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.
Relapse. It’s such a dirty word to us alcoholics. When we first dip our toes into the frigid waters of sobriety, avoiding relapse is, quite necessarily, our singular focus. But it happens, and when it does, our failure can be brought on in a variety of ways. Sometimes it happens in an instant – a solitary trigger overwhelms us, and we are drinking before we can rationally process the situation.
But often, relapse doesn’t work like that. It isn’t instantaneous and unpredictable. Often, relapse is the last step in a series of events. It is a downward spiral spread out over some period of time. We try to fight it, but resistance seems futile. It is as if the universe or the devil is working against us in a diabolical plot to keep us mired in alcoholism.
Sober people are losers! Look, I’d like to tell you that my opinion wasn’t this superficial, jaded, prejudiced, narrow, misinformed, misguided, misintellectualized, bigoted, arrogant, and just plain asinine, but it was. I thought people who didn’t drink alcohol, for any reason, were losers.
This included my own mother for quite a while. God, how shallow and despicable was I?
And I’d like to tell you that my opinion changed when I started exploring sobriety, or at least once I was sober myself. Nope! I continued to consider people who didn’t drink alcohol to be losers, I just tucked my tail between my legs and joined their pathetic ranks.
I took a writing class with my favorite instructor over the weekend. She asked the writers to picture a particular irrelevant scene in the future, and imagine how that made us feel. The specific scene is irrelevant to what you are reading here, so I’ve spared you the details, but it wasn’t irrelevant to me. Not at all. In fact, quite to the contrary, it was very important, and the emotion that flooded my body upon considering the situation my writing coach suggested was complete and total relief.
I immediately recoiled and broke into a cold sweat. I’ve recently designated “relief” as a dirty word in my vernacular. Relief is what I chased with alcohol. I’ve used sex and food and work in search of that same soothing relief. Relief is the dangling carrot of addiction.
A week ago, the thought that March Madness could actually be cancelled given the billions of dollars involved had not yet crossed my mind. Now, just seven days later, my brain is whirling with the depth and breadth of the collateral damage from the doctrine of isolation that is more severe than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. Is that too dramatic for you? Can you name a time when government ordered constitutionally protected private businesses to close, churches were shuttered and the travel industry was destroyed? I can’t. Dramatic? Yes. Really, inconceivably happening? Also yes.
(If you are struggling with the temptation to drink as we isolate and our everyday lives are so dramatically changed, please click here to read my Elephant Journal article published this week on the topic of the unrelenting shame of drinking alcohol through crisis.)
Feeling temptation to drink alcohol is very rare for me these days, now over three years into my permanent sobriety. I do occasionally, however, feel momentary pangs of desire for the elixir so woven into my life for all those many years of drinking. On a recent warm and sunny Saturday afternoon I felt such a craving as I turned onto my block heading home with all my goals accomplished for the day.
I was done. It was time for some well deserved relaxation. Reclining on my sun-drenched back porch with a golden-amber IPA in my hand sounded, for a moment, like a well-earned reward.
As we were wrapping up our first ever Sober and Unashamed Couples Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado, on Sunday, one of the the attendees told me that he and his wife wanted to go to Estes Park before their flight home Sunday night. He showed me the route that Google suggested to him, and we discussed his options.
The summer drive from Grand Lake to Estes Park takes you right through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, and is among the most beautiful 47 miles of scenic roadway in the world. You crest the majestic Rocky Mountains, are likely to see moose or elk, look across clear mountain lakes and experience views that are unmistakably Colorado. It is a winding road full of switchbacks and steep ascents that will take well over an hour to traverse, but the drive is the experience, and you won’t mind if it takes all day.
It was a typical icebreaker for such events: tell us your name, your genre and the topic of your current project. “I’m an alcoholic. I work and write in the addiction and recovery community. My name is Matt Salis, and my book is about recovering from alcoholism.” I was at a publishing seminar last weekend, and when it was my turn, that was how I introduced myself to the other seven writers in the session.
During a break, one of the writers probed a little further asking the name of our nonprofit. “It is called, Stigma,” I told her. I went on to explain that the stigma associated with alcoholism is the top reason the disease is so hard to cure. I told her that by owning the label, “alcoholic,” I take the power out of the stigmatized word. “I introduce myself as an alcoholic. When someone wants to take a shot at me, what are they going to do? Call me an alcoholic? I already said that.” The group giggled and nodded, and the subject of the intermission conversation turned a different direction.
“This is the best I’ve ever felt in my life!” claims the caption on Instagram. “Tap the heart if you are waking up sober!” The rainbows and unicorns approach to addiction recovery so popular on social media actually makes sobriety harder for me. I want to drink to settle my nausea from the transparent grovelling for likes and cyber-appreciation. “Since I’ve given all my troubles to God, I don’t want to drink anymore and I feel so free!” Listen, I’m all about prayer and repentance, and I feel like God is firmly on my side. But the idea that we can hand over the steering wheel and take a nap, and our addiction will melt away, is too much for me to embrace.
I’m not trying to pick a fight, and I am happy for anyone who can recover based on inspirational slogans and dogma. That’s just not me. And I’ve heard from enough readers on the topic to know that’s not helpful to many of you, either.
The benefits of permanent sobriety are neither instantaneous nor simple. But once I put in the significant time, made the gruelling effort and opened my mind and heart to the changes in my life, the enlightenment has far exceeded my wildest expectations of recovery.
The patio door was wide open, and the sheer curtains billowed into our room in the morning breeze. We were on the east side of the highrise hotel building, and the sun was just peaking over the Atlantic Ocean horizon. The scene from our tenth floor room was majestic, looking over the expansive pool area below and the white-sandy beach just beyond. We were attending an industry work convention, but it was much more of a boozy boondoggle and reprieve from the responsibilities of work and parenting.
The setting was very romantic. That’s why I was so disappointed to find my wife sleeping alone in the room’s other queen size bed. We had undressed and plopped down in the same bed after a long night of drinking. I was sure of it. So why was I sleeping alone in the morning?
I was sleeping alone because my relentless commitment to alcohol had driven my wife away, not just that particular night, but slowly, ever since she had met me. She made an excuse that morning about wanting room to stretch and getting closer to the morning breeze blowing in across the ocean, but the truth was, she was far more attracted to freedom than she was to me.