Since, in our society, we have turned almost every event from a three-year-old’s birthday party to a 5K-run finish line into a drinking occasion, it was almost impossible to navigate life sober without drawing the attention of everyone I knew. Even when my determination to remove alcohol from my life was most firm and committed – a commitment in response to another morning of shame following another night of overindulgence – my sobriety meant I still had to face questions, ridicule and even humiliation on a weekly basis. “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Are you an alcoholic?” Simply choosing not to drink when all of my friends knew how much I loved alcohol was not an option. Something must have been wrong. I must have been broken in some way. “Did something happen?” “Did you get a DUI?” “Are you and Sheri OK?” The questions did not end and the embarrassment piled-up until the shame from not drinking was every bit as all consuming as the shame of being an active alcoholic.
Several months after I quit drinking this time around, I was with a dozen good friends all of whom had seen me abstain from alcohol on several recent occasions. As the group made plans to head for the bar, I declined to join them because I had other plans that evening. My preacher friend in the group – a man who, as an ordained minister, is a licensed professional counselor on a variety of topics including substance abuse – teased me about running off to an AA meeting. I stood there in stunned silence, but angry thoughts raced through my head. Are you fucking serious? Did you just make fun of me about the biggest challenge I will likely ever face?
I sulked to my car ashamed and speechless. I wanted to fight back. I wanted to explain the strain alcohol was putting on my marriage and how bad I felt about myself when I drank. I wanted to tell my minister friend and the rest of the guys how much better off I was waking-up free of regret and free of shame. Fighting with drinkers who are very, very much looking forward to the beer they are about to drink is a waste of time. Besides, I couldn’t fight. I was knocked-out-cold from a sucker punch that came from the very last person I imagined.
I did not start drinking in response to the shame I felt from my preacher friend’s teasing. God how I wanted to, but I didn’t. Not then. Not yet. It would take another fight to send me back to my beloved alcohol this time. This fight hit much closer to home and made me feel more helpless, confused and powerless against an ever strengthening current of despair.
My wife, Sheri, and I had a disagreement. Fights were common when I was drinking. Nothing was as impaired as my ability to remain composed and rational when I was consuming alcohol. They were not horrific movie scene fights with physical violence. Our fights never involved full-throated shouting and abusive cursing back and forth, at least almost never. I would lose my temper over the simplest things like a purchase I viewed as unnecessary or a comment from Sheri that I would misperceive as hurtful. She would do nothing wrong, yet my intoxicated mind would perceive that she was wasting money or attacking me. I would return fire with a quiet but scornful tongue-lashing or stares and looks of disgust. The cause of our fights was much less about the thing that happened and much more about my alcohol-soaked overreaction to it. When I would stop drinking, most of our disagreements would dry-up, too.
But ceasing to cause new pain did not instantly erase the pain of the past. Sheri was hurting from things I had said many times over many years in many states of intoxication. I had apologized in the most sincere way, and she had sincerely forgiven me. But she had not forgotten; she will never forget. She put her love and trust in me, and I said things – mean, vile, angry things that my sober brain could not fathom uttering yet my drunk mind spewed without hesitation – that hurt her deeply and forever. She was moving forward – hopeful for a sober future – and she was working hard to keep the pain in the past. But that is not always how it works. Sometimes the pain bubbled back to the surface and my hurtful words from before were all she could hear.
It’s as simple as that. As painful, awful, torturous, appalling, miserable and simple as that. The past came to the fore and we rehashed an argument. Sheri was still hurting, and I was disgusted that she could not see how hard I was working – what a sacrifice I was making – by choosing a harmonious marriage over my beloved drink. I was sober – which meant I was calm and rational – but I was also incensed that an issue that had been “sorried” and “accepted” was now again center stage and haunting our relationship. I QUIT DRINKING FOR YOU! This isn’t supposed to happen any more. Can’t you just be happy that I quit?
That was all it took. I was learning to weather the storm on the outside. I was slowly figuring out how to deal with questions, comments, smirks and stares from friends. But I was not at all prepared for friendly fire from my oft wounded soul mate. It was simply more than I could take. Now, I am painfully aware of how selfish was my need for her to leave the past where we buried it. At the time, it made me very angry and very thirsty. I abandoned the argument for the temporary relief only a bottle could provide. I was drunk within the hour. That argument was over, but the cycle of shame raged on.