Your voices. Many voices. Consistent voices telling the same stories about how addiction works, and how denials only make matters worse.
I hear you. I hear from you. Mostly in private messages, but sometimes out in the open for all to see. I’ve heard how my story gives you hope. I need you to hear from me how your stories give me strength to keep going. To keep sharing.
To keep telling our stories.
And now, I want to expand the story into your voices. There is strength in numbers. If we are going to crush the stigma that makes high-functioning alcoholism so pervasive, it will take all of our voices.
We have a detached garage behind our house that was built in 1915 and was originally intended to be more of a shed than a place to park cars. At some point in our house’s history, the garage was extended, presumably when a previous homeowner came to the conclusion that he needed to protect a car from the weather. We now jam two cars in the garage with barely a few inches between them. The garage serves two purposes: to protect our Jeeps, and as incentive not to gain so much weight that we can’t squeeze our fannies into the driver’s seats.
The path that brings us to and from the garage is a thin patch of concrete squeezed between the north side of our house and our neighbor’s fence. Backing down the driveway feels like threading a needle, especially where our house’s furnace exhaust makes the bricks jut out, or where the fence posts extend a few inches past the fence.
In the twelve years we’ve owned the Jeep that my wife drives (which, in my defence, is substantially wider than mine), I’ve bashed the rearview mirrors into the brick protrusion, or the fence posts, so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve also detached two downspouts from the house so that they now dangle precariously from the gutters without a mooring to the exterior wall, so at least I spread the damage around.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
Alcoholism is a winless waiting game. We wait for things to get better. We wait for the solution to emerge. As the drinkers, we wait for our new rule to keep us in control, or for the stress to decrease so we can enjoy our beloved beverage in harmonious peace. As the loved ones of drinkers, you wait for us to see the light and come to our senses. You wait for us to stop or to slow down – to prioritize family over liquid poison.
But waiting isn’t a strategy. Waiting is a slow, excruciating defeat. Waiting is inevitable failure.
Our friend and leader in the soberevolution could only wait so long. As the wife of an active alcoholic, she knew waiting any longer would deliver a tragic result. Here are her words:
It was over. It was time to move on. The regrets had been overwhelming. In fact, the debilitating shame was the only thing powerful enough to force my hand and mandate my need for behavioral change. The stigma, the embarrassment, the broken promises, the trust I crushed under my clumsy heel like an insignificant ant – all of it accumulated into a malignant mass that had to be cut out of my soul for my very survival. And I did just that. I changed for the only reason anyone ever makes significant change. Pain. I was drowning in pain.
But even the deepest, most fundamental change was not enough for her. The trillions of sincere apologies. The remorse. The repentance. The reparations. None of it was enough. It was never enough.
This is Jane’s story.
For Jane, alcohol was an accent. It was something complimentary and expected, but never really necessary or compulsive. Jane drank when she danced. The alcohol kept her inhibitions quiet, but the drinks were never the main event. Cutting loose and moving her body to the music made her feel alive and free. Jane learned to drink to wash away the stress and pressure of the day. It is a lesson almost universally ingrained in our adult American culture. She drank to feel numb when no one needed her to be present.
Then Jane had kids, and the numbable moments disappeared. Alcohol turned from an accent to an unacceptable distraction from her responsibilities. There was no time to zone out. There was no room for hangovers and sluggishness. She was needed 24/7, and she answered the call every single time.
Jane matured. Her husband kept going. It’s like they were flying to a destination together, and the journey included a change to a connecting flight in some far-away airport. Jane got off the initial flight and boarded the connection, while her husband stayed glued in his seat and rode the first plane to oblivion.
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.
And I ruined it all for her.
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.
I listened yesterday to Dax Shepard and Glennon Doyle talking on Dax’s podcast (Armchair Expert – it’s my favorite) about how in many ways, it is harder to be a high-functioning alcoholic than an obnoxious, obvious, stumbling lush. When we keep our predilection quietly hidden behind a veil of normalcy and productivity, not only must we manage the internal chaos of alcoholism, but we also expend incalculable energy keeping our secrets hidden. We all agreed this was a valid and significant point (they agreed, and I was nodding, but I feel like they could sense my support).
Do you know what’s even harder than being a high-functioning alcoholic? It’s loving a high-functioning alcoholic. The deceit is still there. All the downplaying, making excuses and covering up still exists, but by participating in the denials, the loved one is perpetuating the disease and dysfunction that they so loath. It must feel like constantly painting the house that your alcoholic is trying to tear down from the inside out.
It is my wife’s turn to recover. She knows it. I know it. Getting here was anything but simple.
Listen Now! It’s Sheri’s Turn
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. When I was drinking, I put my love of alcohol ahead of everything, including my wife and kids. I would never have admitted it, but it was true. When I decided to stop drinking, I put my work to stay sober ahead of everything, again, including my wife, Sheri, and our four kids. This time, the selfishness was necessary. But that doesn’t change the fact that my family continued to take a backseat to my addiction.