Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Depressed at Day 25: I have recently gotten sober after 20 years of abusing various substances. I habitually smoked marijuana and drank at bars, experimented with acid and mushrooms, used cocaine and, at my worst, snorted crystal meth. I stopped using meth over two years ago, which then led to full-blown alcoholism. (My drinking was not as bad before I quit meth.) In spite of this behavior, I have a good career (I’m a teacher) and my decision to get sober was precipitated by a bad situation at work. I have an assistant principal who is terrible to work for, and I have decided to find a fresh start at a new school. I have been attending 12-step meetings, and feel quite strong in my sobriety even though it has just begun (this is Day 25).
My problem is that I cannot motivate myself to do anything, such as apply for jobs, do work I need to do for my house, or even turn in my tax documents. I just sit around and dwell on feelings of regret, shame, and embarrassment for all my mistakes. I am stuck. I know I should go back into therapy, but that is just another item on a huge list of things I am neglecting. I have one thing going well for me: my hobby of playing in bridge tournaments. I consider this a positive environment (no substance abuse or gambling is involved), but one positive thing is obviously not enough! How do I get myself motivated?
A: You are 25 days into sobriety after 20 years of pretty serious addiction—I think depression and uncertainty is to be expected! That’s not to say that things aren’t going to continue to improve for you, but I think you are being unnecessarily hard on yourself if you think you should already be back in therapy, deep-cleaning the house, interviewing for a new job, and waiting on your tax return. (If it helps, I just went down to my car to pull out two trash bags full of unopened mail to find my 1099s. Progress, not perfection, as they say.)
It makes sense that feelings of regret and shame are popping up now that you’ve stopped trying to chase them away with alcohol and meth. You’ll be able to do meaningful work in your recovery program to address them, and in fact they may help you to help out a fellow alcoholic who can’t imagine what peace or usefulness might look like someday. You’re not going to learn how to live life on a sober basis overnight, so don’t set yourself up for disappointment by demanding immediate transformation of yourself. Playing bridge, going to meetings, developing a stable, long-lasting relationship to sobriety, and doing your job are all pretty tall orders.
Right now, I think continuing to put some time together and showing up at the job you have is plenty. If you don’t already have a sponsor, I’d encourage you to seek someone out in your program with meaningful long-term sobriety and an approach to life that’s not just “I managed not to drink or kill anyone today, but just barely”—someone who has something resembling discernment, inner peace, and perspective. Ask other members of the program what their first 30, 60, and 90 days were like. What was helpful to them? What did they find themselves trying to tackle right away? Would anyone from your program be willing to spend a little time with you after a meeting to keep you company while you file your taxes (or file for an extension) or do a load of laundry? Ask for support from them (and/or friends and family members, if any of them are willing and available) as you start tackling smaller projects before moving on to bigger ones.