Author: Matt Salis

Delusions of Happiness

Feeling Comfortable in DiscontentI don’t think I’m meant to be happy – at least not all of the time – not even close.

 

Like many, many adults with families and responsibilities, I am burdened with stress and pressure. I would describe myself as contemplative and unsure of myself. I wouldn’t describe myself as lost or directionless as it relates to what my future holds, but I would describe myself as unsure of my plan and praying for signs that I am on the right path.

 

I spend much of my time in a state of contemplative unsureness. It is an uneasy feeling. It lacks the comfort and confidence of happiness. It lacks the contentedness of pleasure. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The place I spend most of my time is in a state of discontent. And I think for me, that is how it is meant to be.

 

I am relatively new at experiencing emotions and letting them wash over me and take me along for the ride. As a drinker, I spent decades medicating away discomfort, stress, anger, fear or grief.

 

I remember traveling home to Denver after my grandfather’s funeral. The weekend spent with family in New Hampshire was full of hugs and tears and telling stories about Papou (Greek for grandfather) and lots of drinking. My cousins and I explored the ancient collection of bottles from distant lands Papou had on display in his basement. They had been there our entire lives, and now it was time to drink from them in honor of our fallen patriarch. We toasted Papou with every shot. With every shot, we killed a little more of the grief we felt from his loss.

 

I arrived at the Boston airport very early the morning after the funeral to find my flight had been canceled and I was moved to a later departure time. I was frustrated, tired and sad to be leaving my family, so I headed to the bar. The woman behind the counted denied my request for a beer with a disgusted look of disapproval as she served breakfast to the other travelers at the counter. Massachusetts law prohibited her from serving alcohol until the top of the next hour (was it 8am or 9am?), and I probably looked like the last thing I needed was to start drinking again. I had to live with my pain for half an hour until I could make it go away. And that’s exactly what I did. By the time the plane took off, I was numb and emotionless. It was far too heavy a weekend for me to feel joy, but I had drank myself into a state of ambivalence. I was ambivalent about travel delays. I was ambivalent about leaving my cousins and aunts and uncles and sister and parents behind. I was ambivalent about the death of Papou. Papou was a drinker. He’d understand.

 

In early sobriety, dealing with emotions was terrifying. Gone was my ability to drown fear, sadness, grief and anger. I had to learn to navigate my feelings. I am keenly aware of how pathetic that sounds. As a man, it makes me feel like a wussy writing like this. Admitting to emotions isn’t manly. Without my manly drink to make my feelings go away, they are my reality now, emasculating or not. I had to learn painful coping lessons.

 

As an American, my Declaration of Independence guarantees me the right to pursue happiness. It seems to me that Americans are fixated on that very pursuit. But happiness is elusive and mysterious. It comes and it goes as it pleases without explanation or apology. So, we spend a lifetime pursuing things that are more tangible and attainable hoping they will bring happiness along for the ride. We pursue money and power and bolstered egos. Then we brag and wield and flaunt all in the name of our right as Americans to pursue that which we hope will make us happy. What we don’t understand, often until it is too late, is there is no correlation between our pursuits and our happiness.

 

Just ask Tiger Woods. He had fame, power, the envy of millions, more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes and a beautiful wife to spend it with. He was not just a winner, but he dominated his competition and was well on his way to winning enough majors to make him the greatest golfer – maybe the greatest athlete – in history. All of that wasn’t enough. All the accolades and wealth and championships didn’t make him happy and prevent his self-destruction. I am obsessed with his story and the lessons it holds for all of us.

 

I am also obsessed with the lives of Robin Williams and Chris Farley – and their stories hit quite a bit closer to home. It is not that I think I am funny or entertaining like these two comedic masters. It is that I understand their battles with demons that are so diametrically opposed to the picture they painted on the outside. They were two of the very best at making people laugh while, behind the facade, they dealt with pain that was, ultimately, insurmountable. Their demons took these passionate and gifted treasures to our culture far too early because they weren’t able to find happiness or learn to find contentment amidst the discomfort. While Mr. Williams took his own life, Mr. Farley died from a drug overdose. The two causes of death are almost indistinguishable from one another in my mind. They were both in deep mental anguish, and they took the only steps they could conceive to find relief.

 

Robin Williams and Chris Farley are far from isolated examples of the elusiveness of happiness. In our culture, there are countless stories just as tragic as theirs. My obsession with their lives stems from the characteristics I believe we have in common. I could never hope to be a society-impacting comedic talent, but just like Robin and Chris, I thrive from using the gifts God has blessed me with to connect with people. For Robin and Chris, nothing felt quite like making people laugh. For me, when people share that my writing resonates, it touches me like nothing else. We also spend the rest of our waking hours – Robin, Chris, me and millions of others with brains that work in this manner – churning through a chaotic mess of thoughts and fears and plans and ideas and doubts. And for us – all of us with this type of brain – nothing quiets the madness like our drug of choice. For me, the same thing that drowned uncomfortable emotions also silenced the chaos in my mind – my beloved drink.

 

The correlation between creatives and addiction and depression and suicide and overdose is undeniable. You see, creative minds are in a constant and sometimes frenetic search for a connectedness with other humans. That is our happiness, and we pursue it relentlessly. We often hone our craft in hobbit-like isolation, but our goal is to reach a shared understanding with our fellow man. The artist paints and the writer writes and the comic twists the mundane into the hilarious not in search of power or money or fame, but in the desire to be understood and acknowledged for explaining a little piece of the world to those around us.

 

No one was better at connecting people and explaining the vast expanses of this world than Anthony Bourdain. Just over a week after his suicide, I have added him to the list of people with whom I am obsessed.

 

Just like Robin and Chris and so many others, Anthony died because he just wasn’t able to find a way to peacefully coexist with the chaos of his mind. Just like Robin and Chris and me, it is said that he worked crazy hours with a passionate relentlessness. Just like Robin and Chris and me, Anthony’s mind managed not just the task at hand, but dozens of future projects, ideas, opinions, fears and dreams. Just like Robin and Chris and me, Mr. Bourdain found comfort and relief from the chaos in his brain from the drink in his hand. Anthony Bourdain might not have been an alcoholic. I really don’t know and I don’t really think it matters. He beat addictions to cocaine and heroin in his younger life, and with continued alcohol consumption, he never really gave his brain a chance to heel. While some of our brain function returns to normal over extended sobriety, brain chaos management remains a lifetime burden for the likes of Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Anthony Bourdain, me and millions of others just like us. For some of the most influential, gifted and loving people among us, the burden is just too heavy to manage.

 

For some of us, the pursuit of happiness is a waste of time. What we really need to do to find satisfaction in life is to harness the array of naturally occurring emotions and use them to connect with other people. While I dream of someday publishing a book, any money I might possibly make from my writing will only be a useful byproduct of my desire to meet people at a place of heightened mutual understanding.

 

I am learning that the uncomfortable nature of my perpetual discontent is the price I have to pay to pursue the connections I desire. Sometimes I am happy. I find glimmers of joy on a daily basis. Mine is not a miserable existence. But the pursuit of happiness is a waste of my time. Happiness comes and it goes as it will. Medicating happiness carries devastating consequences. This was a hard and painful lesson, and one I hope to never repeat.

 

Money and power and fame can’t bring us happiness. Just ask Tiger Woods. Alcohol and drugs can’t bring us sustainable happiness, or even peace from chaos. Just ask Robin or Chris or Anthony or me.

 

For some of us, the key to happiness is to stop looking for it and understand it is as untamable as the ocean tides. For some of us, the key to peace and contentment is to get comfortable with uncomfortable discontent.

 

Some who read this won’t understand. I know it, and it doesn’t bother me. We are just wired differently. But for others, these words will resonate. For me, that connection is what makes life a precious blessing of discontent.

Drinking: A Family Affair – Part 2

My Family Under the Welcome to Colorful Colorado SignI was under the influence of alcohol during the birth of each of our four children. I wasn’t drunk on any of these occasions, but I had enough to drink to prevent me from being fully engaged – fully there for my wife, Sheri. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wasn’t the father my children deserved on the days they were born. How ironic it is that their being there for me is one of the most significant reasons I am permanently sober today.

 

As our children grew, alcohol continued to have a subtle yet profound impact on their lives. I never forgot to pick any of them up after school or after practice, and I attended all of the games and plays and other events of their lives. This fact – my perfect attendance – hid from my view what is now painfully obvious. Alcohol was taking a toll on my family even if I couldn’t see it.

