Ask a Sober Oldster #6: Elizabeth Crane
"I somehow managed to dislike myself intensely and simultaneously think that if only everyone saw everything as I did, most likely we’d spontaneously have world peace."
This monthly interview series is a collaboration between Oldster Magazine and The Small Bow, A.J. Daulerio’s excellent newsletter about sobriety and mental health, and will appear in both newsletters. Learn more about this collaboration in this Oldster podcast/videocast episode.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of four collections of short stories as well as two novels, We Only Know So Much and The History of Great Things. Her work has been translated into several languages and has been featured in numerous publications and anthologies, and her stories have been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Crane is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award, and her work has been adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater company, and also been adapted for film. She teaches in the UCR-Palm Desert low-residency MFA program. A film adaptation of We Only Know So Much is now streaming on most VOD services. Her debut memoir, This Story Will Change, came out in August 2022 from Counterpoint Books.
How old are you, and how long have you been in recovery?
I am 62 years old, and I’ve been sober for 31 years.
How did you get there?
By dating the wrong guy, of course! I’m kidding, but it was through one of my more unfortunate relationships, this one with a sober guy, that I very unintentionally decided to quit drinking.
What are the best things about being in recovery?
Every single thing that’s good in my life is because I don’t drink, which gave me a means to see things that weren’t working, and a support system to move through the things that are more challenging without being able to drink my way through them.
What’s hard about being in recovery?
Feelings! So many stupid, complex feelings! This is of course, also one of the best things, especially as an artist, being able to be present with my feelings, but I’m saying that on a sunny day. If it rains later, I’ll tell you again that feelings are the worst.
How has your character changed? What's better about you?
This might be more honestly answered by anyone who’s known me prior to my sobriety; I hope that I am less reactive, more open-minded, less likely to make most of the poor choices I made earlier in my life; even if I still have the impulse to do so, I’m no longer likely to, say, move across the country on a whim when I’m uncomfortable about… pretty much anything. Also, I actually think about other people and their feelings and experiences now. It’s not hyperbolic to say that as much as I’m still given to thinking about myself, there was a time when that was my entire framework for looking at the world. I somehow managed to dislike myself intensely and simultaneously think that if only everyone saw everything as I did, most likely we’d spontaneously have world peace.
What do you still need to work on? Can you still be a monster?
I could not possibly list all the things I feel like I still need to work on! I think it can take a lifetime to undo old ideas that no longer serve me or anyone around me. The idea that I’m lazy or unproductive, for example, still lingers, well into an era where I’m learning that productivity may not even be my own goal. Usefulness to others is a better goal for me, and I always have to work on that.
I’m not sure I was ever a monster so much as just so wrapped up in self-pity that pre-sobriety, I failed to make much effort to put anyone ahead of me ever, or to do any sort of service, which is fundamental to my recovery.
I hope that I am less reactive, more open-minded, less likely to make most of the poor choices I made earlier in my life; even if I still have the impulse to do so, I’m no longer likely to, say, move across the country on a whim when I’m uncomfortable about… pretty much anything.
What’s the best recovery memoir you’ve ever read? Tell us what you liked about it.
Hard one, but I reread Lit by Mary Karr not too long ago, and it’s kind of the model of any memoir for me: compelling story, out-of-the-park prose. I could be wrong, but I think poets are some of the best memoirists, because they’re not fucking around with their prose.
What are some memorable sober moments?
You know, I always say if I could make a little graph of my sober life, it would be a super jagged line going uphill, and 31 years in, the memorable-in-a-good-way moments, the little upward points of that line could probably fill a really annoying memoir, but even the memorable-in-a-painful-way moments, the downward points, usually ended up being memorable because of the people who helped me get through those challenges. I could point to career highlights, but what makes those memorable is celebrating with friends. But to be more specific, I’ll say this: in my first year of sobriety, I used to go to a coffee shop for lunch with sober friends almost every day. We’d walk a few blocks down Broadway, through Columbus Circle to the Cosmic Coffee shop (RIP) where they always saved us the big round table by the front window. Sometimes we’d fill the table and squeeze in extra chairs, other times there might be a few empty seats, but every time, every time, being with that group of people gave me something I’d never experienced before; hard to quantify the complexity of it, but it was the first time I began to feel that I was a necessary part of something. And we just fucking laughed, and we still do, even though we’re spread all over the country now.
Are you in therapy? On meds? Tell us about that.
I have a therapist I call on an as-needed basis now, who I went to for many years when we were still in the same city. And if there’s something big going on, like, uh, the end of a marriage, then as-needed means weekly; other times when I’m trying to sort through something it might be shorter term.
What sort of activities or groups do you participate in to help your recovery? (i.e. swimming, 12-step, meditation, et cetera)
I do belong to a fellowship that asks me not to be too public about it, so make of that what you will, and I have daily practices that include meditation and writing as well.
Are there any questions we haven’t asked you that you think we should add to this? And would you like to answer it?
I’ll say this: I think there are as many ways to be sober as there are sober people. For me, the regular and ongoing support of other sober people is a huge part of it, but (refer back to: how my character has changed) I no longer believe I have the answers for anyone but myself.
Check out the whole Sober Oldster series. Previously Elizabeth Crane wrote Portrait of an Old Lady for Oldster.
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