September 12, 2012

Journeying toward ‘Unwasted’

A look at author Sacha Scoblic’s memoir showcases a home-hitting, relatable story — and the all too common initial fear of sobriety.

By Jennifer Matesa look at her—tiny, preppy 30-something redhead with clear skin and shiny smile—you’d never guess that Sacha Scoblic’s personal guru is Hunter S. Thompson and that in college, and in the early days of her career, the goal toward which she worked the hardest was drinking colleagues and friends alike under the bar.

Scoblic, a former editor at The New Republic and Reader’s Digest, and a contributor to The New York Times’s short-running blog about drinking, uses this disjunction between her appearance and experience to her advantage in her memoir of recovery. She focuses on the sober part of her story—her trudging process of getting “unwasted” in Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety.

Addiction memoirs are tricky. It’s tough to craft a captivating one without including some of the fear-and-loathing “drunkalog.” Even a memoir of so-called lush sobriety has to talk a bit about how one got wasted enough to want to get sober. And Scoblic had a relatively high bottom: though she got kicked out of Columbia as an undergrad (a fact that still stings today), she didn’t lose family, fortune, home or health. But it’s precisely Scoblic’s ordinariness that makes her story so interesting.

Scoblic’s narration is high-strung, and it’s endearing that she doesn’t try to hide her anxiety about being sober. Her book is structured around the worries she has while not drinking. She worries about how to make new friends and about how to get along with colleagues who drink. She worries about what, where and how to drink while enjoying herself in youthful Washington, D.C., her home city. She worries about how to spend New Year’s Eve without drinking, and about the rain on her wedding day. She worries about how much food she starts to eat once sober, and how much debt she’s running up through internet shopping sprees.

“I’d Google everything from ‘longer eyelashes’ to ‘more energy’ and see what the internet would bring back to me—and then I’d buy it,” she writes. “Instead of actually becoming the person I wanted to be, I just looked the part.”

Underlying this behavior is perhaps her most persistent worry: that, sober, she’d no longer be “fun.”

Scoblic and I happen to share a common purpose: to use our skills and appearances to break down the stigma around addiction and enable people to get timelier help. One of my favorite moments in Unwasted occurs when a colleague tells Scoblic she’s not a real addict because she isn’t “a hard-core tattooed person.” In fact, she tells the guy, she does have a tattoo. Through much of the book Scoblic employs humor to make sobriety sound sexy, but it was at these serious moments that she impressed me with her intelligent understanding of addiction: Remembering or not remembering a tattoo is not a yardstick. … Even if my bottom were lily-white, even if I had gently come clean after a quiet epiphany one morning over aspirin and a glass of water, my addiction is as real and alive as anyone’s. And the moment I start thinking that I have a different level of addiction, that I am not so hard-core, that’s the moment I will decide I can handle a drink after all. … It is no wonder James Frey felt he had to lie and embellish in A Million Little Pieces

Unwasted ends with a fabulous chapter called “Dry Run,” which shows Scoblic learning how to have (and be) fun through intensive exercise. She decides to run the New York City Marathon—a goal that she remembers, in sobriety, that she’s dreamed about since childhood, but forgot about while drinking—then trains for the race, drawing apt insights between her running group and her “Wolf Pack,” the bunch of people who help her stay sober. Through training she discovers a healing truth: that sobriety is not a boring fate she’s forced to accept, but rather a choice she’s made to improve her life.

“It began to dawn on me that perhaps I ought to reexamine my sobriety,” she writes. “Sobriety need not be an onus; it was, after all, the impetus to rediscover my childhood dreams. … I began to wonder about all the goals that had been lost in drink, all the time I had wasted.”

After I got sober at 44 and discovered to my horror that I’d wasted so much time, someone told me: “Lost time is lost—you can’t get it back.” Since then I’ve found that, no, indeed, the clock cannot be reversed. But recovery brings opportunities to move forward and make good on our native gifts. Scoblic skillfully demonstrates this through her commitment to tell an honest and entertaining story about her own healing.

Jennifer Matesa is freelance writer, essayist and author of two nonfiction books, including Navel-Gazing: The Days and Nights of a Mother in the Making, an award-winning memoir of her pregnancy. She runs the popular blog Guinevere Gets Sober, which covers addiction and recovery issues in the culture.

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