I was seventeen, back in that long ago when you could stand with your whole family at the terminal gate as you waited to board your flight. So there the four of us were, shifting uncomfortably on our feet, staying together until the last available moment. A group of Canadians walked by, speaking their specialized version of French. Breakfast, eaten with an unfamiliar dread in the metallic airport café mere minutes before, lurched dangerously in my stomach.
I looked at Dad in despair. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
He looked back at me, and a flash of acute empathy briefly fractured his stoic Downeast faҫade. “You’ll do fine,” he said, quickly collecting himself.
I was naked before the hotel-room door closed behind me. I love the rare occasions when we are behind the locked door of a hotel room – just me and my wife, Sheri. No kids. No neighbors. No one who hasn’t seen me naked more times than she’d like. I threw back the shades and walked straight onto the balcony. Our room was one of the few with a solid, three-foot-tall, concrete and plaster railing, rather than the metal slats with three-inch gaps leaving nothing to the imagination of anyone peering up from the pool or hot tub below. “We could have sex out here, and no one would know,” I thought, but was smart enough to not say out loud. I’ve come a long way in my sobriety, and the associated adolescent immaturity shedding.
If you think reading about the impact of alcohol and recovery is therapeutic, you should try writing about it.
If you are battling a compulsion to drink, or if you are the loved one of a heavy drinker, you are probably protecting a closely guarded secret. It is the kind of secret that will eat you up from the inside while the poison does mental and biological damage to you, the drinker or second-hand drinker. The erosion of self-esteem, relationships and capacity to manage are all universalisms, yet we protect our secrets like we are somehow unique in a nation with over 15 million alcoholics.
And we protect our secrets because we can’t find a safe place to let them out.
She… bid farewell to her family with one ecstatic wave
Out the window as the car rolled away
She just vanished into a thick mist
Bright Eyes, “Hot Knives”
I don’t get depressed.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.” When journalist Johann Hari made that statement as part of the conclusion of his TED Talk in 2015, I didn’t disagree with him. I mostly didn’t disagree with him because I was still drinking in 2015 and didn’t give a shit about a speech titled, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” But even now, today, I think Hari got that first part right. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It is neither the solution, nor is it the opposite of the addictive behavior that has brought millions of us to our knees.
It’s the second part of his concluding statement that has been increasingly adopted as indisputable fact in the recovery community for the past six years. Hari ended his talk saying, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” From the first time I heard it, until a few months ago, I thought Hari was right. Now, I’m convinced that while the concept is useful, it is incomplete.
I believe the opposite of addiction is neither sobriety nor connection. I believe the opposite of addiction is self-esteem.
June 22, 2019, dawns beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic, calling to mind the day of our wedding twelve years before. The second half of those dozen circuits around the sun have been hard. Today, we’re barely seven months post-transplant. My single liver we now share between the two of us, his own having been incinerated with the rest of the biohazardous waste accumulated by the hospital that day back in November. I’ve had plenty of chances to think that we’d never see another anniversary together.
He’d told me, a week or so earlier, “Don’t do anything for the anniversary, I’ve got something planned.”
It felt like the first good sign since our transplant team had diagnosed him as rejecting the new liver graft. Maybe we were finally getting the rejection under control? Maybe we’d finally gotten the meds right? Except for his waxy skin, and his drifting in and out of vacant stares, and the yellow tinges to his eyes coming and going like I might be imagining them…
A little over two years into my sobriety, I chaperoned a week-long church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation. We fed a huge bison, built a fence, learned about the culture, and met a lot of interesting people (side note – if you want to see the impact of terrible government policy resulting in rampant alcoholism throughout a community, chaperone a church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation).
I returned feeling really good about myself. I had given my time and energy to two of my kids and the teenagers in our church community. The kids got an exposure to addiction that no amount of talking could have equaled, no one was trampled by the buffalo, and no digits or limbs were lost to the novice operation of power saws. The worst thing I did all week was eat at McDonald’s. Twice.
I felt really good about myself. That is, I felt good until I reunited with my wife.
Lately I’m seeing, from a social distance, conversations about our potentially post-pandemic summer that can be summed up as: It’s going to be Sodom and Gomorrah out there. If you can’t get laid this summer, just hang it up. Meanwhile, six months post-divorce, my reflexive gag is that not only am I not dating, not even looking, I’m building a moat.
It’s a joke. (Mostly. At least partly. A bit, anyway…) I think it’s funny. But here’s a great tip for free: never tell your good jokes to your therapist. They’ll wreck ‘em. They just can’t help it. I gave mine the whole moat bit with a nudge and a wink (or the Zoom equivalent), and she told me, rather seriously, “Barbara, you’re not keeping others out, you’re keeping yourself in.”
At some point, I ceased to exist.
It’s Sunday evening, 7 p.m., and he announces he’s going to a meeting. An alarm clangs in the back of my skull. I remember having mellow faith in fellow humans, enjoying the luxury of assuming you’re not being lied to, and being right. However, I tend now more to eternal, endless vigilance, and the trouble is, I know too much. There’s no meeting in our area at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening.
This stigma is strong. The stigma is the enemy. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is what keeps us drinking. I spent ten years in active alcoholism. Much of that time was spent trying to get out while being pulled back in by the shame and stigma. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is perpetuated from within the walls intended for healing.
When I read Victoria’s story about shame and stigma, I asked if I could publish it here. She not only understands the incarceration of the stigma, she describes it as well as I’ve ever heard it described. I’m betting you’ll resonate with Victoria’s words, too.
“Hello, my name is Victoria, and I am an alcoholic.”