I recently watched the documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ NBA dynasty called, “The Last Dance.” Their coach, Phil Jackson, was a well-known Zen Buddhist, and he brought a lot of those principles to the team. During the relentless number of interviews Micheal Jordan had to tolerate, he was often asked about his plans for the future. Would he play another year, or was it time to retire? Would the team stay together, or was it time to rebuild? Sometimes Jordan would refer to what he learned from his coach about living in the present. He would plead with the media pestering him with questions about the future to please let him enjoy the celebration of the moment.
I’m not sure if there is more attention lately on staying focused on the present, or if I’m just more aware of it now because there was no room for mental-health theory when I was in active alcoholism, but it feels rare for a day to go by when I am not reminded to live in the moment. Phil and Michael were talking about it over 20 years ago, and Buddhist philosophy certainly goes back a skosh further than that. But it feels like there is an increasing emphasis on choosing to focus on the day we are in and ignore both the target destination and the rear-view mirror.
It was over. It was time to move on. The regrets had been overwhelming. In fact, the debilitating shame was the only thing powerful enough to force my hand and mandate my need for behavioral change. The stigma, the embarrassment, the broken promises, the trust I crushed under my clumsy heel like an insignificant ant – all of it accumulated into a malignant mass that had to be cut out of my soul for my very survival. And I did just that. I changed for the only reason anyone ever makes significant change. Pain. I was drowning in pain.
But even the deepest, most fundamental change was not enough for her. The trillions of sincere apologies. The remorse. The repentance. The reparations. None of it was enough. It was never enough.
For Jane, alcohol was an accent. It was something complimentary and expected, but never really necessary or compulsive. Jane drank when she danced. The alcohol kept her inhibitions quiet, but the drinks were never the main event. Cutting loose and moving her body to the music made her feel alive and free. Jane learned to drink to wash away the stress and pressure of the day. It is a lesson almost universally ingrained in our adult American culture. She drank to feel numb when no one needed her to be present.
Then Jane had kids, and the numbable moments disappeared. Alcohol turned from an accent to an unacceptable distraction from her responsibilities. There was no time to zone out. There was no room for hangovers and sluggishness. She was needed 24/7, and she answered the call every single time.
Jane matured. Her husband kept going. It’s like they were flying to a destination together, and the journey included a change to a connecting flight in some far-away airport. Jane got off the initial flight and boarded the connection, while her husband stayed glued in his seat and rode the first plane to oblivion.
I get this feedback all the time. Sometimes it is polite but dismissive, like this: “I have trouble paying attention to the opinion of someone with just four years of sobriety. Talk to me in a decade or so.” Other times, it is downright mean: “Shut up and get to a meeting, asshole!” Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but some people really should consider a little less caffeine or maybe doing something about the constipation that’s putting built up pressure on the old kindness gland.
I’m sober. I’m fully and completely sober. I feel like I need the coroner of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz to declare about my active alcoholism, “She’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” (Now you’ve got that voice and that song stuck in your head, don’t you. Go ahead and Google that scene and watch it on YouTube – I did.)
When it comes to alcoholism, we seem fixated on discussing the underlying causes. Some people have childhood trauma as a factor. Others face tremendous stress or financial issues. Still others struggle to grieve the loss of close friends or family members. The underlying issues vary making predicting occurrences of alcoholism challenging. But all of these underlying issues have one thing in common.
It’s the alcohol.
Why isn’t alcohol consumption the leading indicator of the disease of alcoholism?
Last week, we took our daughter to college to start her freshman year, but that’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about something much bigger than our sadness swirled with excitement. But for context, here’s what happened when we dropped her off.
The drive from Denver to Minnesota was uneventful. I don’t think my daughter noticed how much I stared at her sitting behind me through my sunglasses using the rearview mirror. I don’t think she understood why I got so upset with our son, who was loud, waking her when she fell asleep on one of her other brother’s shoulders. With the exception of my wife, Sheri, I don’t think any of them understood how hard it was for me to keep pushing forward knowing every mile we covered increased the distance that would ultimately reside between me and my beloved first-born child.
