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.
It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s the reason we humans are so tribal. When we see others repeat an activity or opinion that we embrace, the “others” solidify our belief system.
I know what you’re thinking. Awesome, this guy is going to write about politics and how broken our society is because of tribal stubbornness and because we only listen to people who sound like us, right? Wrong! I’ve got news for us all. Confirmation bias impacts a lot of aspects of our lives beyond the polarizing issues of politics. In fact, your confirmation bias might just be the biggest hurdle keeping you from long-term sobriety.
I don’t know anyone who likes to deal with death. I am particularly awkward and clumsy at expressing my condolences and finding the right words. A few years ago, I read an article about how empty and unsupportive it is for families to hear, “I’m sorry for your loss,” over and over and over again, and that little piece of advice just made me even more selfconscious about communicating in times of tragedy.
But no matter how ill-prepared and oafy I am, I step up and fumble my way through when someone dies. We all do. We get the rarely worn suit from the closet still with tissues in the pocket from the last funeral, and we practice shaking our heads slowly and staring at our feet. We give hugs, fully prepared for the person on the other end of the embrace to break-down into a sobbing puddle if that’s just where they are in the grieving process. Vulnerability is rewarded, uncontrolled emotions are fully understood and bonds of friendship and family are squeezed just a little tighter. We grieve, but we also connect. None of us want to go through it, some of us are more unpolished than others, but we all do what we know we have to do in support of each other.
Handling death in a supportive, caring, patient and predictable manner is part of being human. It is ingrained in our culture and has become an expectation of our society.
Therefore, it is astonishingly mind-boggling to me how people so committed to a supportive grieving process can suck so completely at supporting each other in times of crisis BEFORE someone actually dies.
A double negative is not nearly as effective as a positive. I’m an eternal optimist, so as someone who is perpetually fixated on the positives, I should know the difference. Less (negative) of a bad thing (negative) is not nearly as awesome as a good thing. And this, my friends, is why our traditional addiction recovery system doesn’t work. I should probably do some explaining.