5 Things 13 Reasons Why Gets Right About the Struggle of Young Sobriety
13 Reasons Why packs a lot into its final season, and while not all of it makes total sense, there's one story line that I found heartbreakingly relatable: Justin Foley's struggle to stay clean. I got sober over a decade ago at the age of 19, and watching him fight to remain on track reminded me of my own experiences in early sobriety. Though Justin is battling his addiction to heroin in the show, his story of sobriety and relapse is all too common within the recovery community. Abstaining from alcohol at any age is difficult for addicts, and it can be nearly impossible for teens and young adults. Here are just a few things the show gets right about attempting sobriety at a young age.
Your Whole Routine Has to Change, and That's Harder Than You Think
As emotionally and physically draining as rehab facilities can be, they're meant to be safe places to detox, examine underlying issues that contributed to the development of addiction, and create new, healthy patterns. Even for the most dedicated patient, all of this can fly out the window when they go home.
Justin returns to the loving arms of the Jensen family, but he's still living the same life he was before — save for spontaneous and mandatory drug tests. He has to attend the same school with the same people. While this may seem comforting, it's easy to fall back into old patterns.
I got sober over winter break of my sophomore year in college, and the anxiety I felt while driving back to the house I lived in with my roommates (with 10 days of sobriety under my belt) was crippling. I was convinced I could stick it out for that second semester, but waking up day after day in the same house where my alcoholism spiraled out of control proved to be too difficult, and I moved out weeks later. Putting myself in a new apartment with a sober roommate was the best thing I could have done for myself, and allowed me to establish new daily routines.
Your Friends Won't Understand — Even the Ones Who Want to Support You
If you've never dealt with addiction in your life, you may have been confused by Justin's decision to break up with Jess. She loves him and wants to support him, how can that be a bad thing? But Justin's right — he needs to focus on himself and his own health, and relationships can be a dangerous distraction in early sobriety. There's an unofficial rule in many 12-Step programs that people should wait until they're clean for an entire year before getting into a relationship. While this may sound extreme, I've never seen anyone's sobriety hurt because they followed this rule. (I have, however, seen many people relapse due to relationships in early sobriety.)
The months leading up to my decision to stop drinking were filled with near-nightly binges and blackouts. My friends asked me if something was wrong, warned me that I should probably slow down, and offered not to drink with me some nights. But when I hit rock-bottom and started attending 12-Step meetings, they told me I was overreacting.
Eventually they agreed to go to a meeting with me, but our friendship was never the same once I got sober, and frankly, I don't blame them. I couldn't expect a bunch of 19-year-olds (or in Justin's case, high school students) to understand the disease of addiction. My friends had every right to explore drinking and enjoy the experience of being young. I wanted them to have their own lives, but it was painful to lose people in the pursuit of becoming a healthy version of myself.
It Can Be Difficult to Find a Sober Network You Feel Comfortable With
One of the most frustrating moments in Justin's journey comes in the third episode of the new season, "Valentine's Day." When Coach Kerba asks Justin if he's attending meetings, Justin replies that he is, but the one he went to was filled with "old guys" who "didn't really think a high school kid had much to complain about."
I wish I could say I didn't have this experience, but the truth is that I didn't relate to everyone in the recovery community off the bat, and vice versa. When I first started attending 12-Step meetings, I walked out of some in tears, feeling out of place and unwanted. Eventually, I found weekly meetings with younger crowds that made me feel normal. More importantly, I learned to look past our differences (age, education, backgrounds) and focus on the things we had in common.
Finding Someone With Whom You Can Be Honest Is Vital
Coach Kerba ends up being at the meeting he suggests Justin attend, and becomes an influential part of Justin's sobriety. As supportive as the Jensens are, they don't have the experience of being addicts and can't understand the shame and fear that come along with Justin's disease.
When I sobered up, I had a number of people to confide in, but none were more important than my sponsor. She was a few years older than me, and the parallels in our stories were shocking to me at the time. We had similar upbringings, attended the same college, and when she shared with me the details of her drinking habits post-graduation, I knew I was headed down the exact same path.
She donated her time and energy to me. She allowed me to unload emotionally on her, and she became one of my closest friends. Without her, I don't know if I would still be sober.
No Matter What Precautions You Take, Life Will Continue to Happen
If you've finished the series, you know how Justin's story unfolds. He relapses following his mother's death, and though he gets clean again, he dies from AIDS-related complications. It's revealed that he contracted HIV during a period where he was homeless, forced into prostitution to finance his heroin addiction.
Justin's story is an extreme case, but it serves as a reminder that no matter how prepared we are, life still happens around us. Parents get divorced. Friends die. Breakups happen. No matter how many days, weeks, months, or years we've remained sober, we still only have today. Sobriety is a lifelong commitment, and no matter what happens, there will always be moments of hope and beauty, too.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please go to aa.org, na.org, or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).