If you’ve been lied to by an alcoholic, don’t take it personally. Denial is the cornerstone of the disease. And believe me, no one is getting lied to by an alcoholic more than the alcoholic himself. We don’t want to do it. It is not in our DNA. It is not a sign of spiritual deficiency. It isn’t a choice, either. In fact, when I was in active addiction, and expending massive amounts of energy hiding my predicament, I swore to my wife that I never lied, and that I was the most honest person in her life. And I believed that to my core.
Denial is a powerful tool. Sometimes, when we feel trapped and alone – out of options and staring the stark and bitter reality right in the face – denial is all we have left.
Sometimes, often really, denial is what keeps us drinking.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.
I’m not just looking for the cure to addiction. I’m looking for the solution to the pain of the human condition. That is what I am researching, and when I find clues, I am eager to share them. So when I heard a fellow writer in a story-writing group read about the power of authenticity, I knew immediately that more people needed to receive the gift of his insight. He chooses to remain anonymous, but I’ll be forever thankful for his friendship, and for these words…
Authenticity is my superpower.
I learned many years ago that I can literally become bigger than life when I show up authentically. When I share my self or my story from an authentic place, I can share a powerful example of connection that can reach across aisles, oceans, generations, and color lines. I think that my authenticity is most powerful when it is as natural as a gentle breeze, as unique as a snowflake, as refreshing as a drop of rain.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.” When journalist Johann Hari made that statement as part of the conclusion of his TED Talk in 2015, I didn’t disagree with him. I mostly didn’t disagree with him because I was still drinking in 2015 and didn’t give a shit about a speech titled, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” But even now, today, I think Hari got that first part right. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It is neither the solution, nor is it the opposite of the addictive behavior that has brought millions of us to our knees.
It’s the second part of his concluding statement that has been increasingly adopted as indisputable fact in the recovery community for the past six years. Hari ended his talk saying, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” From the first time I heard it, until a few months ago, I thought Hari was right. Now, I’m convinced that while the concept is useful, it is incomplete.
I believe the opposite of addiction is neither sobriety nor connection. I believe the opposite of addiction is self-esteem.
Flat Earthers and alcohol drinkers have one thing in common. They deny the truth in the face of mounting evidence (I could add people who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen to this category, but I don’t want to get political, because Trumpsters drink alcohol, too).
I wasn’t hanging around Greece in 500 B.C., so I really don’t know how the initial conversations went, but maybe it was something like this: “Hey, do you see the end of the earth over there? Well, I sailed over there, and the edge just kept moving,” said Greek guy 1. Greek guy 2 probably retorted, “Oh yeah, well I’ve never sailed over there, and I can see the edge of the earth from here, so I think you’re full of shit.” The edge of the earth, or lack thereof, didn’t impact Greek guy 2’s daily life, so there was no reason for him to pay attention to his friend or adjust his belief system. He just kept living his life and believing the plastic he put in his recycling bin was being melted down and reused, and not that it was being dumped into the Pacific.
Now, 2,500 years later, evidence is mounting that there is no safe quantity of alcohol, and it is a leading contributor to all kinds of chronic and acute human disasters, yet we drink on with reckless abandon because we can’t see that it impacts us directly. It makes me want to walk over to the end of the earth and jump off in frustration.
I occasionally get lured into an argument about the disease designation of alcoholism. People like me believe addiction is a disease for two reasons. First, just like cancer negatively impacts our cellular makeup (biology) and can kill us if left untreated, alcoholism changes our neurotransmitter function (neurology) and can kill us if left untreated. Second, alcoholism prevention is woefully underfunded considering the three million alcohol-related deaths annually, and dropping the disease designation will do nothing to get this epidemic the attention it deserves.
Similarly, from time to time, I am baited into arguing about my personal conviction for owning the alcoholic label. Others argue that the word is so stigmatized that people avoid the label, and thus keep drinking and denying to their considerable peril. I don’t disagree, which is precisely why I own the label. By doing so, I take the power out of the stigma. What are you going to do, tease me by calling me an alcoholic? I just called myself an alcoholic, you slow-witted loser. If we want people to get help early, like at the first signs of dysfunction, we need to destigmatize the disease of alcoholism (just as cancer, which, by the way, afflicts slightly fewer Americans than alcoholism).
Is alcoholism a disease? Yes. Is crushing the stigma associated with alcoholism crucial to ending the epidemic. An emphatic yes!
But that’s not the point. If we want to reach our human potential, we must evolve past the arguments about this diabolical disease.
A little over two years into my sobriety, I chaperoned a week-long church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation. We fed a huge bison, built a fence, learned about the culture, and met a lot of interesting people (side note – if you want to see the impact of terrible government policy resulting in rampant alcoholism throughout a community, chaperone a church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation).
I returned feeling really good about myself. I had given my time and energy to two of my kids and the teenagers in our church community. The kids got an exposure to addiction that no amount of talking could have equaled, no one was trampled by the buffalo, and no digits or limbs were lost to the novice operation of power saws. The worst thing I did all week was eat at McDonald’s. Twice.
I felt really good about myself. That is, I felt good until I reunited with my wife.
There is no better indication of strength, integrity and intelligence than a person who owns his mistakes and takes responsibility for corrective action. It’s why I prefer stand-up comedians to politicians. I’d take Stephen Colbert or Dennis Miller for president over any denying or deflecting boob who actually squirms his way into the job.
Honesty, humility and vulnerability are admirable traits. They are the reason we have thousands of listeners and readers (although this particular sentence isn’t very humble). Taking ownership is a sign of confidence. A mistake can’t take me down! We admit, we fix, we learn and we do better the next time. It’s a sign of maturity.
All of these lofty philosophical ramblings about ownership make my position regarding the culprit responsible for my alcoholism kind of surprising.
When you walk through the gates at DisneyLand, no one has to tell you what you are there to do. You are there to have fun! The same holds true for attending a college or professional sporting event, going to a concert, or clicking into your bindings for a day of skiing. No one goes to the beach to pay taxes or work on the company’s P&L statement (does anything scream, “LOSER!” like a laptop under a beach umbrella?).
Some signals for entertainment and enjoyment are clear. Alcohol is one such signal that it is time to relax and have fun, too.
When we surrender, we signal defeat. This is one of the main reasons for the dismal recovery rates from traditional alcoholism recovery methods in our society. Humans don’t want to be losers. That’s not how we are wired. Surrender feels hopeless and helpless. Surrender feels like the end.
My recovery from high-functioning alcoholism wasn’t about surrender. It was about changing teams and continuing the fight. The success of my permanent sobriety has a lot of contributing factors. Recovery is complex and individually unique. But in the end, the most important thing I did was to change my mind.