My eyes slowly peeled open as the reality of how I felt began to develop. A pounding headache, dizziness, dry throat, and regret from yet another night of drinking far too much. The plan was to wake early and hit the river before the masses and get some fishing in the beautiful morning light. But my hangover begged to differ, and the plans slowly deteriorated as I closed my eyes once again to hope and pray that I can sleep away this feeling.
In my hungover state of restless sleep, I tossed and turned hoping that would ease the discomfort, but little did I know it was churning up old memories and feelings of exploration, buried behind the mask of alcoholism. One side rolled over seemed like the route back to the bottle for yet another day of drunken debauchery, where the other side I lay reminded me of what I wanted from my life before alcohol was introduced. A Ying and Yang of life bundled up underneath the covers like a coin toss to your life or a lifetime bet at the roulette table of a casino. Putting all my cards down on one side, I began to see what happens.
I stayed on this particular side for a little longer than expected when I did slowly fade to a twilighted sleep. In this sleep, however, the monetary value of my life swirling away at bars and liquor stores the last ten years added up and my mathematical brain kicked into gear. Realizing that the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on alcohol could have been used to buy gear or those dream trips to far-off destinations bouncing mouse patterns in Alaska or stripping tiny flies for huge trout in Argentina. At that moment, in that instance, I felt the soft breath of some nameless and faceless woman whisper my name in my ear. My eyes shot open and the process of becoming sober began.
I still struggle to explain what happened to myself let alone get the scenario down on paper, but that was what literally happened. It gives me goosebumps when I even think or write about it. After that, I went nine days for the first initial time getting sober in late March. Relapsing by choice, being proud of the fact I didn’t drink that long and wanted to prove I could be a responsible drinker. But that wasn’t the case. The next time I went sober was April 13. A special day as it is the anniversary of the start of my journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015. And until recently, my longest stint in sobriety.
Each relapse in the following year meant binge drinking to make up for the time spent sober. Ranges vary from a week or a few days to 17 days and even a month. But, I couldn’t find it for a lasting amount of time. I did however notice patterns that could help me achieve becoming sober. I began to develop a mindfulness practice in meditation. I began drinking teas and even apple cider vinegar. Green smoothies in the morning and keeping count of my water intake throughout the day. Staying busy and waking up early drove me to be grateful for the days without a hangover.
In the afternoons, however, demons crept in. Where the excitement of the morning faded to a dark depression of staring at the wall later in the day. Living with my parents at 30 and beginning to really beat myself up for my situation and actions, a dark future lay ahead, and drinking always seemed to be the very temporary band-aid for how I felt. I needed a new bandage and my beacon in the storm was simple, just grab my fly rod.
Coming home from work, my spring, summer, and fall seasons were treated with afternoon coffee and casting my original five weight out on the evening hatch the last hour or two before sunset. Listening to the birds chirping and the wind blowing through the trees, each cast offered snowcapped alpine views, flowers swaying with color, and water lapping up against my legs, soothing the soul with each trout brought to hand, one beautiful cast after the next. Replacing any need to stop at the gas station to fill the cooler or heading to happy hour at the local bar or restaurant.
The feeling of netting a trout, large or small, with no one around gave me a feeling no drunk or form of substance could replace. Jolting myself back to the reality and beauty of fly fishing I first discovered 22 years ago. I talked to the eagle flying overhead, had conversations with the leaves swaying in the wind, and always said high to each trout fooled by my fly pattern. My form of an AA meeting or therapy session was tied into place with each Clinch Knot and spent casting out into National Forest lands and Blue Ribbon trout streams. With each relapse, a battle had been lost, but in my heart, I knew a war could be won.
Repetition is of order. If I could repeatedly pour alcohol down my throat for ten years and more, there is no reason I couldn’t grab my five weight and just keep casting like I did as a kid.
I began journaling. Writing about when I fish, everything in the world is irrelevant. The phone isn’t ringing, the emails aren’t being sent, and the nagging of loved ones are nowhere in sight. All that is present is the sound of nature. Out on the river above the highs and lows that alcohol and substances give. Fly fishing alleviates the heavy bricks and darkness of depression and raises me up shooting me to my desired passions and dreams. All I must do is rig up my rod and get casting.
I knew I needed to prioritize this and thus my dream of doing a van life was realized. Being able to wake up and fall asleep near the river sounded like the answer. However, upon searching for my dream rig, the pandemic struck, prices skyrocketed, and Instagram and YouTube may have ruined that dream for anyone with an average income. But the dream stayed alive and my Subaru became my sober chariot.
With summers eve creeping in, the car was packed. Road map by my side and my wanderlust and exploration powering me down the road. The destination? Anywhere my car could take me and anywhere water flowed or held fish.
Fly fishing was my childhood dream, learning from my father at the age of 11, now it may have saved my life. Shortly after I began fishing again, the clarity of my potential fishing life came to realization, and the haze of ten years of not being myself was unveiled. Sparking the idea to hit the road in my 2010 Subaru Forester and explore every body of water I could. Healing with each cast into the thousands of acres of national forest, parks, and waters, gorging myself on Mother Nature therapy and recovering with every minute spent outdoors.
The sleeping platform was easy and cheap to build. The discard dumpster out back of the local department store had all the necessary framing needed to build a space for me to fit into. That along with enough wood to build out a drawer for a stove so I can cook and boil water for the two most important liquids in my life: coffee and tea.
With priorities now set in place for sleeping and cooking, the Yakima rocket box on the roof was stuffed with all appropriate gear: backpack, fly fishing gear, and an air compressor and tow straps. The space underneath my platform has enough room for a small cubby to put clothes and a space adjacent to it for an axe and firewood.
Behind the passenger seat is a 7-gallon water jug. Behind the driver seat is where the dirty clothes hamper along with extra storage for additional fly gear and a space for my laptop. The front seat my, “Go,” pack with my camera, GoPro, bear spray, etc…My waders and wading boots fit anywhere they could, depending on how damp they are or how actively I am using them.
Grabbing my five weight was the start. Rebeginning my life and passion of fly fishing right here in the heart of trout mecca where I work and live in Montana. But since the process of sobriety began, the reach for other weights has also begun. Using the new three weight has inspired me to get back to the alpine environments and backpack to remote lakes and streams devoid of humans. Listening to nature caress all the stresses and cravings that alcohol give.
The thirteen-foot spey no longer is collecting dust and is being used readily with each winter rainstorm bringing steelhead to the Pacific Northwest. Learning patience like all steelheaders but using the power of the redwoods or the evergreens to ease the wait instead of the flask I used to carry. I have even grabbed my ten-weight for a sneaky trip down to Baja to chase roosters cruising the gorgeous crystal-clear waters of the sea. Trips, rods, and experiences never would have happened if my toxicity of alcohol continued.
Am I perfect? Far from it. But each day I get stronger with every cast. I researched rehab, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and sought therapy, but all led me back to the bottle. Somehow fly fishing and being in nature has led me to where I am today, confident enough to write this and hopefully inspire others to find their path in nature and recovery from whatever may be holding you. All we must do is rig up that fly rod and start casting.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.