I imagine my summer vacation with my extended family is a lot like most. Lots of warm, squeezy greetings between adult siblings and cousins who live across the great expanse one from another. Sincere desires to keep in better touch that are, in reality, words wasted due to busy schedules and naturally occurring self absorption. A Christmas card. Maybe a birthday text. Then the one week spent together every summer rolls back around.
We were stuck. I had not had a drop of alcohol in over a year, but our relationship was unloving and cold. Distrust and painful memories consumed our marriage and made recovery seem impossible. We set aside time each week to mend wounds from memories of drunken arguments and intoxicated antics, but there was still an invisible barrier between us.
My wife’s emotions seemed the most raw when we talked about the rare but painful times when my drinking impacted our four children. Sheri couldn’t seem to forgive me – her instincts as a mother were simply too strong. We had to find a way over the hump that separated us from repairing our badly damaged marriage.
This old guy at our church used to lecture us about calling the holiday by its proper name: Independence Day. “Calling it the Fourth of July diminishes it to nothing more than a box on the calendar,” he would explain indignantly. He was annoying. He always had something to say and seemed to rarely listen. A collective groan could be heard throughout the sanctuary when he raised his hand during announcements.
But in this case, I think he was right. Independence is something to be revered and cherished. We have to fight for independence, and the cost is brutally high. Celebrating independence should be solemn and sacred. What we do on the fourth day of July each year, I think, misses the mark entirely.
Often, the contrast between drinking and not drinking is dramatic and obvious. Like the time my next door neighbor called over the fence for me to come try a new whiskey he found at the mega liquor store. He found a winner this time, and he invited me to share it with him and his friend who was visiting from San Diego. I don’t remember the brand, but that would be beside the point, anyway. My neighbor bought it because it was distilled with liquid smoke, and it smelled like we were drinking a barbeque grill. It was delicious, but that was beside the point, too. The new and interesting blend and the friend from out of town were just excuses for the three of us to drink most of a bottle of whiskey, with some beers mixed in, and become numb to the rest of the world around us.
I felt like such a fraud. The idea that I needed to quit drinking alcohol – that I fit the classification of alcoholic – filled me with doubt and shame. Sure, I was ashamed of the instances when I drank too much, argued with my wife and wasted days nursing dehydration while trying to put together the pieces of the previous night. But I was also petrified with fear that I wasn’t alcoholic enough. I was holding my marriage together, my employment and finances were intact, I had no legal issues and I maintained my house on the weekends just like all my non-addicted neighbors. I was lying and denying if I ignored my condition, but I was a fraud if I claimed the affliction of the gutter bum or someone who drank away his family and possessions. I believed making the self-diagnosis of alcoholic or not alcoholic was a binary choice, and I was stuck firmly in the middle.
Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
If you don’t fill the void left behind when you quit drinking, you’re not really recovering from alcoholism. You’re just a dry drunk, and if there’s one thing all dry drunks have in common, it’s that they all eventually relapse and start drinking again. This is very common knowledge in the recovery community, and something I’ve proven through my own failed attempts at sobriety dating back a dozen years.
But here’s the part that’s interesting to me. Where does the void come from? Is it really a void left behind when we stop drinking alcohol, or was the void there to begin with, and alcohol fit the emptiness just perfectly? I’ve written about it before, but my opinion is evolving as my experiences in recovery develop. I no longer think of it as a, “chicken or the egg,” conundrum. I believe when alcohol flows into our lives, it finds the vacant space and fills all of our nooks and crannies of our naturally occurring voided space. I receive a lot of emails from people struggling to quit drinking. The stories they tell me about the reasons they started drinking and became addicted to the liquid poison are as diverse and unique as your imagination. But when people tell me about their challenges with sobriety, it’s like their stories are squeezing through a funnel of sameness. Their lives go from different and unexpected, to predictably identical. Their stories are identical to my struggle to quit, too.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.
The school year is ending, the grass is green as flowers bloom, and the savory smoke will once again begin to roll off the backyard grills of America. It is Memorial Day weekend signaling the unofficial beginning of summer. It is time for bathing suits, neighborhood barbeques, patriotic parades, afternoons by the pool, freedom for the kiddos and family vacations. I love all the seasons, but there is something special about the start of summer. The anticipation of relaxed enjoyment and those long, lazy summer nights is almost tangible. The impatient wait is over. We made it back to summer again.
For us alcoholics in recovery, this most anticipated of seasons carries with it a measure of trepidation. As a tool of self preservation, our brains naturally block bad memories while shining a spotlight on the good times. As we approach Memorial Day, we remember our alcohol-enhanced summers full of drinking beers on sun-drenched afternoons, tropical umbrella drinks on the beach, block parties with full coolers and impromptu Thursday night cocktails on the porch. Memories of regret from overindulgence and blackouts are suppressed to make way for recollections of champagne toasts at summer weddings and gin and tonics on family vacations.
I am a Christian who celebrates the faith diversity offered by Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others. I am a heterosexual white male who supports equality for the LGBTQ community, women and people of all races and ethnicities. I am a fiscal conservative and social moderate who believes in listening and compromise on almost every issue (I’m done listening when it comes to assault rifles and background checks – I live in Colorado, and we have lived through too much).