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.
June 22, 2019, dawns beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic, calling to mind the day of our wedding twelve years before. The second half of those dozen circuits around the sun have been hard. Today, we’re barely seven months post-transplant. My single liver we now share between the two of us, his own having been incinerated with the rest of the biohazardous waste accumulated by the hospital that day back in November. I’ve had plenty of chances to think that we’d never see another anniversary together.
He’d told me, a week or so earlier, “Don’t do anything for the anniversary, I’ve got something planned.”
It felt like the first good sign since our transplant team had diagnosed him as rejecting the new liver graft. Maybe we were finally getting the rejection under control? Maybe we’d finally gotten the meds right? Except for his waxy skin, and his drifting in and out of vacant stares, and the yellow tinges to his eyes coming and going like I might be imagining them…
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.
June 22, 2007, dawned beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic. A perfect day for a little bit of a sail. A perfect day for a little bit of a wedding.
John and I had been living together for most of a decade. We’d always made a big deal about the anniversary of our hooking up, I guess you’d call it, romantics that we were. In thinking of how to celebrate our 10th, getting married seemed like the obvious choice.
There was only ever one consideration for a venue. She was one of a gorgeous pair of 72-foot schooners, operating in town, berthing at night in the slips right outside our apartment complex. Surprisingly affordable, she offered many things, including an organic constraint to the size of a wedding party, and extra conversational points for having been featured in a big-budget movie. Those are just minor details for flavor, though. All we really wanted was to get married on a boat, on the water, with plenty of booze.
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.
Lately I’m seeing, from a social distance, conversations about our potentially post-pandemic summer that can be summed up as: It’s going to be Sodom and Gomorrah out there. If you can’t get laid this summer, just hang it up. Meanwhile, six months post-divorce, my reflexive gag is that not only am I not dating, not even looking, I’m building a moat.
It’s a joke. (Mostly. At least partly. A bit, anyway…) I think it’s funny. But here’s a great tip for free: never tell your good jokes to your therapist. They’ll wreck ‘em. They just can’t help it. I gave mine the whole moat bit with a nudge and a wink (or the Zoom equivalent), and she told me, rather seriously, “Barbara, you’re not keeping others out, you’re keeping yourself in.”
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.
Hope terrified me at the first sight of it. It froze me in my tracks, right there in the basement, the laundry basket on my hip.
I’d done everything I could to end it. I’d gotten the lawyer, gotten the agreements, and refinanced the house. I’d untethered phones, cable, and internet. I’d started in the tightest circle, telling the news, expanding it outward like a slow ripple. I’d packed everything I could from the parts of the house that were mine, the things that we’d agreed would be his, boxes stacked in neat rows as close to the front door as possible. Ready for him to take. Ready for him to go.
For his part, he had managed to get his own place. But he wasn’t leaving. Even with a literal key to his new, loudly-desired life in his hand, he sat, week after week, behind the closed door of his bedroom, drinking, not even hiding it anymore. Not taking. Not going.
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.
It was early in June the day our friend Tom got out of bed, long before the sunrise, without disturbing his wife. He got dressed, went to the basement, and fed lettuce to his Russian tortoise Nadenka, as he did every morning. While she munched away in her pen, he wiped the hard drive on his desktop. Looking over his significant gun collection, a point of pride, he selected one of the pair of pearl-handled revolvers, loaded it, and pocketed it. He then stole silently up the stairs, grabbed his cell phone, his wallet, and his car keys, and left a note for his wife telling her where he would be.
He drove for a while that morning, about an hour, to a nature reserve that was one of his favorite spots. He parked along the side of the road, conspicuous, not in any parking spot. But it was still early, quiet. He’d have some time. He got out, left his cell phone and wallet on the dashboard and the keys in the ignition. He took the revolver.