The Best Advice I Ever Gave A 21-Year-Old Alcoholic

by Michael de la Guerra in November 3rd, 2020
Pic - Beach - Michael Lopez Copywriter

Photo Credit: Me

I know this a blog focused on copywriting and marketing, but sometimes I post personal essays as well. So, come for the copy tips, and stay for what I hope is an emotionally compelling life lesson I can share with you.

The house was built in 1912 and I knew it was haunted. I knew because I’d spent a better part of my teenage years sleeping in the library, and had felt a ghost one or two times.

Or not.

When I was 15 my parents caught me with a 1/4 pound of mushrooms, which is indicative of where I was, at that point in my life. The house belonged to my friend’s family, and whenever they’d go out of town, we would fill it up with all the bad kids and take lots of drugs.

So I might have felt a ghost, or I may have been out of my mind.

Several years later I got sober, and a few more after that, I ended up moving in with my friend and his family. Those years I spent with them were some of the greatest in my life.

My friend was trying to kick drugs and alcohol too, and everyone agreed that it might be nice to have me there as a sober roommate of sorts, while he and I trudged the road of awful relationships and shitty 12-step meeting coffee together.

And then he relapsed. Over and over again. I had to move out. The toxicity was too much for me and I had to get away from it.

There’s a theory that alcoholics and drug addicts stop maturing at the age they begin using because they’re not using to have fun, they’re doing it to escape. They stop maturing when they decide that they’re going to stop feeling.

Feelings are how we grow; without them we don’t mature.

Maybe this theory is right, I’m not sure, I’ve never seen the science. I just know that sometimes even “normal” people are immature. Maybe they didn’t want to feel either.

A friend texted me the other day. He’s recently sober and, even more recently, has become open to dating again. But he was nervous. He’d matched with someone on Tinder and didn’t know what to do.

I told him to go for it. Getting sober young is hard — I got sober at 19. My friend is 21 and nervous about meeting a girl at a bar. Imagine all the usual anxiety that one might attach to casual dating, then add another gut-wrenching layer of suck to that.

I gave him some advice in a string of texts that fell out of me. They were genuine, they were honest, and they were to the point. I looked at them the next morning when I opened our message box to ask him how it went and thought about what I’d said.

“Have Fun, You Deserve It”

Some people I know don’t have a hard time letting go and allowing themselves time for fun, some have to make sure they do it.

People that have tried to stop feeling for so long convince themselves that they don’t deserve to have fun. Whatever it is that they felt they needed to turn off is very often rooted in guilt or shame, and they forget that we all deserve to be happy.

It’s a shame that we have to be reminded of this sometimes.

Even now, my therapist always asks me if I scheduled some fun time for myself. She knows I bury myself in work as a way to escape, and don’t think that “fun” is “productive,” so sometimes I have to trick myself into fun by mixing my many escapes into it.

I like to read a lot. This I use as an escape sometimes, too — I’ll use it as a way to shut off from the world, and convince myself that it is good because reading is good.

So every now and then I’ll force myself to go out into the world and read. Maybe in a coffee shop downtown, maybe somewhere else. One time I drove for two hours just to read on a certain beach, under a certain cliff, where I remember smiling at a girl when I was young.

She smiled back, but her mom got mad at her, grabbed her arm, and pulled her away.

I hope wherever she is now, she’s allowing herself time to have fun.

“Make Mistakes”

I’m making a mistake right now. In the middle of the night last night I texted a girl I’ve been dating. I was half asleep.

“I feel very disconnected from you,” I told her.

It’s sad because it’s true. Now I’m trying to play it off, even though I know deep down it’s really how I feel.

The mistake was: not being more honest, sooner — before my subconscious decided it was going to call the shots.

When I was 18 I pawned a piece of gold jewelry I found in my mom’s purse for drugs. I’ve been asked before: what was the worse thing you ever did when you were on drugs? I’d done some bad things, that hurt a lot of people, but this is always the thing I think about.

Maybe meeting a girl at the bar will be a mistake my friend makes. Maybe he’ll fall in love with her, and she’ll have a drinking problem. Maybe she’ll suck him back into drinking with her, and in a year he’ll have to go back to rehab.

