Riley’s Story

Q: When did you start using?

It wasn’t until the summer before I went to college where I think I felt like I was abusing alcohol, that’s when I had my first blackout. But there were times in high school where I snuck a bottle of some weird Jamaican rum from my parents. I would take a shot or two before hanging out with friends. I didn’t think about it at the time but looking back now I’m like “okay that’s not normal.”

Q: What was the initial reason you started using?

I think I was attracted to the potential for having fun. I was always more attracted to alcohol than other drugs. I was always kind of lured into it, and I felt like there was some appeal to this idea that it would be very fun to get drunk. And then I tried it and I liked it, and so I kept doing it because it felt good, I liked it.

Q: When did your use start causing problems in your life?

It may have been before this, but the moment where I first had the thoughts like this is something I might not have control over and it’s something that’s causing problems and making my life unmanageable would have been around junior or senior year of college. I actually went to Whitman College, and I was in a fraternity there, living with a bunch of dudes. The culture there was very encouraging of abusive behavior and encouraged drinking to blackout, and celebrated the stupid things you do when you’re that drunk. I was kind of like “that guy”, and I definitely had a lot of embarrassing stories from college that were a result of drinking to blackout. But it was end of junior year, early senior year where I thought “I don’t want to be ‘that guy’, I don’t want to wake up and be told that I punched through the drywall. I don’t enjoy that. People around me, my friends all thought it was very funny and they would laugh, and I would sort of laugh with them. But on the inside, I didn’t like that. I started to feel almost like there were two me’s. Sober me and blackout me. That was around senior year of college, and that’s probably when I could first really see that this could be a problem.

Q: How long were you using for before you got sober?

It was about six or seven years.

Q: Was there a specific incident or moment that prompted you to get sober?

It wasn’t like everything was fine, and then there was a moment and then I realized that nothing was fine. For me, I knew that nothing was fine. I knew that I had a problem and I knew that I needed help for a long time before I finally decided to take the advice of someone else who was telling me that I needed to go to treatment. There were many moments where I could’ve very easily decided to get sober. In fact, it was almost every day I would wake up and say, “I don’t want to drink tonight”, but I would. It could have been any day. What ended up happening is that I was actually working in the wine industry, which is a very convenient thing to do when you’re an alcoholic. I was making wine up in Seattle, and my mom came and visited me. She surprised me and took me out to lunch, and we sat down and she just asked me how I was doing and I started bawling, I just broke down. I told her that I was drinking too much, and it was out of control and I really needed help. She took me to see her doctor, who actually was in Seattle, I think the next day. That was the first time I was actually honest with a doctor about how much I was drinking, before that I had always lied. I told him very honestly about what had been going on in my life and how much I had been drinking, and he said, “I can’t guarantee that you’re gonna be alive in 30 days. That’s sort of up in the air based on what you’re telling me.” And so he said, “You really need to go to treatment.” I’m not sure why that day I was just more open, I think it was my mom, that’s the easiest moment to point to. Just my mom coming to visit me, I just couldn’t even answer the question.

Q: How did you get sober?

I got sober by taking the advice of other people and acting on it, not just sort of listening to it but actually acting on it. Getting sober was not my idea, like when I stopped drinking my full intention was to spend 30 days sober and then get as drunk as I wanted to be. It started with me saying, “I don’t really want to go to treatment but I clearly don’t have control over this thing, and I don’t feel capable of fixing myself; I don’t feel like I have the answers.” So I was willing to do a 30 day treatment, and then while there, things just change. Your thinking changes, you meet people, and you talk about what’s going on. You start to learn about alcoholism and addiction and the way it impacts your brain. You meet people who have had 50 years of sobriety and then they take a drink and they’re right back to day one. Going into treatment was the first time I’d been around other alcoholics and addicts who were talking about their disease, and describing the way that they feel and think, and what happens when they take a drink. I immediately connected to all of it, because before treatment and even back in college I often wondered if this is impacting other people the way that this is impacting me. I didn’t believe people when they told me, “Oh I go home from the bar and then I just go to sleep.” Like wait, you don’t stay up and drink? Like B.S.! I didn’t believe that people didn’t drink like me, it was a very confusing thing. But then I got to treatment and I found people who were like me, and they were telling me about AA as well and the 12 steps. I went to an AA meeting in treatment, which I didn’t love, but before those thirty days were up, I decided maybe I’d do sixty days. I moved the flagpost out a little bit; I went into another stage of treatment, I went to a different place where I’d describe it as a sober fraternity. It was kind of like being back at my fraternity but we were all trying to recover from alcohol and opiates and all that. That place really emphasized 12 step programs as the solution, and I found a sponsor who was a guy very similar to me. He had what I wanted: he is very friendly, he’s happy. That’s what I didn’t have in those first couple of months. I was sober but I wasn’t happy. I certainly didn’t like the idea of being this boring, sober teetotaler for the rest of my life, that was not an idea I was willing to entertain. But I stuck with it, I kept moving that flagpost out. First it was thirty days, then it was sixty, then ninety days. Finally, at some point I decided I was gonna get rid of that; there’s not a day that I’m waiting for where I can drink again. With enough time and talking about it, there was no upside to drinking, there was nothing to gain from it. Although, I know that any day I can pick up a drink and go right back to square one, but I still go to AA and I still try to work the program because that’s what makes me sober.

Q: What keeps you sober?

What keeps me sober is continuing to take the action that is required to keep me happy in sobriety. What I’ve found is that the 12 steps aren’t just about keeping you sober; you won’t stay sober if you’re just miserable. What I’ve discovered through AA and the 12 steps is a life where I’m just happier than I was. I’m happier than I was before I ever took a drink. I stay sober by making myself useful to other alcoholics, and by making myself useful, they help me as well. It’s a totally mutually beneficial thing. I can get lost in my own designs and plans and forget about the fact that I should probably be dead or in jail, and that every single day is a gift. When I’m reminded of that, it helps me stay sober. But I actually have to go to meetings, I don’t remember all that by myself. I have to actually go to a meeting, talk to other people, and experience that again to really “re-up” my sobriety.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who are new to recovery?

Take it one day at a time. Honesty is also really valuable always, but especially in the early stages. If you find yourself in AA, or NA, or Trilogy or in treatment, it’s probably for a reason. Finally, you will not lose anything by not using today. You don’t lose anything by just committing to staying sober for today. It’s worth it for you to seek honesty and willingness, even if you don’t feel willing, maybe just try to find willingness to be willing! So honesty, willingness, and just focus on today.

Q: How long do you have sober now?

Next month I will have six years hopefully!

Q: What do you think is the most important aspect of maintaining sobriety?

It’s important to continue to work with other people in recovery, whether you feel like you’re on the giving or receiving end of that. Again, I think it’s a mutually beneficial program, but it only works when there are at least two people who are ready to talk to each other and help each other. Very often, whatever frustration or problem you’re experiencing, there’s probably something in another person’s experience that’s very similar, and vice versa. At a bare minimum, I think sobriety requires us to continue to engage with other alcoholics and addicts, and just share whatever is going on. Even if what you’re feeling is “I hate being sober”; that’s a valuable feeling to share, I think almost everyone can relate to that. I don’t know anyone who’s sober and doing it by themselves, and I’ve met hundreds if not thousands of people in recovery. We just cannot do it by ourselves, I really believe that.  

(Interview by Declan, former Trilogy Youth Employee)