This is a family week, if such a thing exists. In the United States, Thanksgiving marks time spent with, or at the very least thoughts about, family. Joyous times. Painful times. Sober thoughts. Intoxicated memories. Family is complicated. The grip they have on our emotions comes and goes, often in correlation to our geographical proximity. But make no mistake about it – on a week like this one, the family-o-meter is pegged in overdrive.
I recently challenged my friends in our SHOUT Sobriety program with this writing prompt: “Describe the stages of knowing that alcohol had no place in your life.” Sarah wrote the response to the prompt that follows. As we navigate the messiness of a week with family in the spotlight, I thought it particularly appropriate to share her experience. And yes…there is a bit of irony to featuring the lessons of a Canadian on U.S. Thanksgiving week (in my defense, she wrote it very close to Canadian Thanksgiving last month).
I can’t remember not knowing that alcohol was likely to be a danger in my life – that the number of alcoholics on both sides of my family tree meant I was at high risk. I was lectured to. from a young age, about this by my mother, the same person who insisted I have a glass of wine with dinner the day my first child was born. Because that drink was safe.
Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
It is terrifying. I’m running as fast as I can, but something is bogging me down. It’s like my joints have been soaking in rubber cement and I’m wearing clown shoes. I’m trying to get away from whatever is chasing me. Is it a man with a knife, or is it a monster? I’m unsure, and really, it’s unimportant. What matters is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t run fast enough, and whatever it is, it is gaining me.
Have you ever had this kind of dream? I have this one semi-regularly. It isn’t just about being chased, it is about my own ability to run being hampered or limited. I don’t know what it means. I’ve never had any of my dreams analyzed. But I can tell you what it reminds me of. It reminds me of trying to get away from the high-functioning alcoholism that was slowly killing me. My progress was slow and clunky, and I felt like I could not put distance between me and my pursuer. My top speed, as mediocre as it might have been, was completely elusive as I trudged weakly forward, trying to gain traction while the earth oozed like quicksand below my feet.
I awoke slowly and tried to blink my eyes into focus. I stared at the ceiling and realized my memory of the previous night was incomplete. There were missing pieces – again I had gaps in my recollection I would have to piece together. It had been happening like this for decades now. Not every night, or even every week. But every month, certainly, I drank far too much and couldn’t remember the details.
I started looking around for clues. Were my clothes on or off? Did I brush my teeth? Was there a cup of water on the bedside table? Did I plug in my phone to charge? Did I put myself to bed, or did I simply fall down when I’d had too much?
I was terrified to wake my wife, so I laid silently still until my fear of the unknown surpassed my fear of her reaction. I didn’t roll into her and put my arm gently around her for fear of an elbow to my ribcage. I shook her shoulder gently, and braced for her reaction.
The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.
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.
While most retailers are recovering from the exhaustion of the most fiscally important time of their year, those who sell diet plans and gym memberships are just getting revved up. The transition from the way we live our lives during the holidays to the crushing reality of January can give us whiplash, for sure.
For us high-functioning alcoholics, January is the most important time of the year, too. The shame of holiday overindulgence and regret of festive alcohol-induced decisions is fresh is our minds.
I felt like such a fraud. The idea that I needed to quit drinking alcohol – that I fit the classification of alcoholic – filled me with doubt and shame. Sure, I was ashamed of the instances when I drank too much, argued with my wife and wasted days nursing dehydration while trying to put together the pieces of the previous night. But I was also petrified with fear that I wasn’t alcoholic enough. I was holding my marriage together, my employment and finances were intact, I had no legal issues and I maintained my house on the weekends just like all my non-addicted neighbors. I was lying and denying if I ignored my condition, but I was a fraud if I claimed the affliction of the gutter bum or someone who drank away his family and possessions. I believed making the self-diagnosis of alcoholic or not alcoholic was a binary choice, and I was stuck firmly in the middle.
Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
When I quit drinking, I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I was too ashamed – ashamed of my disease and embarrassed to be tainted with the stigma that is persistently and unfortunately associated with AA. I didn’t go away to a 30 day rehab because I couldn’t wrap my brain around letting go of my family and business responsibilities for a whole month. I took a different path to permanent sobriety.
I read. I read book after book after book about alcoholism and recovery. I read clinical books about how the body processes alcohol and the many diseases and biological dysfunction heavy drinking causes. I read books about neurotransmitters and other detailed explanations of brain function. And I read memoir after memoir written by alcoholics who had visited the same depths of despair where I wallowed, but made it out and had the strength to tell their stories.