September 17, 2020

I don’t know horses. I mean, I can recognize a horse, distinguish it from a cow or a llama. I have a good picture of “horseness,” those descriptors that identify horses from nonequine creatures. Still, I don’t know horses the way some who knows horses knows horses. (What a funny sentence that last one was.) At the racetrack, I’m definitely over my head.

I do know people in recovery. Early on, we’ve got a lot of commonality. We tend to look like warmed-over garbage. We tend to sit in the backs of rooms. We tend not to make eye contact. We tend to be filled with shame and remorse, not just over the things we did while high or drunk and not just for the things we did to be able to get high or drunk. Most often, we are ashamed of who we are. If you’re in early recovery, I probably know you. Still . . .

If I had to place money on either a horse race or on picking winners from early recovery, I’d be a better bettor at Pimlico or Churchill Downs than at a church basement or outdoor All-Recovery meeting. At the track, at least I’d have luck on my side—along with a little bit of information about the horses’ previous record. In early recovery, where most folks look like they’re way below down on their luck, appearances can be are deceiving.

When I entered recovery, I had just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital, where I’d been put on antidepressants and introduced to my particular pathway. Going to my first meetings out of the bin, I’m sure I didn’t look like a potential winner, someone who’d still be sticking around a decade later. If video existed, it would show a scrawny guy with eyes that wouldn’t alight on anything for long, looking jampacked with terror and tears. 

I can remember being seven or nine days sober and looking at the other newcomers around me. Through my insecure and doubt-filled eyes they all looked better than I did. That lady over in the corner was wearing a dress and the guy beside her had a tan. He looked like a golf-pants model, crisp clothes, white smile and a shirt that cost more than my entire wardrobe put together.  My were pants held up by an over-cinched belt and a shirt that was clean but clearly worn past needing replacement. I just kept coming.

After a month or so, the healthy-looking folks had disappeared. The women in business attire and the handsome guy were nowhere to be seen. At the time, I assumed they’d only needed a half-cup of recovery and were back to successful lives. Some of the other losers I’d come in with were starting to clean up and look better. I still felt like my sobriety was the strength of my fingernails and could snap any minute. I just kept coming.

At six months, a funny/sad/expectable thing happened. I was at the front of a room, being given a plastic token with a 6 on it, and I looked at the back of the room. The handsome, elegant, tanned guy was sitting in Denial Aisle. He was still nicely dressed, still had a tan, but he also had a hangdog expression and a black eye with regret dripping out of it. Back when we walked in together, I’d assumed he was good to go while I was nearly gone. I know I’ll never anybody’s handsome guy. I’ll never be the best-dressed guy. I’ll never be the elegant guy. But I can be the sober guy. I just keep coming.

If you’re in early recovery and your life feels like a dog chewed on your past and peed on your future, keep coming. If you feel like no one’s ever felt as empty and obsessed as you, keep coming. If you keep on trying to get clean and sober but can’t find the way, keep coming. Things can get better. Things can get better than better. Things can get better enough that you won’t even remember what it felt like to have those things.

Just keep coming.