad days.
Adding to my misery was a prohibition against self-medication. The judge in Nevada County told me that if I produced just one dirty drug test (they tested for alcohol, too), my next home would not be county jail, but state prison. My choices were clear — be miserable and free or miserable in prison. However, despite the clear consequences, the urge to dull the “badness” of my life was strong, and it took a village — literally. That village came from the same place it came from before, the one thing I knew worked — twelve step recovery.
But I had a lot of issues with it, not the least of which was a “cult-like” feeling in some ways and the insistence that they are “spiritual, not religious” programs, yet there is an abundance of Judeo-Christian references throughout all of them. Some more than others, but all refer to, at the very minimum, a capital “G” god. For a non-believer like me, that is a tough hurdle to overcome — but at the time I had little choice. I also had enough prior experience that I knew there were others like me, and the program still worked for them. But… all the way through 2004 and into the beginning of 2005 I cannot remember anything but shitty days. I’m sure they were not all bad, but as a whole, as a slice of my life, there was a significant period of time that spanned the end of my using and drinking and the beginning of my sobriety that was not a good.
One day my perspective shifted — or, probably more accurately, I became aware that my perspective had shifted. It likely happened much earlier before I even realized it, but one day I noticed that I had not been angry in a few days. In fact, I could not remember how long it had been. I knew it wasn’t weeks or months, but it was many days, and I couldn’t recall what my last “irritant” was. This was revelatory because I was pissed off almost all the time. Being angry constantly is exhausting; the other revelation I experienced soon after was that I was not tired — not in general, not of “life.” I just wasn’t all that tired. It was a new feeling. The next thought was unavoidable — this shit was working.
By that time I was back in school, but the tail I developed from the criminal justice system along with other obstacles were still very much part of my life. I was drug testing every week, I was relying on student loans and the kindness of my family for my living expenses (and dealing with a profound loss of trust from them), and I was broke all the time. All the ingredients for bad days were there, yet I was starting to have some good days and I found myself happy from time to time. I was experiencing some success again. And, slowly, I was rebuilding the trust I lost.
By the end of my first year clean and sober, I was done with my education at American River College and was set to transfer to California State University, Sacramento in the fall of 2005. While working toward my bachelor’s degree at Sac State I got an internship at a local newspaper. That internship became a part-time job after just a week or two and, while I was certainly not rolling in dough, I was a lot less broke. Things happened, people came and went. I continued through my BA, entered grad school at Sac State, earned an MA there and then went on to Louisiana State University to earn a PhD. And while I did advance to doctoral candidacy, I finished “ABD” (all but dissertation) and collected another MA from LSU.
All good days? Not even. Many were bad, but there were no years or, really, even months or weeks of badness since early 2005. Shit has happened, life has come at me, I have been less a victim as I have been a volunteer, but not everything was due to my choices — chance is still chance and life is not fair. That is not to say “most” have been good days , either— most are just days. And most days I am content — not “happy” — but content. I do not believe the state of happiness is sustainable. It is and should be fleeting, but serenity, contentedness, peace — those can be sustained.
Usually “we” (those in the so-called “recovery community”) reminisce like this on our sobriety or clean dates, birthdays, or anniversaries. Some are looking for congratulatory pats on the back from those in society who are not alcoholics or addicts, many of whom have paid a price for loving one, or, worse, been victimized by one in his or her quest to get “well.” I do not see it that way; we do and should congratulate each other (that’s part of what the “village” does), but society has every right to say, “great, good job, it’s about fucking time. That’s what you were supposed to be doing all along.” It is not my anniversary — it is not August yet, but I see no reason to keep these stories to ourselves when they can reach those who are not necessarily the rest of society and not necessarily “us,” but, rather, those who are not us — yet. Or, maybe those who are and might just not be feeling it.
There can be peace. For many days in a row — and for the vast majority of my 6,834 days of sobriety — that is what I have, peace. One day at a time.