The final episodes of Netflix’s animated show BoJack Horseman came out last week, ending the story of an alcoholic has-been actor who’s also, inexplicably, a horse. In the final season, BoJack goes to rehab and then tries to square his new sober lifestyle with his past. The part that rang most true to me as a newly sober person was a throwaway gag in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting BoJack attends while his life is falling apart.
In the last half of season 6, BoJack’s past catches up with him as he tries to make a new, sober life as a college drama teacher. The reporters who were investigating the death of his protégé Sarah Lynn publish the true story of his involvement in her fatal drug overdose. BoJack comes clean in a TV interview, for which he is lauded by the public. Falling prey to the allure of fame, he returns for a second interview, which doesn’t go so well. At one point, he protests, “They can’t get me on old shit. I’m a different person now.” But while he’s changed for the better in many ways, he’s still someone who’s done terrible things, and getting sober can’t undo them.
While a lot of BoJack’s struggles in sobriety resonated with me, in part because I have a few cringe-worthy memories from my own drinking days, I never hit the dramatic lows BoJack Horseman portrays. Many stories about alcoholism involve people hitting “rock bottom,” a point at which drinking has so fucked up your life that your only options feel like quitting or dying. While I’ve heard many dramatic rock bottom stories that echo BoJack’s, I’ve heard far more from sober people who decided they’d had enough before things got too out of hand. I’ve also heard sober people say that rock bottom is wherever you stop digging. At one point, BoJack puts it this way: “I’ve had a lot of what I thought were rock bottoms, only to discover another rockier bottom underneath.... Eventually, I decided to stop waiting for something to change me. I had to make the change myself.” Looking back on my drinking after more than eight months sober, I can see that while I think it rarely affected others negatively, I was doing a lot of damage to myself that I kept deciding wasn’t “bad enough” to justify quitting yet. Sometimes when I think back on how long I waited to quit drinking, it feels less like denial and more like some ridiculous way of punishing myself.
A joke in a later BoJack episode drove this point home for me. In season 6’s 13th episode, “The Horny Unicorn,” BoJack goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting following his disastrous second TV interview. When he arrives, a cat character is sharing, holding a picture of a human family. He says, “When I got home, I found that my wife and daughter had moved out. All they left behind was this picture. It’s the stock photo that came in the frame. My wife kept asking me to put in a picture of our family, but I was always too drunk. But because of all of you, and my sponsor Leo, I’m no longer just the man who’s not in this picture. I’m a different, better man, who is also not in this picture.”
This throwaway, jokey moment said more about sobriety to me than a lot of BoJack’s arc. For one, never putting a picture in a frame is a tinier struggle than BoJack finding himself hated by millions, but it was clearly meaningful in the life of this character. Part of what helped me realize I needed to change my relationship with alcohol was the piling-up of all the things booze kept me from doing. The projects I dreamed about but never worked on, the weekend chores that never got started, and the plans I constantly cancelled were all small regrets that piled up into a life that, as AA terms it, felt unmanageable. These days, the dramatic improvements sobriety has made in my life stand beside all the much more mundane things it also helps me do. It can feel silly to be proud of myself for flossing every night or finally organizing my pantry, but those are some of the little benefits I didn’t expect when I first quit drinking, ones that make my life feel like something I’m living, instead of something I’m scrambling to keep from falling apart.
This joke also speaks to one of the shittier things about sobriety: quitting drinking changes a lot about your life, but it doesn’t really change who you are. For me, this sometimes feels like a ripoff: I’ll get mad that sobriety hasn’t turned me into a morning person, or hasn’t magically fixed my self-esteem. It’s made some of the worst parts of myself more pronounced, and it’s shown me I never developed coping strategies for so many things. All his sobriety and self-improvement ultimately don’t make BoJack less cowardly or self-centered, nor do they put this random cat in that picture. But the cat doesn’t seem ashamed of this, or overcome with remorse. A lot of things in his life are better, it seems, but it doesn’t mean everything is fixed. We don’t know what happens to the cat when he leaves the AA meeting, but he seems more at peace with what sobriety can and can’t do than BoJack Horseman’s star is.