I sat on my front porch alone Sunday afternoon. I had just finished a painful, hour-long discussion with my wife about one of our kids. He is struggling with an issue that is not the point of this writing, and so in an effort to protect his privacy, let’s just say it is one of the hundreds of challenges young people face as they grow and mature.
The discussion was painful because Sheri and I mostly agreed about what was going on, but we had a slightly different take on the nuances. It was painful because despite having four kids, this is our first time dealing with this particular issue, so we are a bit lost as to what to do next. But mostly, it was a painful discussion because we are both hurting for our son, and feeling immense guilt for our potential roles in causing his struggles, and for our inability to make the struggles go away. Like most parents, we would do anything to take pain away from our kids, and when we can’t, that is about as helpless a feeling as I know.
As I sat and watched the summer rain fall on Sunday afternoon, I also thought about my Monday schedule. To start the Monday morning, I had a tough, contentious meeting scheduled with someone who has proven an inability to hold his temper. Then in the afternoon, I had high-stakes events scheduled too back-to-back for comfort. As if the stress of each individual event was not enough, I was super worried about having time to transition and be on time and ready for event number two.
I thought about alcohol. I never considered drinking it. It might make my epiphany more dramatic if I described a relatable near-relapse, but that’s not what happened. I never considered drinking. Not for a moment.
I thought about the potent power of the combination of guilt and anxiety. I think you can substitute any of the following words if they resonate better: stress, fear, sadness, shame, anticipation, hopelessness, worry, loneliness, nervousness, depression, or an overall sense of pending doom.
I also thought about the potent power of alcohol to make it all go away.
I often drank to excess on Sunday afternoons and evenings. My end-of-weekend drinking was not celebratory. Nor was it because I hated my job and I didn’t want Monday morning to come. It was because I tried to keep an open calendar for Sunday afternoons and reserve that time for relaxing and for family. The collateral damage of an open calendar for someone with a brain like mine is plenty of time to stir up a nice big batch of guilt and anxiety. I felt that feeling – the feeling I knew only alcohol could soothe with efficiency and completeness – last Sunday afternoon.
Alcohol consumed in that moment would not have been intended to hurt my wife or my kids. It would not have been vindictive or rebellious or careless or aggressive. It would not have been consumed with any more nefarious intent than when a person takes a Tylenol for a headache or puts heat on a sore back. It would only have been selfish in so far as seeking relief for pain can be considered greedy.
One of the glorious benefits of long-term recovery for me is learning to welcome and manage emotions. I now transition effortlessly from joy to sadness to contentment to fear to excitement. The key for me is to keep the pendulum from swinging very far. Joy is subtle, but sadness is fleeting, so staying balanced is an attainable goal. I have an ability to go with the flow for which sobriety is a prerequisite. For this reason, the guilt-and-anxiety concoction rarely rises to the level where I feel the need for relief. This past Sunday was a rare but tangible reminder of Sunday afternoons when I was a drinker.
Sheri never understood my relationship with alcohol. When she drank, a buzz felt a little woozy, a little like loss of control. Even at the first sip, she started to anticipate the headache and lack of productivity the next day. When I described alcohol as euphoric, she never understood. That never happened to her.
Likewise, it is hard for her to understand how a toxin that causes so much pain and destruction could be viewed in the context of pain relief. Societally, we look at a lack of emotional maturity like a weakness or moral failing. But do we ever consider that some people just find the answer earlier in life, and stop looking? When you learned that 2 + 2 = 4, did you keep trying to find alternative solutions to that simple computation?
I used to sit on that same front porch on Sunday afternoons, worried about something work related and guilty about something family related, and drink to soothe that pain. Alcohol was a socially accepted, extended-family-and-peer-group endorsed, substance that was legal, accessable, affordable, and culturally ever present.
Alcohol could make it all go away.
When I drank, I wasn’t evil. I was a fast learner. In sobriety, the learning comes to me much more slowly. But the fundamental truth – just as sure as 2 + 2 still equals 4 – remains:
Alcohol could still make it all go away.
If I drank again, I would lose my family. My kids are older now. My relationship with them no longer depends on access granted by my wife or a judge. They would choose to have little or nothing to do with me if alcohol reentered my life.
My wife would leave. Or force me to leave, more likely. But the divorce would not be in doubt.
My career is based primarily on the prerequisite of sobriety. It is hard to be effective in the behavioral health field with alcoholic behavior. I’m not a politician, so being a fraud would have consequences.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Alcohol still has the power to make it all go away, but the context is different, and the consequences are more than dehydration and an angry spouse.
What I feel more than anything after a tough Sunday afternoon is empathy. Alcohol is the first solution. It is the easy solution, it is the marketed solution, and for years and years, it is the right solution. Why would we waste time reconsidering the solution to 2 + 2?
But the obvious hypothesis fails. I spent a whole decade proving to myself that the solution doesn’t solve anything in the end. If there was a way to keep alcohol in my life without alcohol taking away everything, I assure you, I would have found it.
When I think about the younger, less seasoned, uninformed version of me feeling anxious and guilty, and reaching for a Sunday afternoon of IPAs, I have empathy. I remember what it was like to be so close to the pain relief that I could simply open the refrigerator door and make it all go away. The aftermath was unimaginable. The comfort so tangible.
But empathy is not permission. It is not an excuse, and it is not a short-cut for the hard work of recovery. Empathy doesn’t make relapses part of healing. Empathy doesn’t explain away the trauma or the chaos.
Empathy just means I remember. Empathy just means I know.
I’m quite lucky that I remembered and I knew this past Sunday afternoon. The family guilt is still here, and the anxiety about a stressful work day will return soon enough.
But at least I know I won’t drink and make the innumerable blessings in my life all go away.
If you are ready for the prerequisite of sobriety, and you could use some friends with empathy, please consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.