On Monday, January 14, I celebrated 11 years of sobriety. Some days I still wake up feeling like an insecure asshole who looks in the mirror and desperately wishes that I was anyone else. On mornings like that, when I’m soaked in self-pity and find it difficult to love myself, I’ve learned that the best remedy is unwavering, unconditional kindness to others.
Most days since I found sobriety, though, I wake up connected to gratitude. My worth and my purpose in this world are palpable. The days I’m talking about are less frequent and, generally, I’m far less insecure. But I’m fairly certain we all know what these days feel like. I obsessively scroll through social media and compare my life to yours. I wish I was a “normal drinker,” or more attractive, or straight, or financially stable, or or or… you get the idea.
These are the days when I have to remind myself where I’ve come from and the insane and difficult road I’ve taken to get here. It’s on these days—when I’m feeling like an unworthy piece of shit—I have to get out of my apartment, out of my head, and go help someone else.
My sobriety started two days after I was released from a one-year jail sentence in Florida, the result of stealing painkillers from people’s homes. The judge had warned me that if I violated my probation—which included not drinking for two years—I was facing 60 years in prison. Being incarcerated at the age of 24 forced me to admit that I had a pill addiction, but that I couldn’t fathom a life without drinking. How would I even get on a dance floor without booze?
From jail, I was sent directly to a bizarre Christian labor rehab, where the solution offered for my substance use (and my homosexuality) was to open a Bible and ask Jesus to take away the sin. It was the only place I could afford, and a stipulation of my release was I complete six months of treatment.
My second day there, a kid brought a six-pack of Natty Light into our dirty, cubed apartment. Without thinking, I drank two. I felt the familiar warm embrace as the beer’s bubbles finessed their way into my bloodstream. The euphoria was short lived when I remembered I had just spent a fucking year in an orange jumpsuit, and if I violated probation (which I had just done), orange was going to be my look for the next few decades. That’s when I finally admitted that I also had a drinking problem.
When I’m soaked in self-pity and find it difficult to love myself, I’ve learned that my best remedy is unwavering and unconditional kindness to others.
Luckily, after several weeks of pleading with my judge, I was transferred to a little halfway house in Palm Beach Gardens. Here, prostrating before Jesus wasn’t considered the only tool for staying sober. This is where I met my first 12-Step sponsor, Sean.
Sean was a crunchy hippie from Boston. He was obsessed with the Grateful Dead and his voice sounded like he was constantly gurgling asphalt. But Sean had freedom in his eyes. I wasn’t sure whether it was because he’d taken too much LSD before sobriety or because he knew something I didn’t. I did know that I wanted that freedom.
Sean sat me down at a Starbucks and explained one principle that would change the texture of my sobriety for the next 11 years. “Gratitude,” he said, “is an action word. When you start to feel disconnected from the reasons you want to stay sober, find someone to love.”
Something woke up inside of me, something that maybe I once knew but could never fully grasp, like trying to remember a dream that eludes you once your eyes flutter open. I had issues with some of the ideologies and Christian language used in the 12 Steps, but this was something I could grab hold of. Gratitude as a verb, as a way of life.
“Gratitude,” he said, “is an action word. When you start to feel disconnected from the reasons you want to stay sober, find someone to love.”
We all drink alcohol for different reasons and we all stop for different reasons. One of the most significant causes of my drinking was that I just didn’t like being me; I wasn’t enough. When I got drunk or high, that feeling would go away. So now, if I were going to stay sober and learn to love myself, I needed a new tool. I decided that whenever I am feeling less-than, I would go find someone and remind them of their own worth through a random act of kindness.
I started small. I held open doors and wrote sweet notes to people and anonymously left them on their cars. I bought coffee for someone in line behind me. And as if making up for lost time being a closeted gay in a Florida jail, I picked flowers and arranged them in cute vases to put in the common areas of the halfway house. When I was kind to someone else, my own feelings of unworthiness and otherness began to dissipate.
At seven years sober, I moved to New York to attend graduate school. I was studying at Columbia University and was basically surrounded by super-smart young people that also looked like supermodels. Now I was in the compare and despair big leagues. I would walk into a room and immediately size up people, categorizing them as either better or worse than me. It’s no surprise that, in this mindset, most people fit in the better-than-me department.
I decided that whenever I am feeling less-than, I would go find someone and remind them of their own worth.
