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.
If you’ve even considered joining us for our couples retreat in the Rocky Mountains – even considered it for a moment – even if you’ve decided not to attend, I hope you’ll read this. I’ve got some explaining to do, and I hope you’ll hear me out.
There is a sign on Interstate 70 eastbound in the Floyd Hill area just before you exit the Rocky Mountains headed for Denver that says, “Attention Truckers: You Are Not Down Yet – Four More Miles of Steep and Winding Highway.” I am in pretty close contact with a lot of people who are navigating the holidays sober for the first time. If you are one of those people, that message on I70 is meant for you.
If you made it through Halloween without drinking, I am proud of you. Congratulations if you successfully abstained through Thanksgiving. That is awesome. If you waded through the excesses and overindulgence of December, including Christmas Day, and you protected your sobriety, that is outstanding. But don’t drop your guard now. There is a lot of work and immediate threat staring you in the face, and I’m not talking about New Year’s Eve.
Saturday was Christmas Tree Day for my family. The Salis Six, as my wife affectionately calls us, trudged out into the Colorado mountain forest with our tree cutting permit and killed the healthiest looking evergreen we could find. It’s now slowly rotting in the corner of our living room.
As strange as this tradition is when you really think about it, I love it just the same. It is my favorite day of the year. We listen to Bing and Eartha croon about the magic of the season, drink hot chocolate and eat a lunch of chili-cheese dogs at the volunteer fire station on the edge of the forest. It’s as much fun as my family can have together.
When we pulled into our driveway at home, I left the tree on the roof of our Jeep and went inside to retrieve the tape measure. As I entered the house, my wife’s heart sank. For just a moment, her memory of Christmases past dragged her back to the many times when arriving at home sent me immediately to the refrigerator for a beer. Old patterns die hard, and memories die even harder. Reality set it, and the terror passed for my wife as quickly as it came. She told me about it later, and I told her I understood. Because I did. Alcoholism is a very emotional disease. The pain and resentment is thick and not easy to wash off. Only time can heal some of the wounds. And sometimes, they reappear uninvited, unexpectedly.
I’m going to a holiday party with my people tomorrow night, and you’re invited to join us! There will be appetizers and festive non-alcoholic beverages, and lots of people to talk to who are also on a sober journey. I am on a panel at this event to lead a discussion geared toward people on all parts of the spectrum of alcohol use and abuse. If you are sober, this party is for you. If you are considering sobriety, we want you to be there. If you know something is not quite right, but you’re not sure what to do about it, you’ll be in good company at a party like this.
If you’re in the Denver metro, I so very much hope you’ll come to the party so I can meet you in person. If you live somewhere else, I hope you’ll look for an event to attend in your area. That’s really the point here. It has less to do with this specific party on this exact night in this particular town, and everything to do with engaging in your sobriety. If you don’t, you’ll drink. It’s as simple as that.
Sometimes progress is the enemy. Sometimes we gain some comfort from the strides we’ve made, but that comfort only serves to make the unexpected all that more jolting. Sometimes, our efforts leave us in dangerous middle ground – not yet strong enough to claim victory, but not weak enough to feel helpless and hopeless. That middle ground can be the most dangerous place of all.
When my grandmother died in the summer of 2013, my family gathered in Nashua, New Hampshire, to celebrate her life and lay her to rest. On the first evening we all arrived in town, I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table late that night with my dad. The lights were out in the house, including the kitchen, and we discussed the importance of spirituality. My dad shook his head, and remarked that he didn’t know how non-believers managed life when tragedy struck. His mom had just died, and he was leaning hard on his faith that she was with God in Heaven, and that the rest of us would mourn and remember and love and keep moving forward.
I was moved by how well encapsulated the power of spirituality was at that moment. It was clearly a potent experience, just me, my dad and God sitting there in the dark, because I’ve written about it multiple times in the past. Here’s the part of that story that I’ve never before shared.
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a drinker who is considering quitting like a person with 30 years of sobriety who still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. You mean he’s not fixed yet? He’s still got to attend these damn meetings to keep from drinking? What the sober curious don’t yet understand – what nobody outside the recovery community understands, frankly – is that sobriety is not a cure. Sobriety is a blessed lifestyle. Sobriety is how we humans were designed to function optimally.
Early sobriety is so complex that a guy could make a living writing about all the different components, challenges and associated stigmas. Oh wait, that’s what I’m trying to do. One of the greatest humps to get over for people new to sobriety is the idea that abstinence from a deadly poison is not, in fact, a punishment. Giving our bodies exercise, exposure to nature, connection with other humans, a sense of spirituality, plenty of sleep, intimate relationships, challenges to overcome and healthy food and beverage inputs is the key to happiness. Warping our brain function and destroying our organs is not exactly in the human body user’s manual.