A reader contacted me last week and explained that he had five consecutive months of sobriety in 2017, but then decided he could handle drinking again. He didn’t go into detail, and I didn’t ask, but he told me 2018 ended very badly. He has been sober since New Year’s Day.
He asked me about my rock bottom. I told him about that and the many times I relapsed before I finally made it over the daunting and invisible hump to permanent sobriety. I shared my reading list of memoirs and brain chemistry explanations.
He would read one of my blog posts, comment about how strikingly similar his story was to mine, then ask me to point him to another of my posts from the past. This went on for some time, and it didn’t surprise me. There are lots of reasons people become addicted to alcohol, but the disease works basically the same for all of us. My reader was amazed to be reading his story in my words.
While we were discussing how I made it over that elusive hump, I told him that exactly one year prior, on January 10, 2018, I sent 3,000 emails – one to every email address I possessed – coming out about my alcoholism.
And that’s where my story and that of my reader diverged.
“Go to Dairy Queen and get your favorite flavor of Blizzard,” says my good friend and Untoxicated Podcast partner, Jason Polk. Jason is an addiction therapist who has for his entire career offered this advice to clients when they are dealing with cravings to drink alcohol or use. It is basic, fundamental advice given not just by Jason, but by most addiction recovery professionals and on every social media platform in early sobriety communities. The idea is that a sugar-filled treat will take the edge off the craving and be an alcohol or drug substitute. The associated phrase is, “harm reduction.” It makes sense, and it works in the short-run. The problem with this advice is it’s dead wrong and actually provides oxygen to the very addiction the sufferer is trying so desperately to suffocate.
Christmas leaves me feeling like shit. It has for at least a couple of decades. I’m not talking about Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m talking about the month or so that follows Christmas. It’s easy to point to January as a long, cold month devoid of major holiday festivities, and for many years, I blamed my post-Christmas blues on winter. A lot of people do. But that’s not it. Short days and cold temperatures don’t have much to do with it, really. My January dreariness is because I’ve been doing Christmas wrong.
I had long believed I should never talk about the perils of drinking with drinkers while they are drinking. I was wrong.
I didn’t even have to open the email. The subject line conveyed the devastating news. “Project Terminated.” Those two words delivered a massive blow to our plans for the next couple of years. We had an agreement to sell our business – an agreement complete with payment amounts and transition dates – and the buyer was trying to back out. There had been signs of his wavering commitment to the deal he had made, but my naturally optimistic outlook kept me pushing forward without consideration for what it would mean if he tried to turn and run. Now the reality stared me in the eyes from the subject line on my computer screen.
The pressure in my head began to build as the multitude of negative consequences raced through my mind. There would be practical, business matters to which I would have to attend. My lawyer would have to be consulted and litigation would have to be considered. I might have to go back to square one and try to find another buyer with barely two months left on our lease and, thus, not nearly enough time to make a deal in a new location with a new person.
But the work involved was secondary. The pressure in my head was because I knew the tidal wave of disappointment, stress and failure that had just crashed down on me would have no immediate relief. I had to live this nightmare with my eyes open and weaknesses exposed. I am an alcoholic almost two years sober. A lot of good has come from my work in recovery. For the next few days, however, sobriety meant only one thing. I was defenseless against the tremendous pain. I would have to wallow in the dire truth of my situation, and suffer through the disappointment, anger and fear without relief. I would not sleep – at least not much – and the other things that deserved my attention, like my wife and kids, would be all but ignored while I tried to figure out how to manage this disaster.
When I quit drinking, I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I was too ashamed – ashamed of my disease and embarrassed to be tainted with the stigma that is persistently and unfortunately associated with AA. I didn’t go away to a 30 day rehab because I couldn’t wrap my brain around letting go of my family and business responsibilities for a whole month. I took a different path to permanent sobriety.
I read. I read book after book after book about alcoholism and recovery. I read clinical books about how the body processes alcohol and the many diseases and biological dysfunction heavy drinking causes. I read books about neurotransmitters and other detailed explanations of brain function. And I read memoir after memoir written by alcoholics who had visited the same depths of despair where I wallowed, but made it out and had the strength to tell their stories.
New on the Untoxicated Podcast – Jason and I talk about my dance with addiction.
It started with sips from my dad’s beer when I was young, grew to experimentation in high school, graduated to constant binge drinking in college, developed into a daily habit in young adulthood, and metastasized into alcoholism as I plummeted into the pit of debilitating alcohol-induced depression.
I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
If you love to drink alcohol like me, there is no time of year quite like the holiday season. There are holiday-themed work happy hours, neighborhood Christmas potlucks complete with BYOB, booze flowing secret Santas, wine-centric cookie exchanges, appetizer and cocktail parties with church friends and lots of family gatherings with spiked eggnog and warm cider. You eat and drink your way through the busiest, often most stress-filled, time of the year. And it’s great…until it isn’t.
Do you want to know how to make an alcoholic feel like a normal, responsible drinker? You normalize his gluttonous behavior. This normalization is what separates alcoholism from other drug addictions. There is not a circumstance under which smoking meth or shooting up heroin looks normal in my world, but drinking robustly is often the norm among people who do not consider themselves alcoholics. And there is no situation that welcomes drinking to excess, even for the responsible, quite like the holidays. In fact, holidays make an active alcoholic feel normal. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Look around. I’m just like everyone else. Alcoholic? Not me.”