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An illustration of an open laptop displaying a window that says “sobriety.” Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $210 I ever spent: My sobriety

The glossy online program wasn’t perfect, but it was what I needed just then.

There is footage of me as a middle school girl in Los Angeles that aired nationally in the late ’90s. In the clip, which was part of a Candid Camera gotcha segment, the comedian Richard Lewis and I sit alone at a long rectangular table in an unused room on campus, a map of the solar system hanging behind us. He tells me he has analyzed me and determined I will grow up to work as a manufacturer of waste disposals. While in front of Lewis — a tall self-assured man, telling me who I could be — I shrug, as if to say, “Seems reasonable.” My frame is cowed, hands in lap, lips pursed in consideration of the news, eyes dead, a little sad. I bow to male authority. I look as though I’m folding in on myself.

When Lewis leaves, however, my entire body unlocks. I make an animated face of disbelief, and later tell a friend who visits me in the room where I’ve been cloistered by producers what Lewis said. I do so with an admirable amount of gumption.

In the beginning, that unlocking is what drinking felt like. I took my first tequila shots as a freshman in high school, only a few years after that video was shot, to put myself in that supplicating state around boys, but also to access that salty girl, the one who came out when I could no longer feel the energy of male power in the room, pressing into my throat. I didn’t go into manufacturing, but I did become a writer and an academic, which meant I was always surrounded by those who used substances to find their way in or out of their bodies. By the spring of 2020, now a wine mom, I was eyeing an expensive online program for those who wanted to “rethink” their drinking.

I applied for a scholarship to the program on July 2, just missing the window for Dry July, but it was fine, I had a birthday coming up anyway! I was on unemployment, having lost work in the pandemic, so I requested as much financial assistance as possible. I got word a week later that I would receive a 75 percent scholarship for the program. This meant I would only be responsible for paying $70 three times over the course of one year, instead of the nearly $1,000 annual price tag paid by top-tier members who are unfunded. I planned to stop drinking after that birthday.

I found the progressive, for-profit recovery program after buying a popular book that took a feminist approach to addiction. The book drew on research and work that has been happening in addiction and recovery spaces for years but used jaunty language and a personal story to make brain science and concepts like harm reduction colloquial, accessible, relevant.

I read the book in a matter of days. I could feel the dread that had always circled around the prospect of quitting peeling off me. The program I joined soon after had been founded by the book’s author and had a website that was chic and modern. It did exactly what the book suggested sobriety culture needed to do: It rebranded recovery.

With my membership, I got themed and curated educational content — videos and readings, but also meditations and virtual meeting options organized around various identity groups. The mission eschewed rock-bottom narrative arcs and heavy labels like “alcoholic” in exchange for lemon water, affirmations, and self-care practices. But I was not as reproving as I sound now. I was in need.

Everything about the program had an inclusive, safe-space ambiance, including the community forum, a social platform for members. I found a familiar private succor in the message boards. They reminded me of forums I had prowled in new motherhood. I didn’t have to show up as a whole person there — or maybe I arrived whole, in a way I couldn’t in daily life. I could just slip into the space as an anyone and say what I needed to say. It wasn’t quite the anonymity that I liked or needed, but rather the disembodiment that came with the internet exchanges. I carried guilt about the many years I had spent drinking — I am a woman and a mother, I always feel I am to blame for everything — but also, I didn’t feel that way at all. I could see addiction happening all around me and felt generally unseen by pathology frameworks. Wanting too much of anything just seemed like a logical outgrowth of a culture that preaches overconsumption.

And I had grown up around it: Not long after I started drinking, when I was a teenager, I Mapquested my first Al-Anon meeting, which I walked to using my little printed pages as a guide. The meeting was held in a school down the street from the house I shared with my single mother, who was struggling with addiction. Years later, she got sober by committing to the 12 steps. Before long, her world — and so my world — was ruled by AA chips and moralizing decrees related to powerlessness and disease. Addiction, she told me, ran in our blood; she was asked to repent and began to see the world as bifurcated into normies and drunks. Her abstinence seemed, to me but also often to her, like a kind of damnation. I had helped get her into treatment, so I wanted her to be well, but I also hated seeing her like that, living in shame.

My mother got sober when I was in my 20s, so I had spent a long time turning over my issues with AA by the time I invested in my recovery a decade and a half later. I knew AA had helped many people: It was free and decidedly not-for-profit; meetings provided community and recognition. But its membership seemed to come with a misdirected indignity, especially for those who fell off the wagon or had addictions to other substances.

My drinking felt so clearly contextual, conditioned by the performance of sexuality that was requested of me young, which told me to accommodate and satisfy men’s voices and desires. It had been about not letting the labor of gender show, that work I learned even before I learned to drink, work that had made my body — and the voice that emerged from it — timid, stilted, glitchy, untrustworthy.

