Under Pressure

I was an avid diver for years. Living in Florida, but not close enough to the beach for day trips, cave diving was the norm. It’s probably some of the most dangerous and technical diving that one can do recreationally, but because of that I made a point of planning, preparing, and triple-checking everything. It’s the dives you treat casually where things go wrong.

One summer I’d chartered a boat in the Keys; the water was warm, and generally no deeper than 20 feet. I didn’t see much point in wearing anything more than my gear, a t-shirt and a pair of board shorts. It was humid, even far from the shore, and I was eager to get into the water.

A friend of mine went in first. He bobbed back to the surface immediately, screaming, with no regulator in his mouth, tearing at his face with his bare hands. I didn’t know why, and couldn’t see anything through the surface of the water with an overcast sky, but a deckhand was pushing me out of the boat before I could say, “I don’t think I should..”

I landed in a school of thousands of jellyfish. People will tell you the sting isn’t all that bad, but if you land on them, and in them, and find every inch of exposed flesh enveloped — and find some of them inside of your shorts — they’ve got a little kick.

How does that have anything to do with addiction, alcoholism, or recovery? It reminds me of relapse.

As of writing this, I’ve spent 20 years in and out of AA, more than half of my life. I didn’t always take it seriously, and I didn’t always want to be there, but I kept going back. I don’t think I really lent my addiction or alcoholism the gravitas it required for a while, unfortunately. Much like my affinity for cave diving, something about the dangerous and forbidden nature of substance abuse made it seem exciting, or even romantic somehow. It was risky, but it was (at some level in my mind) somehow cool, so it was worth it.

After a few rock bottoms, a few jails, and a few institutions, I did start to take things more seriously. I wasn’t just showing up to meetings, I started reading the book and learning about alcoholism with the appetite I usually reserved for fiction or entertainment. I was actively working the steps with a sponsor. I was doing it mostly the right way, but I kept leaning on something you’ll hear from time to time in the rooms: take what you need and leave the rest.

Much like my adventures in the life aquatic, I thought I knew what I needed — and I was sure I knew what I could leave aside. And just as that day I’d pay for my mistakes, I’d do the same with drinking eventually. I was so, so sure that my version of the program was working.

I’d rarely been sober so long. I looked better, I felt great. I considered myself something of an expert. I didn’t think of myself as recovering; I was recovered. Alas, pride before the fall and all that. The tools necessary to maintain sobriety were available to me, I knew what they were, and I knew where to find them. I was aware of the risks inherent to putting relatively trivial things before my sobriety.

I could have sucked it up, put on that uncomfortable wetsuit, dealt with a little sweat and discomfort and saved myself from a lot of suffering. I just didn’t want to. I didn’t consider that while the chances of what happened were low, they weren’t zero. And I paid for it dearly.

I take what I need these days, which is most of it. I leave very little. And I don’t dive in t-shirts.

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