How Fox Mulder Saved My Life in Sobriety

“Saved” in air quotes.

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: I’m not cool, I never have been and I never will be. In my active drinking, this fact absolutely haunted me. I tried Way Too Hard in my 20s to muster any shred of coolness. Fox Mulder Cool. But I always came up short.

Always.

Coolness eluded me like the details of a dream when you first wake up. I burned so many calories trying to say the right thing and dress the right way — all while looking like I didn’t care. But being cool never looked good on me in all the same ways I never felt comfortable in it. No amount of J. Crew or Banana Republic could disguise the geekdom that was hardcoded into my DNA. I’m a geek, a nerd and a dweeb. People could smell it on me when I was drinking, too — figuratively and literally. I grew up on a steady diet of Starfleet Academy, AT-ATs, Super Mario Bros and Quantum Leap. For years, I desperately tried to hide that fact. All it did was start the long, sad spiral of me getting lost in my own alcoholism.

But somewhere during my decades-long blur of booze, geeky things blew up. I don’t know when the wave of nerdery kicked in, but it kicked in hard and it has become something of a bizarre security blanket for me in sobriety. Marvel Comics. Video games. Role-playing games. Nerdist.com. Zombies. Star Wars. Star Trek. Ghostbusters (both teams). Stranger Things. All the things I used to be made fun of for at school, all the things I escaped from were suddenly in vogue. If I’d been true to myself, I’d have caught the crest of that wave. But no. From an early age, I was taught that knowing the composer of Back to the Future was not something to be celebrated. I remember walking across a parking lot once and some kids in elementary school taunted me by singing the Indiana Jones theme song at me. I got prank-called once by some kids saying they were radio hosts, asking me trivia questions about Star Trek: The Next Generation. (I answered all their ridiculously basic questions correctly, by the way.) I was mercilessly taunted for my pop culture brain — and I don’t think it had anything to do with growing up in farm country.

When I was drinking, I tried drowning out every part of myself that resembled a connection to pop culture. I could uncouple that train car and leave it behind me. I honestly believed the lie that I was becoming cool. When I’d be out drinking with friends, there were even brief moments where I’d wrestle back joining people in quoting, say, Caddyshack or Short Circuit. I remember taking deliberate swigs out of beer bottles so that I wouldn’t fall into that trap. I couldn’t ever relax and be myself. I pretended like I didn’t know what they were talking about, even though it absolutely killed me. I cannot describe how corrosive it was — the frayed wiring of playing dumb when someone talks about something you know everything about. Hearing them fumble over plot points or mis-remember character names was the worst. When they sat there and desperately tried recalling the title of a 1980s movie where a bunch of old people in an apartment building are visited by little flying, cuddly-cute alien spacecraft (“Batteries Not Included!” I wanted to shout), I drank.

I don’t have a mind for being cool — I have a brain for picking up movie release dates, album cover artists, authors, James Bond actors and every other useless fact in between. I remember useless facts in the way that other people remember Actual Things. I used to treat it like a disease, in fact, very much like I now treat my alcoholism. But when I was drinking, I had to clamp down on the part of myself that had gotten ridiculed so hard in middle school. And what I discovered was that I drew in the wrong circle of people — I attracted different people into my orbit like the cloud of space junk that now circles Earth. I’m the guy who knows that Drew Struzan did all the seminal art of 1980s movie posters or that, say, Data once met Mark Twain in an awful two-parter of Next Generation. I don’t know anything about football or designer jeans. For a few solid years, I was going to bars, night after night, with people I had nothing in common with beyond an excuse to go drink it up on a Wednesday night. I’d sit there and pretend to care about the sports teams they were interested in or why baseball was amazing. Looking back on it, there is no more profound betrayal of the self than that. Drinking alone eventually proved to be more rewarding.

In early recovery, I found all those falsehoods and fake friendships evaporating. So I clung to anything and everything that felt familiar to me. And it’s precisely why I threw myself back into everything I enjoyed in my youth. I didn’t have anything else. I’d thrown away years my life being someone I wasn’t. Everything old was new again to me. Pulling out my X-Files DVDs was more than just comfort food — it was a soul-satisfying experience for someone who’d pushed all of it away with cheap vodka and screw-top bottles of wine. I suddenly felt like myself again.

I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and cried fresh tears watching Spock die in front of Kirk, having sacrificed himself for “the needs of the many.” I felt like I was watching my friend Alcohol dying, giving up its life so I could forge ahead with my own. I’d never fully grasped that my drinking undid everything I hoped it would bring me: credibility, charisma, confidence. It popped loose every thread on that sweater. I’d been retreating from who I was for so long that, when I got sober, I found myself back to the 15-year-old version of myself. I realized the saddest thing about growing up: I was pretty goddamn cool at 15 years old. Not because I immersed myself in TV shows about aliens and government conspiracies, but because that was the last time I’d actually, honestly been me. Fox Mulder never found his sister in all the same ways I would’ve never found coolness with even the brightest xenon X-Files flashlight on the planet. And I may be gloriously uncool in sobriety, but I’m authentic — and that brings me all the credibility, charisma and confidence that I’d been searching in the dark (and drink) for.

A version of this previously appeared at AfterParty Magazine.

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