Moving within a recovery space online, I didn’t have to worry about how I presented. One of the central tenets of the program was that many of us are led to addiction not simply because we are powerless against one integrally addictive substance (obviously we are), but because our bodies are also shaped by the world we move through. We are often made to feel powerless and get high to help with that feeling. This was an idea I was willing to pay to identify with.

But it was often hard to tease the language of recovery from the language of wellness. Sometimes, all the mantras about staying present and releasing myself from the grip of alcohol felt no different from messages I had placed bets on before, when I had toyed with other forms of temperance. Ever since I was a girl, I had been through many ideological cycles with respect to what I put in my body and what I tried to get out of it. I had tried a variety of restrictive diets, most of which included prohibitions against alcohol (it felt like an impossible ask, but I nevertheless decorated my house with sticky notes and refrigerator reminders). Once, I vowed to do push-ups every day for a month (made it, like, a couple days?). I failed every 30-day challenge to which I dedicated a Pinterest board. Even the three-day cleanses ended in disappointment.

I was searching, even then, through the spectacle of self-optimization, for some balm for my wounds, the discomfort I felt living in my body. I knew what I was taking in. I could see capitalism grabbing me, shaking me as if to say, “You can be well! I swear it! Just try this one more thing!” But what can I say? For those of us who have been made to feel impure or unraveled, the promise that we can be clean is a hard one to snub.

When I joined the recovery program, I didn’t want to get clean. Or maybe I did. Maybe I still thought I could or needed to. Either way, by then, AA had taken a shape of its own in my mind. I wanted alcohol completely out of my life, but I knew the emphasis on submission, and on complete abstinence or bust, was useful for many, not all. I needed something else.

I didn’t want to be that cowed girl, doomed by male authority to forever perform work in which I found no pleasure. I wanted the sheen of an unstructured journey, one in which I could falter and not be made to view it as faltering, others lifting me up with slogans that reminded me I wasn’t forgoing indulgence forever but seeking it in a way I never had before. I liked those perspectives. They felt true. And I was beginning to see that choosing to no longer dissolve one’s body feels like that: like locating what makes you fall apart and what holds you together.

On occasion, I turned to content outside my program to help with the cognitive dissonance of living in a world bathed in booze, but I couldn’t quite make sense of the “new sobriety.” At least what I saw as the depressing disease model of AA had a literary quality to it, a melancholic’s gothic glaze. There was nothing incredibly literary about scrolling through sparkling memes about how fun sobriety is on Instagram. I liked not feeling hungover, truly, but the world I seemed to be entering felt veryliving my best life.”

Back inside the warm pocket of my program’s community page, everything felt simpler, and more complicated. No one who shared their stories, their uncertainties, was willing to settle. And though the stories they told were about themselves, they weren’t individualistic. One element of the wellness revolution that was missing from the discourse on the boards was all the talk of willpower. Without bodies, it seemed, everyone showed up shapeless, and there was a lot of encouragement and support between members around simply existing this way, as lumps, flesh and minds trying to live with and among others, amid the grief of living at all right now. We weren’t fitting ourselves into steps or paradigms or even social graces. I cleansed myself with that ordinary language of survival and all the speculative suggestions about how to make a life that felt less like suffering.

I was often preoccupied, though, by the knowledge that I was moving within a virtual community to which only folks of a certain income bracket could belong, while those who couldn’t afford glossy private treatment were regularly turned out on the streets, abandoned, or offered the disease model I had the ability to shirk. This underlined what had led me to the program, and maybe addiction, in the first place: the painful knowledge that everything — including the ease we feel in our bodies — is up for sale. That’s what capitalism does, too: It provides the good life to some, then rewrites our collective failure to care for all as individual shortcomings.

I could see others in the program were pensive with this awareness, too. There were plenty of folks on the community boards pushing back against the program’s model, especially as the space became, over time, more corporate. As we witnessed high employee turnover and some quieting of dissent in the boards, some left, many stayed, fighting for their lives. I stayed, ambivalently, feeling culpable for not putting my money elsewhere, toward those who might need it more, or toward upending the systems that cast aside those who struggle. I knew I had not yet solved the unsolvable problem of how to live in a body, so I continue to shell out $15 a month to pop in and out of forums and online meetings now and then to remind myself that, yes, it’s a journey, but also one that no one can walk alone.

Sometimes, I suppose, we must move in spaces that are imperfect to save ourselves because all the spaces made available to us, at least at this moment, are imperfect. Obviously, one can’t purchase sobriety or any ongoing relationship with wellness, with the body, even if we are told constantly that we can, and even if one can throw money in that general direction. But paying to rewrite the script I inherited feels so much more sensible than the hundreds of dollars I spent trying to shape my body into what others told me it should be.

Amanda Montei is a writer and educator living in California. She is working on her next book, a memoir about care and consent.

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