Today I’m celebrating 10 years without alcohol. I remember this not because I recall my last sip, but rather the events surrounding this experience that brought me to this decision. A decade ago, my childhood home, a beautiful Victorian house that was a cornerstone in our community, burned down in a 5-alarm fire. Though I was living there at the time, I was not at home, nor was anyone else, and our family is forever grateful that no one was hurt.
The experience of losing our home — the entirety of our possessions, our books, our photographs — had a profound effect on my family that cemented in us a deep sense that nothing in the physical world is permanent — and nothing is guaranteed. While my entire family experienced and processed this trauma in unique ways, it had me looking inward to try to identify any roadblocks within myself I had long wanted to overcome. That was my relationship with alcohol.
Everyone adjusts their relationship with substances in different ways. My path was ultimately one of abstinence. While I had minor hurdles in the early days, eventually I became a complete teetotaler (an old expression for someone who doesn’t drink). This was more than a private experience, it was an identity I shared widely.
Today, I’m someone that is so vocal and proud of being many years sober that I even named my business, Teatotaller Cafe, after it. I opened it with the goal of creating rich, vibrant spaces in our community for connection that don’t need to revolve around the sale and consumption of alcohol. I’ve been proud, and humbled, to provide space, in particular space for youth, to express themselves and connect in an inclusive and safe environment. Running an explicitly ‘dry’ establishment in rural New Hampshire has also meant engaging with the large community of people in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. I’ve been honored to work alongside groups like SOS Recovery, or champion transitional spaces like Hope of Haven Hill, and I’ve educated myself with local leaders like John Burns or books like Chasing the Scream.
I’ve become so ‘in-step’ with the noble work of the recovery community — supporting syringe service programs and other harm reduction practices, providing space for LGBTQ+ folks to attend recovery meetings, speaking at and donating to events that make this community more visible — that I almost forgot where the line is between my experiences and the folks that are in active and long-term recovery.
For all the years I’ve spent supporting, and de-stigmatizing, recovery, it never occurred to me that I also might be part of it all. Recovery? That’s a specific process that’s qualified by ’12 steps’ or ‘Buddhist practices,’ right? It’s a specific commitment of confronting one’s substance use disorder in clinical and designated terms — isn’t it? Recovery? That’s a long process that stems from having a visibly abusive and disruptive relationship with alcohol, with heroin, with fentanyl. That’s not me, that’s not my story. I just had a house fire and stopped drinking. Nothing to recover from…
That was my take. It wasn’t out of stigma per se, but out of feeling like my life experiences didn’t qualify for recovery. The relative ease with which I overcame my interest in alcohol is nothing compared to the experiences of those who share stories from 12-step fellowships presented in media or movies or even my friends. The relative economic privilege my life has afforded cannot compare to the challenges faced by those with a substance use disorder, from loss of job, loss of housing, loss of family connection.
John Burns, the Executive Director of SOS Recovery, recently asked me, “Emmett, why don’t you think of yourself as in recovery?” While I shared with him my half-answer, his response was profound.
First, he gave me the facts. Over half the folks that are in recovery, that are resolving an alcohol or substance use disorder while seeking connection and fulfillment in their communities, do not identify as “in recovery.” For some of them it is likely out of stigma that they refrain from this descriptor, but for a large portion they are like me — they don’t “see” themselves in stories of recovery, so it must not include them.
Why do we measure recovery by how far someone has stumbled? This is much more a conversation about privilege — white privilege, heternoromative privilege, class privilege — than it is about the seriousness of an affliction caused by a substance use disorder.
Yet as John shared with me it isn’t actually about how intense or devastating the material, tangible aspects of our substance use disorders are, what matters is what it is we are recovering. Because if we are “in recovery” it means we lost something we are in search of gaining (again). I was always measuring my experiences of sobriety by how easy I had it, and it was time to examine what it was I had hoped to restore and get back.
John’s comments made me reflect on what it meant for me, all those years ago, to turn away from alcohol. Alcohol gave me what I thought was early access to community and early access to my identity. Growing up queer in a small town, I was looking for acceptance and looking for the freedom to live as I imagined myself to be. I found alcohol at a far younger age than I found acceptance. It was this relationship — though never ‘abused’ in a way I would understand — that kept me from discovering how to find acceptance as myself.
We can’t (and thankfully won’t) all experience house fires. But I’m grateful that this experience provided in me the courage and determination to confront my relationship with alcohol. In this way, I think we are all in recovery — so many of us have small negotiations with ourselves related to substance use. “I don’t feel like going out, but maybe after a couple drinks,” “I don’t dance/sing/speak up unless 2 beers in.” Yet when we police the boundaries about what counts as recovery — what counts as abuse — we are removing ourselves from a community that needs us. After all, the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection — and for me that means community. It’s feeling a sense of belonging and of being supported by others. So while I’m celebrating 10 years of sobriety, it actually took many more years of living in this state of recovery until I really found myself and my community. That’s what I’ve recovered — and why I’m in recovery.