The Many Things I May Never Know


I never caught the exact date, but at some point, I became a different person. I mean, my face and blood type are (likely) the same, but something, a big something inside changed. Gone, and hopefully forever, is the angst, the rage, the constant, ever constant need for booze and pills and making sure other people knew how smart and clever and indifferent I was. Maybe that fragile person/dickhead is in there somewhere, but he’s been quiet for a while. Maybe his silence should scare me, but it doesn’t. It and all the things that used to scare me don’t. Where that fear used to reside, there is now a exotic mixture of a calm restlessness. It’s all gonna be okay, but I better work my ass off to make sure it’s all gonna be okay.

Did the change begin in rehab? No, my anger and sadness were at an all-time high when I was there. Was it when my wife said she wouldn’t let me in the delivery room if I was drunk? I doubt it; that feeling was more like a pitchfork to the abdomen. Was it gripping the arm of the couch, not letting myself run for the liquor store in those first twenty-four hours? Maybe. Was it this rock-bottom or that rock-bottom? Maybe it was all of these things. Luckily, I don’t know is an answer I no longer fear. I don’t wallow in the unknown; I embrace all that I don’t know.

My frustration lies not in that I don’t know the secret of the transformation, but more in that I don’t know how to share the parts of the secret I do discover. Where does motivation end and being a preachy pain in the ass begin? Many times they aren’t different sides of the same coin; they are the same side of the same coin. Those of us who have been to the depths have an uncanny ability to see others tripping down our old paths. But much like we swatted away each outstretched hand, those who need it the most do the very same. And the further we extend our hand, the more violently they recoil at our presence. It’s a delicate balance I have yet to master. However, it took me years to extend my hand at all, so I applaud myself for that.

My days often begin with writing thank you notes in my head. Rarely do the words find themselves on paper, but I carry the essence with me from one moment to the next. My wife gets a novel, my family and friends as well. Friends. My goodness, what a gift. What a beautifully overlooked gift. Too many of us shy away from real, unfiltered friendship, and we are all lesser for that choice. The support found in the laughter and accountability of friendship is one of the few truths that makes me question my devout atheism. How do I spread that truth? How can I shout it in a world with too much shouting?

The ego is not gone. Perhaps at times it’s even stronger than before. But what it yearns for has evolved. There is almost a need to share and help and shield others from a life no one wants. Sometimes I climb that ego onto the soap box until I realize I’m there for me, and not for others. So understanding that there is a process for us all, and that life, even the clean ones, are not linear is a new challenge for me. Now I try to be there. Not when things are easy or hard or messy, but for always. Now when my wife and family and friends wake in the dim light of morning, alone in their heads, my single hope is they feel that someone is there for them, just as they were there for me.


Justin Neff lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their two children. He is seven years sober, and struggles with finding that balance with sharing his story and being a soap box preacher.