For the last few years of my active alcoholism, I came to know the most wretched, dark, and debilitating alcohol-induced depression I called, “The Pit.”
Recovery from alcoholism is fixing a lot of things. My shame is diminishing, my confidence is returning, I am a much better listener and my relationships are stronger than ever.
But recovery doesn’t fill in the pit. It is still there – it will always be there – because my brain has been permanently damaged by years of drinking. How can I be so sure? Because I tumbled back into the pit last week. I am finishing the desperate and grueling process of climbing out right now, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly two years.
The pit is deep, and it is dismal and hopeless. The pit is a hole in my brain, and it is the most unfortunate part of my destiny.
Saturday night I was treated to a United States Air Force Academy football game by my good friend, Dan, whose son plays for the Falcons. We were once very close, but our adult responsibilities have carried us in different directions, and I don’t think I have spent three hours talking and laughing with Dan in a decade-and-a-half. It was as satisfying an evening as I can remember. We both have big families, but they were not in attendance. It was just two old friends reliving the past and sharing hopes for the future. I drove home Saturday night filled with the peace and gratification only connection with someone I love can provide. It is a feeling that is new to me in recovery, and it is as good as it gets.
It was unimaginable that I was hours from trading that tranquil feeling for a plummet into the pit of despair.
My wife was crabby Sunday morning. It happens. It is expected and normal – even necessary – for us humans to experience the full range of emotions, including irritability.
The connection between my wife and I has grown amazingly strong over the past many weeks, even months. Connection doesn’t mean agreement or obedience. Connection encompasses understanding, listening, comfort, support, respectful disagreement and a whole lot of love. Sheri and I have worked hard to put most of our turmoil behind us. We’ve been blessed to replace the trauma with connection.
Sheri’s crabbiness Sunday morning caught me off guard. It wasn’t evil or outrageous, but it stung far more than I expected. A minor insult quickly retracted, a lack of patience and an interruption – two weak jabs and a body blow – and I was in free-fall into the pit. Days of clawing hopelessly at the cold and slippery vertical walls of depression stared down at me as I slunk into my unavoidable fate.
It is utterly emasculating to admit my emotional weakness as the result of a few snide comments (three actually, it was exactly three) from my wife. I am, once again, ashamed of the aftermath of alcoholism. But I am telling this chapter of my story for a very specific reason. You see, it continues to be my experience that addiction is profoundly misunderstood.
All of the people I encounter who have been fortunate to avoid addiction in their own lives think alcoholism is about selfishly getting drunk and a lack of willpower. In fact, alcoholics who manage to keep their lives even remotely together are among the strongest willed people I know. And getting drunk is, for the most part, not a selfish goal, but rather a side-effect from medicating the pain. Sure, we drunks started drinking for the high, but we kept drinking because it soothed the discomfort caused by the drink itself.
As the pain intensified, the prescription increased. Each drink simultaneously eased the mental anguish while it dug the pit a little deeper. Now the drink is gone, and the neurotransmitters of my brain are returning to normal function. Pleasant experiences once again bring me pleasure. When something feels good, my brain gives me a little jolt of dopamine – no longer holding that in reserve for when I feed my brain the ethanol it used to crave.
My brain function is getting better. In fact, it is getting a lot better and I am experiencing a full range of exhilarating emotions.
But my memory is indelible. The pit is just as deep and dark as ever. Time and confidence just cover the hole with twigs and leaves. The strength of my connection – especially the connection with my wife – make the pit indistinguishable from solid ground. But it is ever-present. Lurking. Waiting. The pit is my permanent affliction resulting from my addiction.
People think alcoholic relapse happens when addicts succumb to cravings or face peer pressure or because they are weak people to begin with. That’s not it at all. Relapse happens because discomfort is part of life and relief is always, always, just one drink away.
Debilitating depression happens because the brain has already dug the hole, so the alcoholic is just one misstep away – one weakened connection – from plummeting to the bottom.
Addiction related suicide happens because the brain of an alcoholic or a user is injured. And some of the injury lasts forever. Addiction related suicide happens because the distance between joy and death can be traversed effortlessly in an instant. The brain remembers how to get to the gates of hell. We can get there with astonishing speed and grace and without breaking a sweat.
My descent into the pit this week was not without a spiritual discernment, nor was it my wife’s fault. As I claw my way out, I see that my time spent in the grip of despair served a purpose. In fact, it is my purpose. I am a writer who is a victim of the largest and most deadly epidemic of human invention and proliferation in history. It is my job to explain the devastation to anyone who will listen.
Addiction is everywhere and it is killing us. It kills through suicide and alcohol-induced rage and car accidents and overdose. But we are also dying a death of a thousand little cuts because our society is too in love with our booze to understand alcohol is a poison that makes our brains misfire. We celebrate the occasional little spurts of innocent intoxication that seem harmless while they hide our truth ever so slightly. And we look away from slow but consistent cerebral chipping away, one dead brain cell – one shovel full of pit-digging dirt – at a time.
I believe some of us are more susceptible to the ravages of addiction than others, but it has nothing to do with willpower. I believe those of us who thrive on connection are the most easily soothed by drugs and alcohol in the absence of the connections we crave.
I believe the lines that distinguish between addiction and mental illness and suicide and overdose are very, very blurry. I believe these are just different manifestations of the same missing piece. Often – maybe always – I believe the piece of the puzzle that’s missing is connection.
And when the poison has dug the hole nice and deep, the connection we thrive on only needs a brief interruption to trip us up and send us spiralling to the bottom of the pit. And sometimes – think Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain or Robin Williams or literally millions and millions of the lesser known among us – the thought of climbing back out yet again only to fall once more is simply overwhelming. Death becomes the path of least resistance.
I’m glad to see one change in public sentiment. We have largely stoped treating addiction sufferers as criminals. Now we need to stop treating the victims of this ravaging disease as weak and selfish. Let’s own it. All of us. Let’s admit that a society that glorifies a poison as the elixir of joy and stress relief is begging for deadly consequences. Let’s listen without judgement, and let’s find the strength to offer compassion even when it’s uncomfortable.
The enemy is relentless. We must be equally relentless in our openness to new ideas because our strategy to beat addiction simply isn’t working.
We all love people who are in the grips of addiction. We all love people who are in recovery and trying to heal from damage done. Let’s all remember there are wounds that simply won’t heal. Not now. Not soon. Not ever.
Addiction isn’t their problem. It’s our problem. We can’t control or change the afflicted among us, and it is quite often destructive even to try. But we can love the victims. We can try to understand.
Brain science is evolving. It is the final frontier of anatomy, and I can’t prove definitively any of my assertions.
But I believe with every fiber of my being that the key to keeping recovering addicts out of the pit can be found in creating and nurturing relationships. It’s as simple as listening. It’s as simple as laughing. It’s as simple as loving.
The pit’s not going away. I’ve just got to keep building connections to keep me away from the edge. I can’t prove I’m right.
But I’m betting my life on it.