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The Trouble With Sober Role Models
Even the people we look up to most can sometimes let us down.
I love watching interviews with sober celebrities.
I’ve always considered them a bit of a guilty pleasure. Generally, I think our culture should put less emphasis on celebrities. It strikes me as a little ridiculous to care so much about what they have to say. Yet, despite these feelings, I can’t help but enjoy hearing from celebrities who have quit drinking.
I watch talk-show appearances, listen to podcasts, and even read write-ups of celebrity tweets. Again, I’m the first to admit that it’s all a little silly.
However, the reality is that these celebrity interviews helped me immensely in getting sober. They provided me with some of my first opportunities to hear other alcoholics speaking about their addiction—long before I ever heard from fellow recovering alcoholics in real life.
Although some of these celebrity-sobriety interviews are relatively superficial, others dive deep into alcoholism and recovery. I’ve learned quite a bit from some of the most unexpected sources, such as two of my favorite comedians/podcasters, Theo Von and Steve-O.
For example, I believe it was from Theo Von that I first heard the advice to “listen for the similarities.” In other words, when speaking with fellow alcoholics, focus on how your stories connect, instead of getting hung up on differences. Even if their addiction or recovery wasn’t exactly the same as yours, there are still probably some important lessons that you can learn from their story.
It’s a piece of advice that I’ve taken seriously, and which has helped me immensely since getting sober.
Unfortunately, my interest in sober celebrities hasn’t always led to wisdom—it’s also led to disappointment.
There is a sober British comedian that I used to follow fairly closely when I first quit drinking. I’m not going to name him, although if you’re familiar with his work I’m sure you can figure it out by the end of this newsletter.
This comedian is known for his quick wit and edgy humor, and that’s exactly what drew me to him. I was worried that getting sober would somehow make me lose my edge, and this guy seemed like living proof that that wasn’t the case.
Even though I had never met this comedian (I hadn’t even seen him live—only on television), I still found myself looking up to him. He became a sober role model for me.
The trouble came when I watched an interview in which he admitted that after ten years sober, he had started occasionally drinking again. The way he explained it was that he would have just one drink each year, on Christmas.
This news hit me harder than it should have. This was a person I didn’t even know, yet his admission struck me like a personal betrayal. I couldn’t believe that this person that I had looked up to so much had gone back to drinking.
When I quit drinking, I learned that the only way for me to stay sober was to avoid alcohol completely. It strikes me as totally absurd to think that a recovered alcoholic could have just one drink each December and then go back to staying sober for the rest of the year.
Despite not knowing this comedian in real life, I found myself judging him quite harshly. I assumed that he was throwing his sobriety away and worried about the effect it would have on his fans.
To put it simply, I was disappointed. I stopped listening to his sobriety interviews and even stopped watching his comedy.
Another year or so after learning about his occasional drinks, I also discovered that the comedian had been involved in a big evasion tax scheme. My opinion of him took another blow.
This man went from being my top sober role model to a deep disappointment—twice over.
However, these days, my opinion of him has softened. It took me too long to realize it, but the problem was with me, not him.
Despite his celebrity status, the comedian is a human, just like the rest of us, and none of us are perfect. I put him on a pedestal because he was funny and sober.
People make mistakes, and I think it’s fair to say that we addicts have made even more mistakes than most. I’ve made my share, that’s for sure.
I still don’t think it makes sense for a recovering alcoholic to start drinking once a year, and I absolutely despise tax evasion, but that doesn’t mean this comedian is an inherently bad person.
I used to work as a lawyer in a public defender’s office. My boss there said that it’s important to remember that people are more than their worst mistakes. I love that sentiment and have tried to carry it with me.
We all do things wrong, but that doesn’t make us worthless. It even goes back to Theo Von’s advice to listen for the similarities. Even though the unnamed comedian didn’t live up to my vision of sobriety, it doesn’t mean that everything he’s said about sobriety is suddenly worthless. He still had a lot of great advice that helped me through some very hard years.
I think that if you stay sober long enough, you’re bound to eventually have someone let you down. In my case, I got off easy—it was a celebrity that I never met who disappointed me.
In other cases, it could be someone you actually know, which is even harder to deal with. The all-too-common nightmare scenario is when someone’s sponsor or mentor relapses. I’m fortunate not to have experienced this firsthand but have heard that it can lead to serious existential struggles.
Even if someone doesn’t relapse, they might let you down in other ways. They’ll miss a call, break a promise, or simply take an approach to sobriety you disagree with.
I’ve also been on the other side of this equation, being the person who disappoints others. It’s been over four years since I started writing about sobriety, and that’s far too long to keep everyone happy.
I’ve had readers who have followed me for years, but then become completely disappointed by me because they disagree with one of my takes on recovery. In the worst cases, they’ve reacted with vitriol, but I’m sure there have been others who have just quietly stopped reading.
I know that it’s impossible for me to live up to every person’s standards at every moment. That’s just life.
I hope, however, that my newsletter will remain a helpful resource even for those who sometimes disagree with me. We may have differences, but I’m sure that they are outweighed by the similarities.
These days, when I go looking for sobriety advice, I no longer seek out some flawless role model to idolize. I’m simply searching for ordinary people who have been in the same place and found something that works for them.
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