A reader contacted me last week and explained that he had five consecutive months of sobriety in 2017, but then decided he could handle drinking again. He didn’t go into detail, and I didn’t ask, but he told me 2018 ended very badly. He has been sober since New Year’s Day.
He asked me about my rock bottom. I told him about that and the many times I relapsed before I finally made it over the daunting and invisible hump to permanent sobriety. I shared my reading list of memoirs and brain chemistry explanations.
He would read one of my blog posts, comment about how strikingly similar his story was to mine, then ask me to point him to another of my posts from the past. This went on for some time, and it didn’t surprise me. There are lots of reasons people become addicted to alcohol, but the disease works basically the same for all of us. My reader was amazed to be reading his story in my words.
While we were discussing how I made it over that elusive hump, I told him that exactly one year prior, on January 10, 2018, I sent 3,000 emails – one to every email address I possessed – coming out about my alcoholism.
And that’s where my story and that of my reader diverged.
He explained that he could never do that. I asked him if the dozen or so people in whom he had confided about his alcoholism so far had been supportive. He said that his admission had surprised a few people, but every one of them had offered support and love. Despite his 100% support rate, he couldn’t possibly put the truth about his disease in writing for fear the news would find its way to his employer and he would lose his job. His wife and kids depended on him to provide, and the risk was simply too high.
And when my reader expressed his fear, he unknowingly explained the number one barrier to a cure for alcoholism. With this disease of secrets, lies and hushed whispers, anonymity is the enemy. Anonymity destroys families and leaves millions of victims hiding in the shadows. Anonymity kills.
I asked my reader if he would tell his employer if he had cancer. He seemed surprised by the question. Of course he would inform his boss because he would need help scheduling treatment and dealing with company provided insurance.
Cancer is widespread and deadly. It is almost as deadly and prolific as alcoholism. Cancer victims expect help from their employers. Alcoholism victims expect to be fired.
I have a friend who is battling multiple addictions without the support of his family. He’s convinced that if he shares his addiction diagnosis with his parents, they will encourage him to keep the truth a secret for fear of embarrassing the family. They have a reputation to consider, and addiction would tarnish the family crest. So he suffers and slowly heals without the support of what is supposed to be our most natural support system.
“There are some things we should save for our clergy,” another friend in recovery told me last week. We were discussing the pain that addiction brings to families. I was disheartened about how difficult it is to heal the wounds of alcoholism. My friend was advocating that if the conversation is going to be too painful, perhaps the words are best unsaid. I could hear experience in his words. Painful experience. He agreed it isn’t healthy to ignore our pain. He agreed talk is therapeutic. He just didn’t find value in confrontation. Pain. Too much pain.
Anonymity. Whispers. Conflict avoidance. The protection of family secrets. Addiction can thrive on the oxygen we feed it.
And yet, I understand completely. One year ago, I was petrified that my January 10th email blast would get me fired from my high school soccer coaching job. I love coaching, but it doesn’t pay much, so the financial impact to my family would not have been significant. Maybe that’s why I had the balls to hit send. Still, I understand the fears. I understand the need to feel secure in our employment. I understand the desire to protect the family reputation. I understand the preservation instinct that leaves painful memories undisturbed.
These fears are completely understandable. They are also mortally unfortunate.
January 10th was significant for another reason last week. It was when the last, best hope of us selling our business bowed out of the negotiation process. My wife, Sheri, and I, have been the proud owners and operators of our whole grain bread bakery for fifteen years. Our lease expires at the end of February, and our landlord will not renew. We decided we were not interested in moving our business and have spent the last two years trying to find new owners to move it and love it into the future. We have come very, very close on two occasions, but we have been unable to finalize the transaction.
The truth is, we have failed our business and all of our loyal customers. Through this process, we have identified a wonderful new location with an accommodating new landlord. We have all the needed equipment and furniture, and the landlord has committed to doing most of the buildout for us. We are a new coat of paint and a long weekend with a rental van away from making the move ourselves. The expense would be minimal, and the potential the new location holds is exhilarating. We could do it. Many customers have offered to help.
But we are turning our back on the business we toiled and stumbled to build. Our business is closing, and it’s not the fault of our landlord or our fickle buyers. It is our fault. It is my fault our bakery will close at the end of February.
I’ve just simply got too much to do, and the bakery is no longer at the top of my priority list.
I have seen enough to know I have seen too much.* I have wallowed in the debilitating despair the morning after a night of chasing demons to the bottom of a bottle. I have endured the excruciating pain of repairing a marriage throttled by years of addiction. I’ve survived suffocating hopelessness and agonizing shame. I have both cheated death and lost the desire to live. Baking bread to feed our bellies – a career and passion that brought me so much satisfaction for many years – just leaves me empty when there are so many souls in desperate need of nourishment.
I stammer and dodge when asked the same question dozens of times a day by our loving customers. “What are you going to do next?” Sometimes I tell people I’m going to be a writer, and that’s true in part. But writing is just a tool I hope to use to bring about a societal change in the way we think about addiction. I hope to convince anyone who will listen that anonymity is killing us alcoholics and our families. Addiction is a disease that our culture caused. It is our culture’s responsibility to clean up the mess. I can’t do it. But maybe we can. And I’m going to research and learn and listen, and then scream at the top of my lungs until my life’s last breath.
That’s what I’m going to do next. I’m sorry I’ve let so many loyal customers down. But I hope they can understand that my life’s purpose has simply swallowed-up the time I used to spend baking them bread. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I couldn’t find someone to carry the bakery’s legacy into the future. Sincerely I am. But it’s time for me to go.
You might find my mission to be ridiculous or beyond impossible. You might be right. I have no idea how I’m going to turn this calling into an income, let alone achieve even a fraction of my goals. But Americans used to buy and sell human beings, women couldn’t vote and we used to have gay people locked securely in closets. When I think of that, the idea of ending the stigma associated with addiction doesn’t seem nearly as daunting.
Do you remember when smoking cigarettes used to be cool? Chain smoking cigarettes used to be as cool as recklessly guzzling poison is today. I guess I’ve got a lot of screaming to do.
*Quote from A League of Their Own
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