It makes me chuckle when people refer to marijuana as a gateway drug. The conversation is especially amusing when had over cocktails. Easy accessibility, societal acceptance and manageable effects of weed are often cited as the reasons people choose it for experimentation. Once that door is open, further experimentation often follows, goes the argument. But this argument ignores the obvious. No drug opens the gateway quite like the most available and most abused drug in the history of the world: alcohol.
I remember bringing my dad beers on the Saturday afternoons of my youth. In exchange for my courier services, he would give me sips. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I do remember how it felt. It wasn’t about a buzz from alcohol back then, it was about the comfort and love of bonding with my dad.
I remember finding a six-pack of beer hidden in the branches of a tree back in middle school. My two buddies and I each had two, and they were magnificent. I still don’t really remember the taste. I do remember the buzz. It came both from the alcohol and from the mischievous intent. We were doing something forbidden. If either our parents or the high schoolers who hid the beer caught us, we would have been in trouble.
I used to think sobriety was about determination and willpower. I remember countless mornings when I swore I would never drink again. Never. Sometimes I didn’t drink for months. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes days. Sometimes, my determination was replaced by anxiety or frustration or pain, and I drank that same evening.
Alcoholism is a diabolical disease, and it hasn’t a thing to do with willpower or determination. Alcoholism is about how our different brains react to being poisoned. For some of us, the experience is euphoric, and our brains adapt to prioritize alcohol. We aren’t weak or broken. We introduce our brains to one of the world’s most highly addictive substances, and our brains take the bait. And just like that, we are hooked.
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.
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.
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).
I fell asleep at 7:30pm last Friday night. I was feeling exhausted after dinner, and I laid down before cleaning the kitchen. Within a minute, I was out and didn’t wake until 8am Saturday. I have a teenage son for whom my twelve plus hours of sleep is an every weekend tradition, but for me, sleeping like that was very rare. It was also glorious and necessary.
Do you know what else my half-day hibernation was? It was a part of my recovery from alcoholism. It was really important and totally uncontrollable.
The stigma associated with alcoholism is the barrier that prevents people from admitting their truth and curing their disease. And the stigma is a product of the words we choose to describe this affliction that kills three million people a year.
You have a drinking problem. You need to get help.
A deeply imbedded splinter is a problem. A flat tire is a problem. The brain disease suffered by over fifteen million Americans is way more than a problem.