Clean: 'Back to My Roots' (1/3/21) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Back to My Roots' (1/3/21)


Published January 3, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.
Updated January 3, 2022 at 11:50 a.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner
Muddy water splashed on my shoes as I stepped over the roots of a tall maple tree. I was three years sober, and I was on my way to meet my friend for a celebratory dinner. It had been two weeks since my inaugural recovery column had been published in the Vermont News Guide and one week since my debut album had been released. I met my friend at the entrance, and we were then led to an ornately decorated table near a roaring fireplace. 

As I stuffed my face with bread, I made a feeble effort to hide my feelings of victorious glee beneath a transparent guise of contrived modesty. The time I had spent in recovery had brought me to a place where my creative efforts were finally being recognized. Ironically, my mind had irrationally twisted the initial success I had found with my humble and honest recovery journals to the point that I no longer possessed any semblance of humility or self-awareness.

After placing my order, I leaned back in my chair and swished my sparkling water around in my glass with pompous verve. When the main course arrived, I let out a boorish cackle as I raised a ceremonial toast to the power of recovery. I was stone-cold sober, but my mannerisms were reminiscent of a belligerent drunk who was about to get kicked out of a neighborhood bar.

After our server removed our plates, I reached into my pocket to grab my credit card and settle the bill. I then made a startling discovery: My wallet was nowhere to be found. In the throes of my euphoric ego trip, I had forgotten to bring it with me to the restaurant. I stared down at the table as overpowering feelings of shame dragged me down into a murky trench of insecurity and despair. I could barely look my friend in the eye, let alone ask him to fork over his hard-earned gains for the pricey and indulgent dinner that I had offered to pay for.

It was then that I realized that even though I was three years sober, I still had to deal with the unresolved resentments and doubts that continued to haunt me. I was starved for attention, desperate for approval, and longing for connection and emotional validation. I could try to run away from my problems by projecting a false image of imperious self-assurance, but I would inevitably return to the same place I found myself at the end of a long and destructive drug bender. Egocentricity and denial had become my new drugs of choice, and it was time to begin a long and scary detox process with an honest admission to my friend:

“I can’t find my wallet,” I said with a plaintive sigh, “I’ll stop at the cash machine and pay you back as soon as I get home.” 

My friend raised his eyebrows, folded his arms and smiled as he looked back at me and spoke:

“I’m happy to split the bill with you, but I always see you carrying around a chain wallet that’s attached to your keys. Why don’t you go look in your car? You might find it there.”

I walked out onto the street towards my car, opened the door, turned on the light, and scanned the seats for my wallet and keys. When I finally found them, they were sitting underneath the glovebox next to a recovery fellowship textbook that I hadn’t opened for several months. The location of the wallet served as a perfect metaphor for a priceless lesson I had learned several times in sobriety: Sometimes you have to go back to your roots to continue to grow.

Always remember:

Keep moving forward.
Run towards the truth.
Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
Benjamin Lerner is a recovering addict, composer, writer, musician and radio host. He has been sober since June 13, 2016. In his weekly column "Clean," originally published in Vermont News Guide, he shares his personal journey and lessons learned from his life in recovery. Columns published before July 12, 2020, can be found here. Newer installments are available on