“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.
An acquaintance of mine posted on social media on July 5th that if the people he heard shooting off fireworks from home the previous night would just spend 1% of what they spent on the fireworks on the wine he makes and sells, he would be very happy. He made reference to the money people spent on fireworks as “going up in smoke.” The crystal clear insinuation was that money spent on craft wine was classy, elegant, refined and clearly more socially esteemable than money wasted on celebratory explosions.
So much of the stigma that keeps alcoholics trapped is encapsulated in this one misguided post. Wine is desirable. People who drink it are savvy and wise. As a wine producer, he holds his industry and his product in high regard. He is proud of his alcohol, and he is fearless in throwing a little shade on people who don’t share his passion for using their disposable income for intoxication.
Could you imagine a cigarette company executive teasing people about recklessly sending their money up in smoke rather than buying tobacco? How about an illegal drug dealer? If you sold meth or heroin, would you brag on social media about how much less of a waste of money your product is versus fireworks?
I call it the pit. It is the depth of alcoholic despair where I would go as I sobered-up after drinking too much. It was an ensnaring web of depression and anxiety that left me debilitated – unwilling and unable to function. I’ll never forget that feeling. The memory both haunts me, and lifts me up solidifying my permanent sobriety.
Alcoholism isn’t about excesses, financial problems or legal issues. Alcoholism is about pain.
Alcoholism is a disease. It is a mental-health crisis as both our subconscious mind and our neurotransmitter function are hijacked by the liquid poison. It isn’t about willpower or moderation. We alcoholics can heal, but we require – we deserve – treatment and understanding.
Where did that come from? In my life that features so many memories lost to blackout drinking, that’s a pondering I’ll never forget. That question dominated my brain on several occasions in my late teenage years when I was experimenting with alcohol.
It happened once the morning after a huge drunken fight I had with my high school girlfriend at a party on full display in front of probably a hundred friends. It happened another time after I took a swing at my best friend after drinking together for many hours. Thankfully, I was drunk enough to miss, but I’ve never been in a fist-fight in my life, so it was beyond surprising when I was putting the pieces of the puzzle back together the next day.
In fact, had I woken up after either of those instances having grown a third butt cheek I would have been less surprised than I was to learn of my aggressive and abhorrent drunken behavior.
If I told you that I never think about drinking alcohol anymore, that would be a lie. So I won’t tell you that. I’ll tell you the truth about what a return to drinking would look like for me. It isn’t a lie, but it isn’t pretty, either.
One of the greatest benefits from permanent sobriety for me is the end of the mental gymnastics of high-functioning alcoholism. When I was a drinker, I spent countless hours debating my alcoholic status, and creating drinking rules in a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable.
I awoke slowly and tried to blink my eyes into focus. I stared at the ceiling and realized my memory of the previous night was incomplete. There were missing pieces – again I had gaps in my recollection I would have to piece together. It had been happening like this for decades now. Not every night, or even every week. But every month, certainly, I drank far too much and couldn’t remember the details.
I started looking around for clues. Were my clothes on or off? Did I brush my teeth? Was there a cup of water on the bedside table? Did I plug in my phone to charge? Did I put myself to bed, or did I simply fall down when I’d had too much?
I was terrified to wake my wife, so I laid silently still until my fear of the unknown surpassed my fear of her reaction. I didn’t roll into her and put my arm gently around her for fear of an elbow to my ribcage. I shook her shoulder gently, and braced for her reaction.
My wife and I were watching 30 Rock reruns on Saturday night. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about our lack of fancy plans because Tina Fey is the bomb, and I have a deep and abiding love for her sense of humor. I’m not even going to blame quarantine or make any other excuse. I was in bed with my wife and laughed until I cried – all of my favorite things.
Tracy Morgan’s character ended a ranting tirade by declaring his intention to, “Treat every week like shark week!” I laughed so long and hard that one of our kids came into our room to make sure everything was OK, which is dangerous, because we want to discourage our kids from busting into our bedroom at night uninvited, for their sakes even more than ours. My cousin has a very traumatic story about looking for a band-aid in his parents’ room in the middle of the night that I’d like my kids to not recreate. We keep the bandages prominently accessible in the hall closet for this very reason. But I digress.