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.
An acquaintance of mine posted on social media on July 5th that if the people he heard shooting off fireworks from home the previous night would just spend 1% of what they spent on the fireworks on the wine he makes and sells, he would be very happy. He made reference to the money people spent on fireworks as “going up in smoke.” The crystal clear insinuation was that money spent on craft wine was classy, elegant, refined and clearly more socially esteemable than money wasted on celebratory explosions.
So much of the stigma that keeps alcoholics trapped is encapsulated in this one misguided post. Wine is desirable. People who drink it are savvy and wise. As a wine producer, he holds his industry and his product in high regard. He is proud of his alcohol, and he is fearless in throwing a little shade on people who don’t share his passion for using their disposable income for intoxication.
Could you imagine a cigarette company executive teasing people about recklessly sending their money up in smoke rather than buying tobacco? How about an illegal drug dealer? If you sold meth or heroin, would you brag on social media about how much less of a waste of money your product is versus fireworks?
I call it the pit. It is the depth of alcoholic despair where I would go as I sobered-up after drinking too much. It was an ensnaring web of depression and anxiety that left me debilitated – unwilling and unable to function. I’ll never forget that feeling. The memory both haunts me, and lifts me up solidifying my permanent sobriety.
Alcoholism isn’t about excesses, financial problems or legal issues. Alcoholism is about pain.
Alcoholism is a disease. It is a mental-health crisis as both our subconscious mind and our neurotransmitter function are hijacked by the liquid poison. It isn’t about willpower or moderation. We alcoholics can heal, but we require – we deserve – treatment and understanding.
My wife and I were watching 30 Rock reruns on Saturday night. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about our lack of fancy plans because Tina Fey is the bomb, and I have a deep and abiding love for her sense of humor. I’m not even going to blame quarantine or make any other excuse. I was in bed with my wife and laughed until I cried – all of my favorite things.
Tracy Morgan’s character ended a ranting tirade by declaring his intention to, “Treat every week like shark week!” I laughed so long and hard that one of our kids came into our room to make sure everything was OK, which is dangerous, because we want to discourage our kids from busting into our bedroom at night uninvited, for their sakes even more than ours. My cousin has a very traumatic story about looking for a band-aid in his parents’ room in the middle of the night that I’d like my kids to not recreate. We keep the bandages prominently accessible in the hall closet for this very reason. But I digress.
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.