It has been two years, five months and nine days since James B. has had a drink. He remembers the day well. It was Feb. 15, 2010.
Only two years ago, he made a list of the goals he had for himself that he never reached because he couldn’t stay sober. Now one of them, traveling, is just a few weeks away.
James recently placed an ad on Craigslist to sublet his room while he visits Latin America this fall.
The post described his apartment and how, with its large bay windows overlooking the corridor, it sits just above Valencia Street — within walking distance of plenty of entertainment and nightlife.
Living so close to 39 bars, 90 corner stores and 294 restaurants with full bars or beer and wine service doesn’t bother James. The 31-year-old graduate student, who has dirty blond hair that falls at the center and blue eyes, says he can’t imagine living anywhere else.
But when he decided to get sober, he knew he had to leave the city to completely extract himself from his environment. For 10 weeks he attended rehab elsewhere in California.
Nowadays James still goes to bars — sometimes alone, to watch a soccer game, and sometimes with others, as he did recently when his cousin was visiting from New York and they went to Zeitgeist.
He’ll usually have a ginger ale or soda with lime, and isn’t tempted by booze anymore. His recovery has been fairly easy, he says.
His relationship with alcohol goes something like this: “Some people are allergic to shellfish,” he says. “They still go to restaurants but they don’t touch it because it would be bad. They don’t make a big deal out of it.
Are there shellfish restaurants everywhere? No.”
James’ story as a recovering alcoholic starts back when he was 21 and took his first sip of alcohol in college. He lived in a place where there was always a “kegerator.” So he started to drink beer in the morning, for breakfast.
Why not just eat a bowl of cereal? “Because it wasn’t there. You had to go to the store to get it,” he says, petting a gray cat he’s looking after. “It was about the convenience.”
He started drinking more and more. Buying shot-sized bottles of liquor crept into his daytime routine. He’d throw up, black out. Girlfriends were hard to keep.
“Every morning I would have to fight off the urge to drink,” he says.
Drinking simply made him feel better. But “by 3 or 4 p.m., I was useless. And I had things to do,” says James, who speaks comfortably about his situation, never shying away from the word “alcoholic.”
His family has a history of alcohol abuse. Two of his aunts on his father’s side passed away from alcohol-related incidents, and his father entered rehab when he was younger. Knowing that didn’t stop him from drinking but it did help him go to rehab and get sober.
“Basically it made sense very quickly that it was the right thing to do,” James says, explaining why getting out of the drinking cycle was easier for him than it sometimes is for others. “Because of the obvious history, because of my dad and him doing the same thing and me seeing how his life and our relationship had changed — that made it easier for me to not drink later.”
But there were two other factors that made him change his life.
“I always had goals for myself, and I wrote them out,” he says. He had wanted to travel for a year, volunteer and go to graduate school.
“It was stupid when I looked at the success rate,” he says, referring to his list of goals. “There was an undeniable disparity.”
Today, his ambitions are within reach as he travels to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia this fall to do research for a book he plans to write on Latin American culture.
The other wake-up call happened one evening when James was at a sports bar next to Don Nelson, the former NBA player and coach. Nelson bought him a shot; afterward, James went home and couldn’t stop filling his wine glass. Then he got in the car to pick up a friend.
That night, James received his second DUI; the first was when he was 23. This time his mom asked him to go into rehab, and he did.
“It was an incredible thing,” he says of the experience. Before, he says, he was lying to his parents about his job and growing marijuana. Now he grows plants and potted trees inside his apartment, where they sit alongside dozens of old music records.
“I looked at the control it had over my body,” he says of his addiction. “I didn’t want to do it, but it was compulsory.”
Today, James doesn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. Listening to people’s stories about alcohol abuse is not how he likes to spend his time, he says.
Although AA doesn’t keep track of the number of people in recovery, the organization estimates that there are probably 2 million worldwide, according to an AA employee. When Mission Local asked specifically about the Mission District this past March, AA employee Li Lighfoot said, “There’s a whole slew of people in recovery in the Mission.”
Because James hasn’t gone through the 12-step program, some people tell him he’s going to relapse. So far, he hasn’t.
In San Francisco, there are approximately 500 AA meetings per week compared to New York’s 1,100. In the Mission District alone, 115 meetings take place every week, and often those in attendance look like the hip young adults crowding the bars.
“My AA is acknowledgement and appreciation,” James says. His life has purpose now, he explains.
He plans to start a publishing company. Recently he took a nighttime bike ride through the Marin Headlands, something he would never have done in his drinking days. “I would have been too hammered to do that.”
Not drinking has had an impact on his social life. His true friends are still by his side, he says; the others “got stripped away naturally.”
As for his love life, James goes on dates and says it isn’t hard or awkward. He’s not attracted to people who get drunk, and because he doesn’t party as much, “the pool of datable people has shrunk.” Still, his dating life has gotten better because he’s with people “who are less drama.” Some women never ask why he doesn’t drink, and when they do, he simply answers, “It wasn’t working out for me,” and they understand, he says.
The same is true for other people in San Francisco who don’t make a big fuss if you don’t like to drink, says James. “They assume you have a reason.”
If he’s out and someone pressures him to drink, he’ll first say, “I don’t drink.” Then, “No thanks.” If they insist: “I don’t drink at all, not even a taste.” And finally: “I’m allergic.”
That reasoning, he says, is true, because an allergy is an abnormal reaction of the body. When his body senses alcohol in his system, he can’t stop drinking. “Addiction hijacks your mind; you’re not rational.”
His favorite drink was whiskey. “The brown stuff,” he says, his jaw tightening a little. “I still think about it sometimes.”
He’ll watch the television show “Mad Men” and say to himself, “Aw man, it’s not fair.” Or the other night, when it was cold and foggy out and he was crossing the bridge, he thought about how nice it would be to take a warm bath and have “a glass, cubes and two fingers of whiskey.”
He pauses. “But it’s an illusion.” His drinking days are time he’ll never get back.
When it comes to living in the Mission, going out to bars is just one part of the neighborhood, James says. “I like being around things alive, silly, diverse.” And the Mission, with its gallery openings and parties and theaters, is just that.
“When I was drinking, I was not present in the moment because I was scheming, stressing about when my next drink was going to be,” James says.
“And now,” being able to focus on the moment, “it’s really nice.”
James B. is one of many recovering alcoholics that Mission Loc@l will profile in an occasional series that looks at what it’s like to be young, living in the Mission District and unable to drink because drinking has become more destructive than enjoyable.
Would you like to share your story with Mission Loc@l? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.