Clean: 'Louder Than Words' (9/6/21) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Louder Than Words' (9/6/21)


Published September 6, 2021 at 12:45 p.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner
The sounds of shuffling feet and clicking heels blended with the faint murmurs of whispered conversations as I walked through the doorways of a large banquet room. I was two years sober, and I had just arrived at a packed and lively benefit concert in southern Vermont. It was the first time that my boss from the music studio in East Arlington had brought me along with him to a high-profile gathering, and I was nervous beyond belief.

It had been almost four months since I had moved to Vermont to pursue my artistic aspirations, and I was still adjusting to the pace of my hectic routine. I spent my mornings working with a producer and engineer on my fledgling music project, and my evenings consisted of long service work shifts, in which I bartended and waited tables at a nearby inn.

It was a surreal and mind-bending experience that required me to flawlessly balance creative expression with measured practicality, but I was well suited to the task. As the son of divorced parents, I had always managed to toe the line between two divergent ideologies. Over the years, I had learned to mimic speech patterns and social mannerisms in order to adapt to a variety of delicate situations.

As I shimmied through rows of rustic wicker chairs, I studied the comportment and patois of the people around me in an effort to formulate my conversational approach. I took a deep breath and sharpened my focus as I came across a table with my name spelled out on an ornate paper placard. I knew that it was time to put on a show and prove my worth to my newfound acquaintances at the party.

Over the course of the next half hour, I played the role of ringleader in an elaborate circus of small talk and loquacious self-indulgence at my table. I could feel my ego swelling. I fell back into my chair and savored a moment of silent triumph. I had managed to use my manipulative skills to my advantage, once again. Suddenly, my egotistical musings were cut short when one of my tablemates asked an unprompted and innocent question:

“Pardon me, young man, would you like some wine?”

I froze up like a fossilized specimen. I was surrounded by smiling and well-dressed people in a beautiful restaurant, but I still felt lost, lonely and frightened. I was desperate for approval, and I was afraid to humble myself down and admit my limitations. It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to posture or pretend anymore. In attempting to copy the characteristics of the people around me to gain their acceptance, I had lost my true sense of self in the process. I knew that it was time to let my guard down and speak from the heart.

“No, thank you. I’m going to stick with water. To be honest, I’m actually an addict and alcoholic in recovery. I’ve been clean for several years now. I’m far from perfect today, but I’m doing everything that I can to live a different way than I used to in the past.”

I was expecting the people around the table to react with disgust or contempt. Instead, they greeted me with expressions and remarks that were even more positive and encouraging than before. As the conversation continued, I knew that I didn’t have to go out of my way to prove anything to anyone anymore. As long as I was willing to detach from my ego and insecurities and tell the unvarnished truth, my recovery would speak louder than any words ever could.

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