Finding My Identity: How Therapy Only Made Sense in Sobriety

Rear view of person with short hair wearing pants and shirt standing looking out toward bright exit of dark tunnelBack when I was really starting to circle the drain with my alcoholism, I often showed up to work with truly epic hangovers. These widescreen wastelands in my brain could have been directed by Steven Spielberg. I could barely put two sentences together, let alone manage a team of people. One day, I overheard one employee whisper to another: “I’m never really sure which Paul is going to show up.” The comment hurt—mainly because it was 100% true. I didn’t know which version of me was going to show up at any second, either.

Not long after that, I ducked into an empty conference room and called my work’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The woman on the other end asked, in a kind voice, what my issue was.

I’d never liked telling the truth. My default setting was Lie Your Way Out. So I said, “I think I’m depressed.”

It was a half-truth, but fairly close to the mark. After all, I was depressed. I was about seventy pounds overweight and nauseous most hours of the day. In general, I felt a lot like one of my kids’ kindergarten projects—covered with too much Scotch tape and still barely managing to hold itself together.

She asked a few more questions, sizing me and my situation up. I wasn’t ready to admit I was an alcoholic, but I wasn’t above admitting I had a problem, either. Maybe they’ll give me pills to make me feel better, I thought. The EAP person gave me the names of some therapists—five, maybe—and I chose one at random. I called the office and left a message.

Minutes later, my phone rang. It was the therapist, a woman with a sunny yet serious voice. We’ll call her Michelle. I wasn’t sure how this was supposed to go, but I kept thinking: Pills. We worked out an appointment date, which I hastily wrote on a Post-It note that I was guaranteed to lose.

A week later, I found myself in the waiting area of Michelle’s practice. It was non-descript, just like any of the countless dentist and doctor’s offices I’d been in before. I picked up a People magazine and pretended to read it, barely registering the “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!” photos. I felt so disconnected from myself that I may as well have been an astronaut attempting a spacewalk without a suit, dangling out there in the void.

Michelle came around the corner and shook my hand. I followed her back into a cozy, unassuming office space with a desk in one corner and a plush chair and couch on the opposite side. The only real decorations in the room were a box of Kleenex and a white-noise machine.

She asked what I’d hoped to get out of the sessions and then asked questions about my past. I lied through most of them. Then, she delivered the crushing blow: “I’m not a psychiatrist. I can’t prescribe drugs to you.” You could’ve heard the air escape from my balloon from a mile away. I was crestfallen, but I played it straight. I shrugged it off like it wasn’t any big deal. All the while, I could feel the familiar bricks going up in place as I walled her off from me. Michelle scheduled a second appointment that I knew I wouldn’t make. Still, I smiled and shook her hand and graciously thanked her for her time. I drove straight to a liquor store to buy a six-pack of beer and one of those cheap pints of vodka that tastes like lighter fluid.

From Dazed to Detox

Over the next couple of years, my life became so unmanageable that I can’t even list all the reasons that eventually brought me to rehab. Destroyed relationships, unemployment, and lies that I had to somehow make true were just the beginning of my problems. What I can describe is exactly how I felt at the time. I felt like a pipe had burst somewhere within my walls, causing all kinds of unseen water damage. My life was soft to the touch, threatening to give way if someone pushed too hard.

I wasn’t a person of substance. I was a hollowed-out alcoholic doing his best imitation of a person. And my best wasn’t good enough anymore. I tried to stop drinking on my own, but I was quickly rewarded with crippling anxiety and insomnia. So I drank to keep myself “normal”—at least long enough to find a treatment center that might be able to help. My wife helped me find a facility within our insurance network, and we drove there together one afternoon. I entered in a daze, and I’m not sure I left there any differently.

I survived several days of alcohol detox, living with dozens of other people with the same dazed, thousand-yard stare I had. I felt shell-shocked. I wasn’t built for treatment centers in all the same ways that I wasn’t built to successfully drink. I had to open up. I had to share my thoughts and feelings and experiences with strangers. I had to pretend like I cared so I could get out and figure out how to do a better job of drinking. I’d simply gotten careless, I figured. I wasn’t like These People, I kept telling myself. I wasn’t an alcoholic—I’d just forgotten to pick up my kid from school. That stuff happens to everyone, right?

I sat in my assigned counselor’s office (we’ll call her Rikki), counting patterns in the floor tiles as she asked me how I planned to sustain sobriety after my discharge. I’d gotten so good at casually lying to everyone that I didn’t even think twice. All I had to do was continue telling her everything she wanted to hear and I was free. I’d get another crack at keeping my drinking under control.

“I’ll be seeing a counselor,” I assured her.

It was a lie. We both knew it. I could see it flash in her eyes. She asked who my counselor was, and I immediately gave Michelle’s name.

“Well,” she smiled, adjusting her J.J. Abrams-like spectacles, “let’s give her a call.”

Something inside me plummeted.

“Wait…”

But before I knew it, she was calling Michelle’s office and leaving a message asking about my “next appointment.” I simmered with rage. This would put me back on Michelle’s radar. It’d make things real. Minutes later, I had an appointment on the books. Rikki knew I’d lied, but she knew that I knew that, too, and we just sort of moved on.

I ended up in Michelle’s office some days later. I honest-to-God hoped that she’d forgotten all about me, that she’d see me as a brand-new patient. Someone she’d never seen before. I said hello and even pretended I was taking in all-new surroundings.

Once we settled in, she narrowed her eyes and tactfully asked me about early sobriety. “You’re several days in. How’s it going?”

Honestly, I felt like an exposed wound throbbing in ocean-salted air, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I treated therapy like a game of cat-and-mouse. I was going to outsmart her. She was only going to know whatever I wanted her to know. I was going to feed her just enough to keep up the charade. Not long after that appointment, I found myself in a parked car, chugging a tall boy of Labatt Blue. I certainly couldn’t show my face there again, so I pulled another vanishing act.

Therapy, I realized, wasn’t about making me relive all of my worst moments. It wasn’t a shame parade or a guilt tour. It wasn’t about punishing myself for the past. It wasn’t anything that I had imagined counseling to be.

At my alcoholic worst, all I was truly talented at was disappearing. If there was an escape available or a shortcut to be had, I’d take it. Eventually, all this running just became exhausting. Drinking wasn’t just a job anymore—it was more like that relentlessly hungry alien plant from Little Shop of Horrors that you could only feed with blood. I was giving so much of myself to drinking that there was very little of me left over.

It didn’t feel good living my life afraid of who was going to call my phone: a bill collector, a worried parent, an angry friend. I wanted to know what it felt like to truly live on the other side of it all. I wanted to know what it was like to not have to lie my way through the day.

Sobriety and Beyond

Long story short: I got sober. My sobriety started with a promise to myself that if things got bad, I could just go back to drinking. I kept an “emergency beer” in the fridge just in case. I put together one day, then two days, then three. On the fourth day, I opened the beer and emptied it into the sink, keeping it far away from me, as if the drops would burn my skin. After I had a week, I couldn’t believe it. I had been expecting the wheels to fly off, but they hadn’t.

I found my scribbled notes from my meetings with Michelle and read and re-read all of her simple suggestions and exercises. They didn’t make sense at the time—mainly because I hadn’t wanted them to make sense. But now, Michelle’s words seemed like life instructions. I tried her simple breathing exercises. I tried being present. I tried mindful meditation techniques. I was terrible at all of them, but I kept trying. More than anything, I was ashamed that so many people, like Michelle, had tried to help me and all I did was ignore them and believe that I knew better.

With six months of AA meetings, a sponsor, and more sobriety under my belt, I was writing countless amends letters. I put a lot into every single one, since I meant every word. First drafts, second drafts, third drafts. I wrote one to Michelle and mailed it. Weeks later, I decided to call and see if meeting up with her wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. She immediately agreed. I nervously went to the appointment, as if for the very first time because, well, it was the first real time. I was honestly going in there to see if I could get some answers about myself.

Therapy, I realized, wasn’t about making me relive all of my worst moments. It wasn’t a shame parade or a guilt tour. It wasn’t about punishing myself for the past. It wasn’t anything that I had imagined counseling to be. My alcoholism had corroded me from the inside out, scouring out so many parts of me that I didn’t feel like a person anymore. I was simply a shell—ashamed and lost. I hoped therapy would help me feel like a person again.

And so I started telling Michelle the truth. It happened accidentally. It just came out. The words sounded funny coming out of my mouth because I didn’t know what the truth sounded like. But they kept coming. I told her one truth after another, and you could almost see relief washing over her as one puzzle piece locked into place after another. Weeks later, I made the next scheduled appointment. And then the next one. And the one after that.

I wasn’t seeking pills; I wasn’t seeking the rubber stamp of “You saw a therapist today!” I was seeking guidance, and she was guiding me through the wreckage of my past and into the future. Paul 2.0. She was unknotting the binds of my alcoholism. She helped me understand that, maybe, I had to go through all of my pain and suffering in order to fully appreciate what I had now and where I was going. What’s ironic is that I was afraid of getting sober because I didn’t want to lose my identity. But in therapy, I discovered I never had one to begin with.

Now I do.

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Fix, AfterParty Magazine, The Literary Review, and The Live Oak Review, among others. He also created and is the co-host of “Drop the Needle,” a recovery podcast where guests share music that remind them about specific recovery topics and personal stories. Fuhr’s alcoholism memoir, Bottleneck, arrives in stores this May. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats named Dr. No and Goldeneye. His work can be found at paulfuhr.com.  

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  • Misty

    Misty

    April 11th, 2018 at 9:26 PM

    Intense
    so glad you got help and got sober. thanks for writing this

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