Words matter because the way we use them matters. When we assign to words painful, intentionally hurtful associations, we take perfectly good words, and drown them in stigma. When we use words as weapons, people will do everything they can to distance themselves. Denial prevents healing. When we reject the words because they have been weaponized and stigmatized, we move further from recovery. Our denials and rejections become a self-fulfilling prophecy of pain. We get stuck.
I’m a recovered alcoholic, but you probably already know that. Naturally, you might be thinking this article will be about the words “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” based on my introductory paragraph about weaponized words dripping with stigma. You are not wrong, but we’ll get to those words in a minute. This isn’t an alcoholism problem. It is a much bigger societal problem. So let’s start by considering some non-alcoholic words.
Your voices. Many voices. Consistent voices telling the same stories about how addiction works, and how denials only make matters worse.
I hear you. I hear from you. Mostly in private messages, but sometimes out in the open for all to see. I’ve heard how my story gives you hope. I need you to hear from me how your stories give me strength to keep going. To keep sharing.
To keep telling our stories.
And now, I want to expand the story into your voices. There is strength in numbers. If we are going to crush the stigma that makes high-functioning alcoholism so pervasive, it will take all of our voices.
It is said that those of us who suffer from alcoholism froze our emotional maturity at the age at which we started to drink regularly. I am living proof of the voracity of that statement as I lived decades of my life, well into my early sobriety, with the emotional maturity of a teenager.
Impatience is a cornerstone attribute of emotional immaturity, and my ability to calmly wait for anything was as undeveloped as that skill can be in a human. I learned early in my recovery that patience was a tool I needed to master if I hoped to make it over the elusive hump to permanent sobriety.
Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
Have you ever cheated the alcoholic death you deserved? I have. I can tell you fuzzy, intoxicated stories about at least a dozen times when I should have died. So when I talk about my sobriety saving my life, I am talking about two things. I am talking about a return to health and the reversal of the long, slow, gradual slide toward my alcoholic demise. But I’m also talking about the fact that I no longer cheat certain alcohol-induced death.
That second one – the acute, not the chronic – that’s the kind of alcoholic disaster that we don’t think or talk enough about. That’s the kind of death that our friend, Cheryl Kuechler, stared in the face a couple of weeks ago. That’s the kind of sudden, tragic, immediate, heartbreaking death that Cheryl’s sobriety saved her from.
I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll get to Cheryl’s story in a minute. First, I want to talk about you and me.
We have a detached garage behind our house that was built in 1915 and was originally intended to be more of a shed than a place to park cars. At some point in our house’s history, the garage was extended, presumably when a previous homeowner came to the conclusion that he needed to protect a car from the weather. We now jam two cars in the garage with barely a few inches between them. The garage serves two purposes: to protect our Jeeps, and as incentive not to gain so much weight that we can’t squeeze our fannies into the driver’s seats.
The path that brings us to and from the garage is a thin patch of concrete squeezed between the north side of our house and our neighbor’s fence. Backing down the driveway feels like threading a needle, especially where our house’s furnace exhaust makes the bricks jut out, or where the fence posts extend a few inches past the fence.
In the twelve years we’ve owned the Jeep that my wife drives (which, in my defence, is substantially wider than mine), I’ve bashed the rearview mirrors into the brick protrusion, or the fence posts, so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve also detached two downspouts from the house so that they now dangle precariously from the gutters without a mooring to the exterior wall, so at least I spread the damage around.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
Do you know why geese fly in flocks? I think it’s because when a goose catches a glimpse of its own reflection, it doesn’t believe that a bowling ball with wings could possibly get off the ground. They all depend on each other to prove to themselves that they can actually fly.
How about monkeys? Have you ever seen a monkey picking the bugs off its own back? I don’t think so, and that’s why monkeys stay together in packs. If bees didn’t swarm, we wouldn’t have honey. If ants didn’t colonize, we wouldn’t have dirt piles jutting out from cracks in our sidewalks. And if moths weren’t looking for places to congregate annoyingly on warm summer nights, why would any of us have front-porch lights?
Last week, I saw dozens of social media posts from people experiencing their first sober Halloween. As is customary when using the communication tool designed to allow us to compare our lives to the lives of hundreds of others, the posts were cheery and positive, with captions like, “First booze-free Halloween, and I feel great!” or, “I can’t believe what I was missing when I used to drink my way through Halloween.” Two things went through my mind when I saw so many of these posts last week, and in this order. First, I thought, that person is full of shit or trying really hard to convince him or herself. Second, I thought, wait a minute…maybe something is wrong with me because that’s not what my first sober Halloween was like at all.
Alcoholism is a winless waiting game. We wait for things to get better. We wait for the solution to emerge. As the drinkers, we wait for our new rule to keep us in control, or for the stress to decrease so we can enjoy our beloved beverage in harmonious peace. As the loved ones of drinkers, you wait for us to see the light and come to our senses. You wait for us to stop or to slow down – to prioritize family over liquid poison.
But waiting isn’t a strategy. Waiting is a slow, excruciating defeat. Waiting is inevitable failure.
Our friend and leader in the soberevolution could only wait so long. As the wife of an active alcoholic, she knew waiting any longer would deliver a tragic result. Here are her words: