Do you know the poem? It’s by Mary Oliver, who is one of those rare contemporary poets popular with both the literati and more casual readers. If you’re not sure, click the link above and read it, and then come back. I’ll be here.
<makes sandwich, puts clothes in dryer, lets dogs out and in and out again for no apparent reason>
Oh hey, you’re back! Nice to see you again. So, it’s a beautiful poem, right? But for the newly sober, I sometimes imagine a version that’s…edited. Edited to one line:
You do not have to be good.
I’ve been thinking about this as I read the blogs of very newly sober people. Some of you are so ambitious! You’re getting sober and quitting smoking, or getting sober and quitting sugar, or getting sober and running for office and becoming professional decathletes. And–you’re very impressive, by the way–and it worries me. I get worried because I know the getting-sober part takes enough energy on its own, without piling another task on top of it.
Maybe for some of you it’s about structure–having a set of guardrails in place in a vulnerable time, the way some of us go to AA meetings per week or start running or take up a new hobby to get us through the vulnerable hour. But maybe it’s that you think you have to be good. And that getting sober isn’t enough goodness on its own, especially if your drinking years turned you into kind of a jackass at times, or all the time. Even, or maybe especially, if the person you were the biggest jackass to was yourself. Maybe you think you need to become good fast now to make up for lost time. So, I have two thoughts about that:
- You cannot make up for lost time. I know, I know. But you can’t.
- You do not have to be good. Not right now.
I tried to be good, too. The last few years I drank, it was all I tried to do. To be the best wife, the best employee, the best yogi with the cleanest diet (uh, the food part, anyway). The prettiest and the nicest and the smartest and the most helpful and the one who made it all look the easiest. All that striving for goodness kept me using wine as my escape valve long after I’d realized that without the wine I wouldn’t need an escape valve. And God, who could blame me? Who wouldn’t need a nightly glass of wine or four under the weight of all that oppressive goodness? I kind of want to hit myself with a hammer just reading about it now.
Then I finally quit, because I thought there was an off chance that if I did, I might regain my soul, which I really, really missed. I had the same plans you did–I was going to be the skinniest person in the world, alarmingly skinny, and at the same time the fittest. I was going to read Remembrance of Things Past without skipping a hundred pages here and there like last time. I was even going to do needlework, which is hilarious. But I was going to, because I had an idea that those were all things good people did, and all I wanted to be was good.
All my plans went really smoothly at first, actually. Until let’s say around day 3-ish. Around day 3-ish it became excruciatingly clear that goodness–as I’d defined it–had to take a hike. I started taking naps and eating ice cream (so much ice cream) and wandering aimlessly in bookstores and turning down invitations. I dragged my husband to a petting farm and the state fair, where I insisted on looking at all the prize vegetables simply because I thought they were pretty. Around day sixty I bought myself a very, very expensive handbag at Barney’s because I saw it, loved it, and wanted it. (And technically could afford it, though that’s not the same as it being a sensible thing to do.)
The drinking me would call that the nadir of my un-goodness. I call it the high point. Every time I see that bag now I smile at the memory of impulsively telling the salesman it was my sixty-day gift to myself and finding out he had five years.
I’m not saying you should all go pet goats and buy new purses (though honestly, they’re both generally good ideas). I’m saying, think about cutting yourselves some slack. Have a cupcake if you want it. Buy two cupcakes and eat only the frosting parts of both of them, which is a thing I have heard some other people do. Go to a movie in the middle of the day. Sleep late. Binge-watch something. Smoke a bunch of cigarettes, if it’s going to make not drinking a little easier.
Goof off. Fuck around.
This is not about being lazy for the rest of your life, or gaining fifty pounds or getting fired or resigning yourself to lung cancer. This is about giving yourself some space to just be sober for a bit, until you’ve got some momentum. You’ll know when you’re ready to tackle the next thing–and you’ll be ready in a way that you probably couldn’t even recognize right now, so early on. It’s hard for me to describe what that readiness feels like, except to say that it’s wonderful and solid and when you get there, you may have a sense that you felt like this long ago. Before. Oh, and when the time comes, you get to decide what it means to be good. Personally, I ended up dropping ‘crafting expert’ from the list, but replaced it with ‘ability to have honest conversation w/a human being.’ So it all balances out.
But until then: You do not have to be good. You just have to be sober. And the rest will come in time. I promise it will. And I’ve never been wrong about anything.