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He Wanted to Stay Sober. So He Surrounded Himself with Drinkers

by John Otis

Each night, after closing time at the Manhattan restaurant where Michael McGarry works, his colleagues wind down with whiskey sours and pale ales. Mr. McGarry takes a different drink, usually an espresso or a sparkling water.
He is committed to being a teetotaler after 15 years of drug addictions.
But in an unconventional approach, Mr. McGarry, 33, surrounded himself with drinkers even early in his sobriety, which has lasted almost three years.
“The world doesn’t stop just because I got sober,” he said.
Being around alcohol is unavoidable, Mr. McGarry said, and so he believes it is critical for him to confront that head-on. If he sees alcohol as taboo, he said, he gives it more power.
Having seen friends relapse, go to jail or die of a drug overdose, he knows what he risks if he does not address his issues directly.
In high school, Mr. McGarry, an athlete and musician from Rochester, struggled with low self-esteem and felt out of place in social situations. Drugs became his inroad to connecting with others.
“I can sell drugs and everybody likes me,” he recalled. “Everybody just wants to be my friend.”
It did not take long for Mr. McGarry to go from smoking marijuana to selling it, along with other drugs; he progressed from swallowing oxycodone pills to injecting heroin. Run-ins with law enforcement, estrangement from concerned family members and spells of homelessness were part and parcel of his teenage years.
In 2004, with $40,000 in drug money and a preponderance of heroin in tow, Mr. McGarry moved to New York City. He romanticized a life on the streets, beholden to no one. He fraternized with music lovers, and vagabonds who sneaked aboard freight trains and rode them across the country.
“Drugs are like the bridge to any group of people,” Mr. McGarry said. “If we have drugs in common, we can be from completely different worlds and still get along because we have this one thing that keeps us together.”
But maintaining his own heroin habit, which he characterized as a full-time job, was expensive. He panhandled regularly, with his guitar and a makeshift sign.
“You make $200 to $300 every few hours,” Mr. McGarry said. “Why would you do anything else?”
Meaningful relationships were nonexistent. He was too strung out to be relied on for anything except helping a sick friend through withdrawal. Then, he said, he could scrounge up some heroin.
Blackouts and incoherence governed his days. “It took an enormous amount of drugs just to be O.K.,” said Mr. McGarry, who was also drinking alcohol.
There were moments when the lifestyle became so onerous that Mr. McGarry would quit using drugs. He never wanted to stop completely, but he would sometimes take breaks.
“I wasn’t ready to change,” Mr. McGarry said. “I hadn’t been through enough pain.”
Then in 2014, Mr. McGarry was arrested for selling heroin. It was his third drug charge in New York City, and he faced a six-year prison sentence. In jail, Mr. McGarry, who is not religious, sent a foxhole prayer to any higher power who would listen.
As part of a plea agreement, a judge granted him a chance at a reprieve, ruling that he be sent to a strict residential drug rehabilitation center. In August 2015, Mr. McGarry entered the Serendipity program at New York Therapeutic Communities, which assists substance abusers in the criminal justice system who require longer-term intervention. He promised himself that he would do whatever was asked of him.
“I got tired,” Mr. McGarry said. “I was tired of not having anyone to care about or anyone who cared about me.”
The first demand made by program’s staff was that he chop off his dreadlocks. At first, Mr. McGarry protested. Until he remembered his vow.
“Five minutes later, I found myself in a barber’s chair,” he said.
The regimented routine of living at Serendipity in Brooklyn — including a strict meeting schedule and room cleanliness inspections — offered invaluable structure and allowed productive habits to supplant his old ones.
Mr. McGarry said working out at the gym was an equally important part of his recovery, allowing him to set and achieve simple goals and fostering self-esteem. He left the program in March but continues to hew to a rigid fitness schedule.
Still, facing the world sober brought up suppressed anxiety. He first turned to anti-anxiety medication, but has since weaned himself off everything, including cigarettes, save an oft-replenished supply of nicotine lozenges. He hopes to give those up, too.
“I don’t want a crutch of any kind,” he said.
Mr. McGarry also forced himself into nerve-racking situations — riding the subway, chatting up an attractive woman — to push through the discomfort. While in recovery, he enrolled at the Culinary Tech Center in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, providing him with a career option despite his criminal record.
“I dove into it,” he said. “I didn’t half-step.”
Mr. McGarry has been a cook at the Cannibal Beer and Butcher in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan since January. He understands that his choice to work in such a place, where alcohol flows freely and having a so-called free shift drink after work is a common practice, seems counterintuitive to his well-being. But because he existed on the fringes of society for years, remaining separate now would too closely mirror the pattern of his darker days, which comes with the risk of restoring old urges.
“To get sober and live outside of society in a bubble would kind of defeat the purpose of why I got sober,” he said.
He regards his job as simply another situation that he needs to adapt to. He knows what would come of taking even one sip of alcohol
“Eventually, I’ll have a needle in my arm,” Mr. McGarry said. “It happened every time. It happened for years when I tried to get sober.”
During tough moments, he calls friends from rehabilitation, who remind him of the drawbacks of a quick fix, like smoking a joint. He still sees his old friends on sidewalks with cardboard signs. Some no longer recognize him. Others demand money.
Mr. McGarry now lives in an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his fiancée. The couple began their courtship while in Serendipity together. In August, a grant of $795.54 from FPWA, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, was used to buy clothing to help him get back on his feet.
Within the next few years, Mr. McGarry hopes to open his own restaurant and one day maybe own a home. The dream is far from illusory, he said; he has already accomplished what many believed to be impossible, himself included.
“I should be dead, probably a hundred times over,” he said. “And I’m not.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 10, 2017, on Page A30 of the New York edition with the headline: He Wanted to Stay Sober. So He Surrounded Himself Wit

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