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  • Writer's pictureJack Shain

The Company You Keep

In my first 20 days of being sober, I left campus and went into a sober living facility. I moved during the Super Bowl, which unfortunately happened to be the same day that Phillip Seymour Hoffman died. Part of the program required me to attend therapy groups that were held every evening. In my first Friday group, a 19-year-old college freshman asked the facilitator, “How do I know if my friends also have a problem with drugs and alcohol?” What he was really asking was “Can I keep my friends who still drink and use occasionally?” Only the facilitator knew this and answered with a question I was not expecting. He asked, “Do you believe that people in Nebraska are worried about making it to the beach so they can get a tan?”

Over the years, that response has always stuck with me. Obviously, it’s a metaphor, and this facilitator loved using metaphors to encourage us to change our questions and rethink our perceptions. In my experience, my friends did not have a drinking and 100+mg of Adderall a day problem. They weren’t chasing shadow people, hearing voices, staying up for seven days at a time, or stealing money and medications from their friends. This problem of mine, which encompassed more than using and drinking, was just not on their radar.

Oddly, I didn’t even hang out with addicts. I think one good reason that I was in denial of being an addict myself. I came from a good home and good education. My parents provided. I did have some trauma, but no one escapes childhood unscathed. I also believed that I was better than the groups who looked like addicts. I never dabbled in needles or snorting (I had a lot of sinus infections as a kid, so putting anything into my sinuses only reminded me of being on antibiotics for most of my childhood). And lastly, people who weren’t addicts (aka normies) were easier to manipulate. They allowed me to satisfy my need of living a double life.

When I was around two or three years sober, I watched my sponsee brother take a cake for seven years. He said, “My mother once told me that you are the company you keep.” I always liked that line. Since I didn’t hang out with other addicts, it was easy for me to justify that I had always kept good company. But upon further speculation, it became quite obvious that I was the individual that brought the company down. People became exhausted and fed up with me. My usual ruse only lasted a few months before people caught on. In fact, one time, my roommates kicked me out on my birthday. Many of my friends also got married right out of college. It's no surprise to anyone that I was not invited to any of their weddings. People did not want to be around me. In the end, the company I kept was myself. I no longer was on other people’s radar. I was alone. And I kept using.

Eventually I found myself out of options and ended up in sober living as a last, desperate attempt to stay in college (we all know how that went). That metaphor about people in Nebraska was key to my early sobriety. It changed my trajectory enough that I was able to slowly realize that I had pushed away friends and loved ones for many years. I had ultimately chosen alcohol and drugs over friends and family. If I had any friends in the last days of my using, they did not have a lot of life left. I heard in a meeting once, “Friends and relationships that start in our disease don’t always work out in health.” Hearing that made my roommate's question come full circle.

His fear in that moment was the thought of losing his friends. I certainly went through that, and I believe a lot of my sponsees, friends, and clients experience this as well. Getting sober is unfortunately saying goodbye to your old way of life. What was miserable was having to make new friends around sober activities. Asking to get coffee with a guy was awkward. Learning to get meals with people at a public restaurant during the day was difficult. And ultimately, it took time (Not to discourage anyone but it took a few years). But like anything good in this world, it all happened organically.

Today, I can assure you the 12th step promises have come true. They state, “Life will take on a new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends -- this is an experience you must not miss.” I no longer am the asshole that brings the company down. Just like the metaphor above, using drugs and alcohol are no longer on my radar. They aren’t even on the table. Today, I am grateful to have friends who laugh at my bad ideas, who produce a podcast with me, who play softball on Thursday nights (before Covid ruined everything), and who have small, intimate 12-step Zoom meetings throughout the week. It has been these friendships that have gotten me through this quarantine. In many 12-step fellowships, they refer to this as your tribe. I am just grateful that I found some who walk the same path.

This Article was written by Jack Shain, CADC-II and founder of Keep Left Recovery. KLR is a private drug and alcohol counseling service located in West Los Angeles.

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