A Rough Guide to Getting By Without Getting High

Kate Vargas on sobriety, escapism, and living in the present (when the present is less than pleasant).

“Out in the city, I walk around smiling. I hear the birds. The day is bright.” She said something like this. I can’t remember exactly. “I stay out as long as I can ’til I have to go home. Because then the door closes. And all the darkness comes crawling out the walls.”

Her nails were manicured. She had on good shoes. She had years sober. I had days. I took notes to look at later. 

It’s hard to say which affliction caused those words to resonate so deeply. Was it my alcoholism, my creativity, my humanness? All I know is I related to the disquieting internal crescendo I would feel at the mere thought of being alone with my own head.

In elementary school, I developed a fondness for subjects like Houdini and the Bermuda Triangle, picturing myself busting out of straitjackets and whale bellies to the sounds of oohs and aahs and roaring applause. Or being sucked into a dizzying polygonal abyss. It was thrilling to let my mind be engulfed by fantasy. Imagine my absolute delight when, a few years later, I discovered that there are substances that could swiftly aid me in escaping reality completely without even picking up a book or using my imagination!

I proceeded to use those spectacular substances with mind-boggling abandon. That’s a fun way to put it. 

They very nearly took me out. That’s a nice way to put it. 

I narrowly missed that beckoning abyss, the achingly great and eternal escape. That’s a poetic way. 

I’m sober because it’s my only option. That’s the truth.

Writing about sobriety is hard. It’s messy and it’s personal and may not feel fantastic but, right now, it feels important. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to addiction and there’s no right way to get sober but, from what I can tell, disconnection and fear are almost always major motivators to drink or use or generally act in ways that don’t foster self-esteem. Therefore lockdowns and pandemics are, undoubtedly, ripe for wanton activity. And not the fun kind. The ugly, self-defeating kind.

The internet credits Gary Busey but, wherever it originated, there’s an acronym for fear that’s been swirling around self-help and sober circles for years: False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s cute. It’s easy to remember. So when I’m all up in my head about whether or not people are going to to listen to my album when it comes out, my sober friend or life coach or Gary Busey would give a subtle shake of the head, smile knowingly and say, “I’m hearing a lot of fear right now. False evidence appearing real.” And I get the concept that all fear is rooted in the future. Even if a tiger is biting off my hand, the fear is that it’ll bite off more than just my hand and that hasn’t happened yet so… false evidence appearing real. 

But isn’t some fear legitimate? Like when the world shuts down and I lose my job and can’t pay rent and I can’t see my loved ones and people are getting sick and some of them are dying and the hospitals are overflowing? How do I stay sober when I am forced into isolation, and I’m afraid because the world is a scary place and I’m awake? 

Ms. F is in her 90s and sober for over 60 years, which means she’s stayed sober through a whole lot. She says things don’t get easier the longer you stay sober, but they do get simpler. I only have a decade under my belt. I don’t know any secrets or quick fixes and I haven’t figured out any neat little acronyms, but I know what’s kept me sober up until today, and likely into tomorrow. Even when the door closes.

I hold the unfortunate belief that sobriety means more than simply putting down drugs and alcohol. It means cultivating awareness, holding myself accountable, living in the present moment, and being of service to others. AND not using mind-altering substances! Believe me, if there was an easier way, I would choose that. But I have different goals now. I got sober because I wanted the pain to stop. I stay sober because I want to be a decent human being who is capable of emitting a little light out into the world, no matter the state of it.

To myself and whoever else it may concern, a rough guide to getting by without getting high:

The little things matter. Make the bed. And don’t half-ass it. Tuck in the sides.

Set an intention. Not something self-seeking, but something cloying like, “I’m going to move through the day in awareness so that I may be available when someone reaches out their hand.” 

Breathe for a bit. Not while making coffee or scrolling. Breathe as a focused activity. If you’re an overachiever, set a timer.

Call someone to see how they’re doing.

Get outside.


Write shit down. To-do, grocery lists, thoughts. Your brain is holding enough right now, give it a break.

If it hurts, acknowledge it. Be gentle.

Call someone else. 

Ask questions. Take the opportunity to learn.

Express fear, overwhelm, and anger without hurting others. Pillows are fantastic tools for this. Both screaming into and punching are encouraged. Repeat as needed.

Create something.

Appreciate both the obvious and less-than-obvious. Occasionally go back and see if you missed anything. 

Give yourself credit.

The thing about escape is that you can’t choose which piece of reality to break away from¹. It’s all or nothing. Brené Brown says, “We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” I had it wrong. My intention was to escape reality into some fantastical realm where I didn’t have to feel the “bad” stuff. But that didn’t mean I felt great all the time. I just numbed the true feelings. All of them. It was one-dimensional. It was repetitive. It was lackluster.

It may take work for someone like me to embrace reality, especially when the fear and uncertainty is very real and the exit appears shinier, at times gargantuan and glaring. But I realize now that it wasn’t the exiting that made Houdini’s acts so exciting. It wasn’t the escape. It was the way he came back.

¹ I Googled it and Merriam-Webster informed me it is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition but most definitely unacceptable to quote Churchill when doing so.

A reformed wild child, in recent years Kate Vargas has traded the party for meditation, yoga, clean eating and a renewed focus on what she values most — her music. The New Mexico-raised, NYC-based artist is building ever more mindfully on her sound, and the music press is taking notice, Vargas receiving praise from a variety of respected outlets including Billboard, NPR, Noisey, and the Huffington Post, the latter assessing, “There is an unlimited amount of potential in this superstar on the rise.” Her new album Rumpumpo is out now.