I have vivid memories of the high school English teacher who ruined writing for me. I don’t remember her name, but she was tall and slender, and she wore flowing, button-down blouses and kept money and slips of paper tucking into her left-shoulder bra strap. I cringed every time she reached behind those shirt buttons and pulled something out.
She was propper and groomed and articulate and full of herself. Her criticism of my writing was consistent. It wasn’t about punctuation or grammar. She corrected what I still remember to this day to be stylistic differences. She only knew one way to write, and if my classmates and I wanted good grades, we had to conform. I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t an idealist or full of confidence and rebellion. I just couldn’t write her way. I lacked the talent. So I dropped out of advanced English down to regular English, and I spent the next couple of decades or so convinced I couldn’t write and feeling traumatized by rare glimpses of money tucked under bra straps.
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.
Addiction is a coping mechanism.
It is not weakness or a moral failing. Addiction is not a choice, although with rare mental and behavioral health education, we can avoid making lifestyle decisions that set us up for disaster. Addiction has very little to do with genetics, and much more to do with generational trauma and familial patterns that can result in a family tree dripping with alcoholics.
That first paragraph is thick with stuff it took me over a decade to learn. You don’t have to understand it all. But if you can’t reject the fallacy that addiction is about willpower, genes and morality, then you’re stuck, and none of the rest of this is going to make any sense.
“There’s more food on the stove. Please have more dinner! I’m glad to see you like my cooking.”
One hour passes.
As you take the Tupperware from the refrigerator, you hear, “You’re eating again?”
Sometimes the judgment is so subtle, it is hard to hear. Keep listening.
I was leaning in toward her, trying to hear her next words just slightly sooner than the rest of her audience. I was mesmerized by the story to the degree that I was losing awareness of some of my physical presence. I didn’t notice that my jaw had dropped and my mouth was hanging open like a baby waiting for someone to insert a spoonful of pureed carrots. Have you ever heard a TV advertisement for the monster truck rally at the fairgrounds next, “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”? The part where the pitch-man bellows, “We’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”? That was me. Mouth agape, surely drooling a little, butt cheeks barely hanging onto the front half-inch off my chair, and astonishment coursing through my body.
It’s not that her story was so captivating that I had never heard anything quite like it before. I had. I hear lots of unspeakable tales. It was that she was telling the story. Her. She had come to our little writing workshop every Thursday for months. She always wrote, but only read on occasion. Usually, she shared something that felt like the tip of the iceberg. Like she wasn’t sure if she could trust us with what was below the surface. I’m not sure she’d trusted anyone ever. At least not since someone ruined it for all of us – proving the human species so untrustworthy that she’d chosen never to trust again.
I was blown off by a high school principal for a Monday morning meeting. It was work related and had nothing to do with my kids. She requested the meeting. It was based on her calendar availability, but she was too busy (forgetful?) to show up.
My wife had a very empathetic and meaningful conversation with a friend about the anxiety of trying to maintain a busy family with a busy work schedule. Then her friend proceeded to drink wine enthusiastically, not making the connection between alcohol and the nervous system.
Major League Baseball instituted some drastic new rules this year to speed up the games. Now many ball clubs, including our Colorado Rockies, are cutting off beer sales in the eighth inning instead of the traditional last call in the seventh because their revenue from alcohol sales is down. Wait a minute. Wasn’t the three-inning pause designed to give people time to sober up before driving home? Now the innings are faster, and people get fewer of them to dry out?
There is a curse that goes along with the blessings of sobriety. I can’t unsee the stupidity all around me. I used to be able to drink the ridiculous away. In fact, I used to contribute mightily to the lunacy. So when you keep drinking to fit in and be one of the crowd – when you decide your drinking is not a problem because everyone else is drinking like you – there is one massive problem with that justification.
Everyone is pretty dumb.
I’m a pretty selfish person. I’m not ashamed of that fact. I seem to have found a way to align my own personal interests with that which is in the best interest of some other humans, so me looking out for number one has some pleasant byproducts. That last part has not always been the case.
But I have always been selfish. The two differences between my selfishness then in active addiction and early sobriety, and my selfishness now in permanent, long-term sobriety, are awareness and impact. The impact my selfish drinking and my selfish focus on transitioning into sobriety had on others was quite negative. Gaslighting, denials, mood swings, rants, temper, inconsideration, emotional immaturity and down right meanness took a huge toll on me and the people inflicted with my presence. Anyone who has experienced addiction first or second hand can likely relate.
Why do we all think we’re different? Like we are the one and only person who can control the uncontrollable? Like we invented the concept of putting rules around our drinking? Like we are the only earthling with a nagging spouse who is making marriage impossible (it’s a good thing we’ve figured out alcohol so we have something to soothe us in the face of being married to a tyrant)?
Why do we think we’re unicorns?
If we are unicorns, then unicorns aren’t really all that rare. In fact, there are millions of us. Unicorns must wear blinders like race horses. How else can I explain all the stories I’ve heard – the same stories – the similar stories – the stories of otherwise intelligent, caring, responsible people doing the exact same illogical things, trying objectively failed tactics and embracing denial like they are doing scientific research on a brand new toxin (alcohol) that was only just invented (discovered?) in 7,000 B.C.?
What if everyone had known everything right from the beginning? What if my dirty little secrets, that started as rare indiscretions or occasional overindulgences, were on display for all to see? What if the progression of my drinking, and the progression of my moodiness, anxiety, irrationality and depression, were plastered on the outside, instead of insidiously roiling on the inside?
What if there were no secrets? Only increasingly despicable truths. Truths everyone knew. What then?
I would have gotten sober a lot sooner, that’s what. I never would have crossed that invisible line into addiction. It would not have been easy, but the truth sure would have made the decision simple.
When my shorts outlive their socially acceptable outside-of-the-house lifespan, I still wear them at home. I am no fashionista, so to be socially unacceptable, said shorts need a hole in the crotch or an unwashable oil or paint stain. I’ve worn pants with a ripped back pocket such that I had to pair them with my nicest boxer shorts before leaving the house, so my standard for at-home-only attire is pretty low. I pair my should-really-be-discarded shorts with an equally unthinkably torn and stained sweatshirt in the winter. And I wear that combo, day after day, once my time outside of the house is over. I’m like Mr. Rogers when I get home, except instead of changing into a nice cardigan, I slide into the same sweatshirt I’ve been wearing since the furnace first kicked on in October. Gross. That’s the point.
To top off my inside outfit, I wear socks with soccer slides (think open-toed flip-flops) to keep my tootsies warm in the winter. I often have an ice bag on one or both of my knees, which is one of the reasons for shorts instead of jeans. The other reason is that jeans are ridiculously uncomfortable, and the cultural embrace they enjoy, decade after decade, generation after generation, makes about as much sense to me as drinking a toxic poison and calling that relaxation. We are a curious species, and our infatuation with bluejeans is just one indicator of how easily brainwashable we are. No jeans at home for me. My at-home attire is selected for ultimate comfort.
Which begs the question: Why was I so uncomfortable for so long in my own home?