Maybe not — he’ll never know if he doesn’t risk it being a mistake.

When my grandmother was dying I didn’t see her until it was too late. On her last night I sat in a room with her alone and read to her aloud. This was the best I could do. The piece of jewelry that I pawned from my mom’s purse was hers. Huge mistake I’ll never forget.

Even if tomorrow I had millions of dollars and blew it all on jewelry, it wouldn’t fill the void I felt when I was sitting in that room with her —

These are the mistakes that matter.

Sure, I’ve screwed up a presentation at work before. I don’t work there anymore, it’s ok, plus my presentations are better now. One time I heckled Jimmy Kimmel outside of the building his show is recorded in, for no reason. I still feel bad about this. I don’t know why, but I do.

Surely Jimmy’s made some mistakes, I wonder what they are.

Once I was sitting around a campfire with some friends and one of them told me, “there’s no such thing as mistakes, only bad decisions.”

I don’t believe this. Bad decisions are done intentionally, without regard for the consequence; mistakes lack the intention.

Pawning the jewelry was a bad decision, contradicting myself was a mistake.

“Fall In Love”

If only it were so easy, right? We all love to fall in love, and we go to great lengths to try and force it to happen. There are even people who are addicted to love.

They’re addicted to the feeling that they get when they convince themselves that they’re in love, or, addicted to the chemical that’s released when they think they’re in love.

But I like to think of love as something malleable, and try to fall in love with things other than people.

Falling in love with people can be really awful, especially if they don’t love you back.

In fact being in love with something other than a person can sometimes be really bad too. If you fall for the way a writer writes, this can only last so long as the writer continues to write the same way. As soon as they challenge themselves to do something different, the writing doesn’t love you back.

You can’t escape heartbreak.

When I think of things that people “fall into” I can’t think of anything very good. Maybe if people fell into piles of money, or tubs of their favorite candy, falling would be good. More often than not, though, falling hurts.

Does that sound like an accurate description of falling in love?

There must be a sweet spot when we’re falling. I envision this as floating, or just staying in that constant state of euphoria that the love chemicals bring you. This must be what buddhist monks look to achieve when they’re meditating for six to eight hours a day.

Just being in love sounds ideal. But the falling into, or out of, love is us at our most vulnerable.

People who are in love usually trust each other (or at least I’d hope so). But just getting to that point requires our compliance in the falling part of it. You won’t know how to fall out of it, if you don’t allow yourself to fall into it.

It’s like a trust-fall for yourself. Know that you’re going to be ok and just fall.

“Get Hurt”

This is a byproduct of making mistakes and falling in love a lot of the time. But sometimes we get hurt by other things too, and it’s the only way we learn to move on.

When I was in my early 20s I had a great job, and promising career, in the entertainment industry. It inevitably ended up not being what I wanted, and each time I walked down a different corridor in my route to success in that world and hit a dead end, it hurt.

I didn’t know it then, but it hurt because the younger me I’d forgotten about was telling me to stop, and I only stopped when I was in enough pain.

Then I got stuck in an office job, and the cycle repeated itself again, until I was in my therapist’s office in tears over having to process billing accounts for someone else’s dream.

Only then did I let go and move on to the next chapter of my life — only when the pain let me know it was time.

Pain and fear are very illuminating feelings, they can tell us so much more about ourselves than we know logically. It’s what we do with that knowledge which changes, or moves us.

This brings us back to addiction; some people become so fed up with the pain that they get clean and sober.

Some of them don’t — and they die.

Even if they don’t, they’re dead on the inside.

Every day in the city I walk by a person who I assume to be a drug addict who has chosen to live with and cover up the pain. Before I went to rehab I’d see them too.

When I got to rehab I had to be in the same room with them. I didn’t go to a cushy rehab on the beach, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I was thrown in with a diverse group of people.

One guy, his name was Anthony, was the exact prototype of someone I’d see on the street and ignore. He was missing most of his teeth, and his body was beat from years of substance abuse. He must have been in his 50s.

