I’m not always grateful for surviving a coma. Sure, I can walk, I have no brain damage and my butt is bedsore-free. But like a man saved from drowning who sneaks out to stare longingly at the ocean, I often long for the release of self-destruction.
Cheating death didn’t magically rid me of my clinical anxiety, my panic disorder, my dysthymia. Instead, I woke up with a whole new battle: my addiction. I’ve been completely sober for almost two years, but even in sobriety, I’ve passed entire seasons feeling depressed, out of touch and full of fear. Throw in the occasional suicidal thought, and my reality’s a lot more complicated than your stereotypical image of the trauma survivor who cherishes every waking moment.
Narratives of survival and recovery often place emphasis squarely on the positive, and rightly so. I’ve said before that my coma was one of the best worst things that’s ever happened to me. But for every day that feels like a gift, there’s one that strangles me like a straightjacket. I need to give voice to the darker parts.
No eject button
Every active addict has a convenient eject button from life. Before sobriety, when I felt stressed, I’d juke it by getting high. I’d disappear into My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or head to a party that would subsume me into a wave of dancing and socializing.
In sobriety, I’ve swapped my “fuck it” button for mindfulness. For years, I’d avoided practicing mindfulness because its opposite, mindlessness, is so appealing. To be truly present in your life means sitting with discomfort, which is a nice little psychological koan — except that being uncomfortable fucking sucks.
Instead of trying to escape my squirrelier moments, though, I dive deeper into them. I start every morning with 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation, focusing on my breath and observing my thoughts and feelings with curiosity. This practice creates distance between my mind and my nervous system throughout the day, and I’m less reactive and more in control of my emotions in any given moment.
It doesn’t always work. In those moments, I remind myself that choosing mindlessness would kill me. Thankfully, I prefer the difficulty of life to the finality of death.
The social vacuum
One of the most common questions sober alcoholics hear is, “Is it hard for you to be in places where people are drinking?” For me, the answer is “no.” It’s nice to recognize the moment when the lights go out for everyone else at a party. That’s when I exit, effectively avoiding several more hours of repetitive conversations with intoxicated people.
But I miss the raucous intensity of my comedian friends and I getting obliterated and feeling we all might change the world this very night. Though it’s an illusion, it’s still alluring.
A portrait of the artist as a lonely heart
There is a mindset among stand-up comedians that I call the “grindset.” It says you must constantly be doing as many open mics and shows as you can. The danger of the grindset is that it values quantity over quality.
Upon reentering the Chicago comedy world, I envisioned a one-man show built around my experience. Refining “Dave Maher Coma Show” required me to examine my own long-held beliefs about the grindset. I decreased my attendance at open mics and stand-up shows, focusing instead on the lonelier pursuits of writing solo at my desk and meeting with the friend who’d direct the show.
My all-or-nothing approach to the Coma Show forced me to begrudgingly accept that there’s a difference between doing comedy and doing the socializing that enables me to do more comedy. Right now, I’m in a phase that requires me to focus on the former. Although it’s productive, the loneliness I feel within it is real.
Work sucks, I know
While I was in active addiction, I often felt anything could happen at any moment. I maintained a blissful ignorance of the reality that “anything” usually meant one of three things: smoking more weed, sleeping with a stranger or crashing a hotel party to which I wasn’t invited.
I miss that naiveté. I forget how stuck I felt before my coma, like I was Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” if he never left the bar.
Today, I’m at my peak of physical health, in a relationship with a woman I love, closer to my family, making my living doing creative work and garnering more success in my comedy career than ever. I’m living up to my potential, and that’s a miracle.
But it’s also hard work. Some days, all I see are the doctor’s appointments, emails, bills, dishes, laundry and recovery work that comprise my own Sisyphean stone. On those days, I long for the time when “getting high in alleys” felt like a viable hobby. I can’t even lash out in anger or judgment without feeling guilty for indulging in those subtler vices.
I am grateful for my life now, but it’s a complicated gratitude. I wouldn’t trade my post-coma life for my pre-coma life, but I’d consider the trade before turning it down. Nihilism and misery can be comfortable blankets because they are known quantities. Inching forward into the unknown is scary. What if you crawl out of the well you’re in and discover a nuclear wasteland? Or worse: What if you find a solid ground you can’t enjoy because a part of you always feels like you belong back in the well?
Thoreau was right when he wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” To his adage, I would add, “Just know you’re not alone if your response is, ‘Ugggh, do I have to?’”