“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.
The shame and stigma associated with my label kept me drinking for many years when I knew I was in deep trouble. Alcoholic. What a despicable word, I thought. I’m not an alcoholic. I have never had a DUI. I have a successful career and a stable family. I’m not like those people. There were many days when I spent hours performing mental gymnastics as I considered and compared and classified and downplayed my drinking. The argument raged in my head while the quicksand that alcohol had become slowly engulfed me in misery. I was in anguish, but at least, I thought, I wasn’t an alcoholic.
The very word conjures images of weak and hopeless addicts sitting on metal folding chairs in damp church basements chain smoking cigarettes and drinking bad coffee from styrofoam cups and admitting to each other – but to no one else – their deepest and darkest secrets. That image alone added years to my sentence as an active alcoholic. I thought that was what recovery looked like because that’s how society portrays the battle against alcoholism. Given that picture as the alternative to the agony that drinking had become for me, I chose alcohol.
The label – that vile word, alcoholic – stood between me and freedom for many years. What changed? What made me admit the truth and tell the world about my addiction? The pain became too intense. The pit of despair got too deep. My hopelessness was complete. I no longer wanted to live. Looking back, I am overcome with grief about the depths I had to reach before I quit drinking. I suffered so much distress all because of the shame associated with that damned word.
Many people I revere in the recovery community hate the word alcoholic. They reject the label and rather focus on the fact that if alcohol is causing problems in our lives – regardless of quantity or frequency consumed – we need to address it. My friend, Laura McKowen, describes herself as a mama, writer, light seeker and recovery warrior. She chooses those labels, and I like that. Last week Laura was a guest on NBC’s Megyn Kelly Today for a segment about the growing trend of women who drink to manage the stress of motherhood and the turmoil the alcohol causes in their lives. Appearing with Laura was Aidan Donnelley Rowley who does not consider herself an alcoholic. Rather, she categorizes herself as, “a former grey area drinker.” I like that, too.
I get it. Just like Alcoholics Anonymous offers the promise of privacy to encourage people to seek help and recovery, Laura and Aidan offer support to people who seek more peace and fulfillment from life regardless of how or if they label themselves. But here is where I struggle. When we wear the label only in the private fellowship of other alcoholics, or when we reject the label because of the shame and stigma and misunderstood legacy it carries with it, the word alcoholic retains its power to cause guilt and humiliation.
That is why I choose to own my label. My name is Matt, and I am an alcoholic – not just in church basements, but on the internet and in conversations and whenever anyone cares to listen to my story.
I’ll share a secret. I want to be the face of alcoholism.
I reject the notion that only bums living in gutters and men who beat their wives and lose their jobs are addicted to alcohol. Most of the fifteen million of us in the United States maintain a facade of happy, successful lives while the truth is we are holding it all together by our fingernails and self-medicating with the very substance that is working to tear our lives apart. Laura McKowen describes it as, “Pictured/Not Pictured.” The photos on Instagram and Facebook tell one story, while the terror that the camera never captures rages on just out of view of most of our friends and family.
A quick Google search will reveal a variety of 20 question surveys we can take to help us determine if we are alcoholics. For me, there are only two questions. Do you regularly think about alcohol – either regret from overconsumption or desire for the next drink – when you are not drinking? And, is alcohol causing guilt, pain or shame in your life? If the answers are yes, your situation is far likelier to get worse than it is to get better. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. You might be managing the chaos for now, but all your efforts are only covering-up your truth. You can own your label and do something about it, or you can wait for the DUI or public humiliation or financial disaster or court-ordered rehab to prove it to yourself and everyone you know. Alcoholism doesn’t go away no matter what name you call it.
Since coming out as an alcoholic in January, my life has changed in profound and meaningful ways. Some of the most superficial and casual relationships in my life have taken on a depth and sincerity I never imagined. Everyone has been touched by alcoholism in some way or another. By telling the word of my battle – by owning my label – I invited everyone I know to share their stories and relax the grip on their pain.
Each of the first four people I told of my alcoholism listened to my story with a level of impatience because they wanted their turn. All four of them immediately shared their story of the impact of alcohol addiction on their family. Four for four – that’s perfectly tragic.
Church friends have pulled me aside to share their experiences in “the program” referring to their recovery through AA. Neighbors have thanked me for my story and my honesty with tears in their eyes hinting about pain in their own lives. Employees, remote acquaintances and distant relatives have all reached out with offers of support and pleas for help.
So many of my relationships have grown and developed in ways that would not have been possible without my openness about my alcoholism. I can see it in their faces and feel the warmth of their smiles. We no longer greet each other with ambivalent politeness. We now welcome each other with a knowing connectedness.
Owning my label – alcoholic – has enhanced my relationships in powerful ways and changed my life forever. Owning my label has rendered the word alcoholic powerless.
Let’s change what it means to be an alcoholic. Let’s dispense with the shame and guilt and social disgrace. Becoming an alcoholic means becoming addicted to one of the the world’s most addictive substances after years of immersion in a culture that celebrates alcohol as the panacea of stress and shyness and anxiety and boredom. We treat booze as the reward for adulthood and achievement, then we shame those who fall victim to the terror that washes up in its wake. We spend a lifetime playing with fire then act amazed and appalled when some of us get burned.
Let’s recognize the epidemic of alcoholism for what it is – an inevitable result of using alcohol to lubricate all facets of our society. It is the most widespread preventable disease of our own creation and proliferation. We should treat alcoholics with dignity and compassion rather than hushed whispers and scornful shakes of the head.
Just like Jean Valjean’s ownership of his label – 24601 – freed an innocent man, my ownership of my alcoholism has resulted in an email inbox full of stories from people struggling with their own battles with the drink and looking for someone who understands. By owning my label and sharing my story, strangers have found something with which they can relate. I have been blessed with powerful connections from people in places I least expected.
Turning strangers into a support network has been magical, but it pales in comparison the way I feel about the phone call I received last week. One of my own asked me to help him get sober. My stories about the pit of alcoholic despair resonated with a member of my family, and he wanted to talk to me about sobriety. Had I not owned my label – had I only shared my secret with other alcoholics in church basements – had I abstained at the next family gathering without explanation, this dear sweet relative would not have called me because he would not have known the similarities of our stories. My honesty gave him the courage to ask for help.
Owning my label has set me free from guilt and shame. Owning my label has enhanced friendships and enabled new relationships. Owning my label has rendered the word alcoholic powerless in my life. Now, suddenly, owning my label has transformed a connection with someone I love who is in deep trouble and intense pain. And that makes my addiction an indescribable blessing in my life.
My name is Matt, and I thank God I am an alcoholic.