But when I got there I was 19, and I was scared. I was going to leave. Some people get a free ride to the college of their dreams, I got a free ride to rehab.

And I was going to throw it away because I was so afraid.

Anthony had shown me around when I first got in so I felt like I could trust him. I opened up to him about how I wanted to leave, and he took me aside and said, “listen here young blood” and with tears in his eyes he told me not to give up.

He told me his story of how he’d been in and out of prison his entire life, and completely alienated his family. How he’d been a trucker working long hours traveling and taking drugs to supplement his time on the road, and how if he could go back and change things he would.

I felt his pain in that moment; I shared it with him, it was ours.

He cared.

He saw a young person who had the chance to either throw their life away, or stop trying to turn off the pain.

At the end of my stay in rehab, they made me get up and say goodbye to the residents before I left (the live-in tech told me it was because I was well-spoken, but I now know that she was appealing to my ego to give me the inspiration to do it).

After I said thank you, Anthony stood up and told me I reminded him of his son, and very earnestly told all the young people to look at me and remember that they could be like me or they could be like him.

No pressure.

We’ll never know if I had left how much different life might have been. I do know that pain can either push you forward, or stop you dead in your tracks, and that from time to time your pain may be beneficial to someone else.

Thank you Anthony, for sharing your pain with me.

“Hurt People”

Don’t actually do this if you can help it. Hurting people is awful, no matter what. But hurting others is almost inescapable. Take me to someone who swears they’ve never hurt someone, I’d like to know how they did it.

What I meant by this is you have to be willing to take risks in life — this we know. We hear it everyday, from every guru in finance, business, and beyond.

The biggest risks we take are the ones that affect other people around us. When they get hurt as a result of our actions, it’s not fun, and it feels bad.

You’re not letting yourself go to serendipity if you’re not taking these risks, though.

Yes you will get hurt.

Yes you will hurt someone.

If you’re not making those mistakes, learning from them, and trying not to hurt someone in the same way over again you’re not growing.

You’re not doing it right.

Instead of saying this, I should have said “get lost.” Get so lost in the world of learning and figuring out who you are that you fall in and out love, with so many different people and things that your scars show that you can take on anything.

But don’t actually hurt people, if you can help it

“Stay Sober”

You might think this is good advice for an alcoholic who needs to stay sober. And it is. But even if you don’t have a problem, there may be something you need to stay away from. Something that is bad for you.

Don’t do that that thing.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve the things that you’re bad at. If you want to you should. Just stay away from the extreme examples of what you know to be detrimental to your well-being.

When you’re a drug addict, it’s easy to point at drugs and say, “that, I need to stop doing that.” The same goes for things like gambling and overeating.

It’s not so easy when you can’t stop dating emotionally abusive people, or you can’t stop having sex with people you don’t love, when all you want is love.

Sex and love, people have a hard time with these two things.

People also have a hard time with eating, or anything that triggers our brain’s reward system. Even exercise, when done too much, can be bad for you; you do so much of it that you end up hurting yourself.

Hopefully the pain is enough to teach you a lesson.

If I could have reworded this small piece of advice to make it more well-rounded, I would have said “take care of yourself.”


I don’t know if this was good advice or not, but I said it anyway. It felt like the most honest way I could provide support to my friend.

So often we give advice to people that we would never actually take ourselves. This is hypocritical, and while none of us are perfect, consistently giving bad advice is a bad decision.

It might even hurt someone.

Give honest advice when someone asks for it. This creates transparency that most people don’t have the ability to transmit.

Because we’re so afraid of others knowing who we really are on the inside.

I was lucky enough to hop on the phone with a hero of mine, a writer. He was interviewing me to see if I was a good fit for his coaching program.

I wasn’t.

He didn’t sell me on it because I wasn’t at the right point in my career where it would have been ethical to take my money (which I would have gladly handed over to him).

Instead he gave me amazing advice. He could have made thousands of dollars off of me, and instead he said no, and gave me a mini-coaching lesson. He forever made an impression on me.

Be transparent, and be real — these things are scarce today.

Also, make mistakes, get hurt, and take care of yourself.

But don’t hurt anyone, please.

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