There. It’s done. I just decided that I’m done drinking alcohol. I’m sober now. There’s just too much pain, deceit and insanity. End of discussion. It’s over.
I had those very thoughts, full of determination and resolve, more times than I could count. It seemed so simple to me – severe and punitive – but simple just the same. I am strong and definitive. I’ve made thousands of decisions over the first half of my lifetime, and I have a very good track record of follow through. I don’t waiver or vacillate. I analyze, decide and execute. No analysis paralysis for me. Let’s go.
And that’s why my relationship with alcohol was so diabolical and transfixing to me. I couldn’t leave it behind no matter how determined I was, and no matter how good my track record for decision making otherwise was. Alcohol was like a permanent fixture, an irreversible commitment tattooed on my soul.
My wife almost didn’t marry me because I couldn’t wrap a gift. Alcoholism – we survived that. Four kids, emergency room visits, emotional immaturity, running a business together – we made it past all of those major hurdles, but Sheri almost dumped me before any of it got started because I did such a crappy job of wrapping her present on our first Christmas together.
It’s true. My wife takes the act of giving seriously. At first, I thought her rejection of my feeble attempt at wrapping made her selfish. Then I realized I had it backwards. She puts so much thought and effort into the act of giving, and she didn’t want to be with someone who half-assed it. It’s not about materialism, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. But if it’s not from the heart, she’s not interested.
Sheri used to make a really big deal about her birthday. She would celebrate for a week. Again, it was never about gifts or receiving. It was always about spending quality time with quality people – the kind of people who take their time with the wrapping if they do give her a gift. It was experiential, and Sheri wanted everyone to be as happy as she was that she was a year older. She didn’t need a big, fancy party. Her smile and laugh were celebration enough. She oozed carefree joy.
It is terrifying. I’m running as fast as I can, but something is bogging me down. It’s like my joints have been soaking in rubber cement and I’m wearing clown shoes. I’m trying to get away from whatever is chasing me. Is it a man with a knife, or is it a monster? I’m unsure, and really, it’s unimportant. What matters is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t run fast enough, and whatever it is, it is gaining me.
Have you ever had this kind of dream? I have this one semi-regularly. It isn’t just about being chased, it is about my own ability to run being hampered or limited. I don’t know what it means. I’ve never had any of my dreams analyzed. But I can tell you what it reminds me of. It reminds me of trying to get away from the high-functioning alcoholism that was slowly killing me. My progress was slow and clunky, and I felt like I could not put distance between me and my pursuer. My top speed, as mediocre as it might have been, was completely elusive as I trudged weakly forward, trying to gain traction while the earth oozed like quicksand below my feet.
“I’ll just have soda water with a lime, please,” I remember sheepishly ordering from the bartender when I was in early sobriety. “…just soda water…” I was apologizing for being so lame. Apologizing to someone I didn’t know and who didn’t care what I drank, or more importantly, didn’t care how cool I was or was not.
I had ordered a beer hundreds, maybe thousands of times, from a bartender. I had ordered more than my fair share of whiskeys or vodkas on the rocks. Not once did I use the word just when ordering liquid poison. But when I ordered a drink that wouldn’t make me obnoxious or loud, that’s when I chose to apologize? It’s as if I thought the bartender was into people who were annoying and slurred while demanding another drink.
I used to think my innocent insertion of the word, “just,” was a sign of discomfort in my new sober skin – a lack of confidence and an acknowledgement that as a non-drinker, I was the odd man out, and I knew it. But I don’t think it is simple or innocent anymore. I think it’s tragic and insidious. A grown man with a career and a family apologizing for not toxifying his brain function? That is a cultural disaster. The degree to which we feel alcohol is required or expected, well, we humans have failed the test.