To be clear, I don’t like that I do this. It’s this self-loathing part of me that can forget all of what makes me unique when I’m confronted with people I imagine are more successful or cooler than me. By comparison, when I’m grounded in my own power and goodness, other people’s success doesn’t make me feel less-than.
But I had a tool, one that had worked for me for the last seven years: Gratitude in action. If I was going to stay sober in this city and make meaningful connections with my classmates, I would need to step up my kindness game.
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re comparing yourself to everyone else’s curated life on social media, gratitude in action may help. It’s an opportunity for us to get out of our way and connect with others. For me, it turns down the volume on the negative self-talk and gives me the ability to hold my head high with integrity.
Here are three acts of kindness that I’ve incorporated into my life and have helped me to stay sober.
1. Good-Morning Love Texts
There is always someone who needs love. I made a practice of waking up in the morning and randomly texting people I hadn’t connected with in a while, perhaps in years. My texts go something like this:
Hi love, I haven’t spoken to you in a while and I’ve seen you on social media but I wanted to reach out and tell you I love you and that if you ever need anything, I’m here for you. I hope you have the best day!
Write whatever kind thought you’d like, but please be self-caring as well. Texting someone that you have unhealed trauma with is not a good way to start your day. I texted an ex-boyfriend years ago and then spent the entire day thinking about our insane relationship and wondering when he would text back.The idea is to give kindness without any expectations that it will be received in a certain way or reciprocated. Love for love’s sake.
Sending these little love nuggets can be done before you even get out of bed and hopefully before scrolling through Instagram and seeing everyone’s filtered pictures. Real life happens in real life. Not on social media.
2. Flowers for the Barista
Having worked at Starbucks, I’m intimately aware of how it feels to deal with the rush of grumpy morning zombies who stand in line and bark their coffee orders to those of us making just above minimum wage. Now that I’m a sober zombie in line for my own coffee, I want to change that dynamic.
First, I ask the barista how they are before any request for caffeine enters our conversation. They’re usually shocked to be asked a question that recognizes their humanity. Then I hand them some flowers that I’ve purchased from a bodega, in the least creepy way possible. I thank them for being here so early and tell them I hope they have a beautiful day. There’s no shitty morning mood that can’t instantly be made better by showering love on an unsuspecting barista.
3. Care Packages for People Experiencing Homelessness
Like most cities, New York has a large population of people without homes. Instead of seeing these people as “other,” I wanted to make them my family. I ask their names.
Several years ago, I started a practice of making care packages for people experiencing homelessness and would put a few in my backpack each morning. Care packages can consist of anything that might be useful: socks, snack bars, toothbrushes. I don’t want to assume I know what everyone needs, so I ask, “What do you need right now to help you get through the day?” If I don’t have what they’re asking for in my backpack, I go to a CVS and purchase it for them.
I have conversations over a hot meal and listen to their stories. So many people just want to feel heard and seen, to tell their story to someone that’s listening. Sharing a hot meal in a Manhattan diner might not sound life-changing, but I promise you, we both leave grateful for the connection. In a city like New York where most people just pass humans on the street without a look or a nod, simply listening and connecting to someone experiencing homelessness is a powerful act. Being sober for me doesn’t just mean I get to have all of the benefits of sobriety. It means reaching my hand out to others still struggling.
Those three acts of kindness are my daily foundation, but they can literally take any shape or form. It’s about getting out of ourselves and reaching into the heart of another human being. If humans aren’t your thing, head to an animal shelter with some treats for the pups or kitties. The act is simply the chemical that alchemizes self-pity into self-esteem. Gratitude as a verb means transforming our sobriety into an expression of love, both for the world and ourselves. Kindness to others is a powerful antidote to feeling unworthy of love. It has taught me integrity and reminds me that there are no categories of better-than or less-than. We are all just trying to do the best we can to stay connected and sober in what can be an extraordinarily crazy world.
We are all just trying to do the best we can to stay connected and sober in what can be an extraordinarily crazy world.
Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Although looking for the helpers may make us feel less scared amidst a crisis, what I have found is that becoming one of the helpers offers true connection, both to my sobriety and to others. I want to use whatever sober breaths I have left to remind people that they are loved, and needed, and worthy. While doing so, I also remind myself of those same truths. Drugs and alcohol offer a temporary escape from the human condition, love and connection do the opposite. When we reach out to others, we find ourselves.