Stigma – Video of My Sermon


When I gave the benediction on Sunday to conclude the church service where I had just delivered the sermon, I told the congregation they were made up of three groups of people. Some people were there because of concerns about their drinking or the drinking of a loved one. Some people were there because they are my friends and they love me and I thanked them very much. Some people were there because that’s where they go to church and they had no idea I was going to take to the pulpit to share my story and encourage them to help end the stigma associated with alcoholism.

My Mission from God Finds its Voice

Washington Park United Methodist ChurchThe word, “alcoholic,” conjures images of drunk bums living in the gutter. Or maybe you think of a loud and obnoxious uncle you only see at holiday dinners who can’t seem to get it together and blames everyone but himself for his lot in life. Alcoholics get multiple DUIs, get divorces and lose all their money. Alcoholics beat their wives and abandon their children choosing a bottle over life’s responsibilities.

As long as that’s the picture we visualize when we hear the term, “alcoholic,” we have no hope of ever curing alcoholism.

Drinking: A Family Affair – Part 1

A Vodka Tonic Toast to My Newborn Baby GirlThe day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.

 

I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.

Rounded Corners

Turn three at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.Grief. Mourning. Dealing with a profound and significant loss. Processing all the feelings that accompanied the death of the love of my life was the single most critical necessity to my permanent sobriety.

 

I am often asked by devastated and hopeless readers who suffer in the pit of alcoholic despair how I quit drinking. The how is very complicated, but this is the most imperative piece of the answer.

Deadly Secret

Distant Lapsing Best FriendsWhen Anna asks me, “How are you?” it is neither a pleasantry nor a rhetorical question. She wants an answer, and if I lie and tell her I am fine when I am not, she smirks and looks down at the ground between us with her doubtful eyes. She might not know what’s wrong, but she knows something is, and later, when we are alone, she will sit quietly and wait for me to tell her. Anna and I have been distant lapsing best friends since we were in college together in the mid 90s. Now 1,000 miles live between us, and we see each other only once or twice a year. I am riddled with guilt about how bad I am at keeping in touch between visits. When we are together, she gives me a hug with an extra squeeze at the end that tells me she forgives me and we are right back where we left off when last we were together.

My 80 Proof Fantasy

Me and a Barrel of WhiskeyMy life is infinitely better now in permanent sobriety, but still, sometimes I fantasize about drinking again. If I could choose one drink in one setting and enjoy it without consequences, what would I drink and where would I drink it? My fantasy does not involve an elegant party with fluted champagne glasses or a day on the beach with umbrella drinks and pineapple wedges or a ballgame with the guys and round after round of beers. It does not contain sex or sports or dancing or telling jokes. My fantasy does not even include my drink of choice to the bitter end, India pale ale.

Drinking for the Non-Drinker: 3 Tips to Surviving Early Sobriety

Soda with a Lime in front of Wine and BeerThe sun is creeping slowly down to the horizon on a typical clear and dry Denver evening. On the secluded patio at the back of one of the restaurants on South Gaylord Street, the mood is festive as we are gathered for a business cocktails and appetizers event. There are several familiar faces, but many people are new to me which makes the purpose of the gathering – a meet and greet for our new team members – so very appropriate.

 

Everyone in attendance seems adept at balancing a plate of hors devours along with their beverage of choice and still managing to shake hands as we mingle. The women are mostly drinking wine while the men have various pint and pilsner glasses in their hands. I notice a margarita to my left and a clear cocktail garnished with fruit across the way. The setting sun highlights the condensation drips weaving slowly down the sides of the beautiful and shapely glasses. Classy. Elegant. The essence of adulthood.

Owning My Alcoholic Label

I Own My Alcoholic Label“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned,” sings Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He has left behind a life of imprisonment, torment and misery. Through grit and determination, and by the grace of God, he has built a successful business and become mayor of his town. When an innocent man is mistaken for Jean Valjean and threatened with life in prison, Valjean sacrifices his reputation, his financial stability and his very freedom by owning his label – prisoner number 24601. He risks everything to save a man he does not even know.

 

What does a story about courage and truth in the face of tyranny and oppression during the French Revolution have to do with sobriety and shame? Everything. Just like Valjean, I have a dark and shameful past. I was imprisoned by addiction for a decade. I clawed and scraped and begged for mercy from debilitating alcohol-induced depression only to sink deeper into the pit of despair with every drink.