Almost fifteen million Americans have cancer and over fifteen million Americans are alcoholics according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Cancer is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Alcoholism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Lung cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer worldwide. Smoking cigarettes, a personal choice, is the most common cause of lung cancer. Drinking alcohol, a personal choice, is a requirement to become an alcoholic. Many forms of cancer are treatable. Alcoholism is treatable, too.
There are many parallels between cancer and alcoholism. So why do we treat these two diseases so differently?
It was well past midnight and we had had way too much to drink. My wife, Sheri, and I were joined by great friends and perennial late-night troublemakers, Amy and Paul. We were on a mission of mischievous amusement, and the rules and gates at the fancy resort were not going to stand in our way. “I think they were trying to have sex,” whispered Amy. “Well, they should know better,” I said. “It is two-o-clock in the morning. This hot tub is closed. They shouldn’t have sex in the hot tub we are breaking into,” I said justifying the coital interruption my posse of inebriated bread-bakers caused for the couple that fled into the darkness. “Come on, get in,” I continued undeterred by the lateness of the hour or the disruption we were causing. “Paul – find the timer and turn on the bubbles. Who’s got that last bottle of wine? Pass it my way!”
“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
This nonsensical quote is from the 1989 film version of Batman. Immediately after asking the question, Jack Nicholson’s character, The Joker, admits he has no idea what it means. But I know what that question means, and maybe the reason I have never forgotten that throwaway line is because it has so much meaning in my life. If you ask my wife, Sheri, “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” she will answer, “Yes.” Why? Because she is married to an alcoholic.
Sunday of Memorial Day weekend meant just one thing to a five-year-old kid from southern Indiana…it was race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As the first rays of sunlight stretched across the two-and-a-half mile oval, the center of the auto racing universe was intensely quiet – a stark contrast to the screams of thirty-three 500 horsepower engines and 325,000 exuberant fans that would roar through this cathedral in a few short hours.
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I
Do you want to know how to shock someone? Start with someone who cares about you. When they think they know you, when they think your life is smooth and easy, when they least expect it…tell them you are an alcoholic.
The first four people I talked to about my addiction had very similar reactions. I could see their faces transition as they heard the word, “alcoholism.” Their expressions softened and their attention to my words intensified. It was as if my admission allowed them to ever so slightly drop their guard on their most protected secrets. Their gaze of empathy seemed to draw my words from my mouth. They leaned closer. Their breathing quieted as a signal that my story would have no interruptions. I instantly felt indescribable warmth as my story transformed our relationships forever.
The two-headed monster of shame that I was battling – shame from my behavior and lack of control when drinking, and shame from being the only non-drinker at most social occasions when I wasn’t – was fierce and daunting. By my fourth, fifth and sixth attempts to slay the beast, my resolve was strong and my attempts at sobriety lasted not just a few weeks, but four to six months each. I knew what to expect and was prepared for the unanticipated. It was the anticipated that tripped me up and sent me back to the drink.
Since, in our society, we have turned almost every event from a three-year-old’s birthday party to a 5K-run finish line into a drinking occasion, it was almost impossible to navigate life sober without drawing the attention of everyone I knew. Even when my determination to remove alcohol from my life was most firm and committed – a commitment in response to another morning of shame following another night of overindulgence – my sobriety meant I still had to face questions, ridicule and even humiliation on a weekly basis. “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Are you an alcoholic?” Simply choosing not to drink when all of my friends knew how much I loved alcohol was not an option. Something must have been wrong. I must have been broken in some way. “Did something happen?” “Did you get a DUI?” “Are you and Sheri
Another night of overindulgence? Another mood turned sour? Another blackout? I don’t remember the specific set of circumstances that convinced me to stop drinking the second time, but it was probably a combination of these factors and you can be sure that my lack of control over my drinking filled me with shame. Unlike the first time I quit drinking alcohol, this time, at least I had a feeble plan to avoid the soul wrenching embarrassment that came with not drinking when everyone else was enjoying their alcohol of choice. I decided to become a connoisseur of fine non-alcoholic beers. I wanted to hide my
Alcoholism is a disease of shame. When I first admitted to myself that I was drinking too much and I needed to do something about it, I was ashamed of my behavior and lack of control. When I woke in a panic because I could not remember huge chunks of the night before, I was filled with shame. When I argued with my wife, drove when I should not have or was loud and obnoxious – shame, shame and shame. At the end of my drinking life, every beer…every single sip…was like another brick in my wall of embarrassed self-loathing.