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.
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. As a drinker, I worked hard to turn mundane activities into drinking events – to justify celebration or a spontaneous party. Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays because it provided cover for my alcoholic tendencies. I didn’t need to justify drinking heavily on a Wednesday evening. Our society, our culture and my neighborhood made it totally acceptable. Halloween was never about the kids or the costumes or the candy. Halloween was all about my wicked liquid poison.
My memory is filled with snapshots from Halloweens past. They are ingrained photos that were never really taken. They often capture the moment my anxiety and eagerness drained from my body and was replaced by the fulfillment only alcohol could provide for an alcoholic.
Saturday night I made a mistake. I got far too close to the edge of an alcoholic relapse. I have only my pride and ego to blame. And now as I write in the quiet hours between midnight and the break of Sunday, I am willing to trade sleep for the chance to record my brush with drinking disaster so I will never forget how close I came.
Heinrich is a dear friend to my wife, Sheri, and me. He lost his wife to suicide several years ago when she lost her long battle with mental illness. Heinrich is a loving father to two beautiful children in the same age range as our kids. Our families attend the same church, and we get together for dinner with Heinrich’s family and some other friends a few times a year.
Despite the tragedy Heinrich and his kids have endured, they are as strong and stoic as his German name suggests. Still, Sheri and I can’t help but feel sadness for all three of them. We love them, and we would do anything we could to help them have a joyful life. We have asked Heinrich many times if we can help with the kids or in any other way. He is strong. He is a very good father. He rarely takes us up on the offer. It is important to us to try to help, selfishly, so we can feel like we are doing our part.
So when Heinrich invited us to an authentic German Oktoberfest at an authentic German restaurant to celebrate his birthday, we accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. An authentic German Oktoberfest is probably the last place a sober alcoholic whose drink of choice was strong, flavorful beer in large quantities – like me – should ever be.
Last week, I wrote about my rejection of the amends process as part of recovery from addiction. I shared that while I am endlessly sorry and apologetic to my wife and our four kids, I do not feel I owe anyone else an apology for my alcoholic behavior. I received a lot of feedback, and much of it was negative. None of it touched me quite like this email I received from my sister, Joey.
An hour or so into a several hour family meeting to discuss the impact of my alcoholism on all of our lives, my mother made an observation. My sister, her husband, my dad and my wife, Sheri, all listened intently as my mom turned to me and said, “You know what we haven’t heard? We haven’t heard you say you’re sorry.” I had been anticipating this question, and I blurted out my answer almost before my mom finished speaking. “I’m not,” I said defiantly. “I’m not sorry for my alcoholism.”
Independence is a myth. The question is, what do we choose to depend on?
For 25 years, I grew increasingly dependent on my beloved drink. The physical dependence was frankly not that strong or hard to reverse. The psychological dependence, however, had a seemingly unbreakable hold on my thoughts and patterns. Never was this hold stronger than on the holidays – especially warm and sunny summer holidays like the one that falls annually on the fourth day of July.
When I gave the benediction on Sunday to conclude the church service where I had just delivered the sermon, I told the congregation they were made up of three groups of people. Some people were there because of concerns about their drinking or the drinking of a loved one. Some people were there because they are my friends and they love me and I thanked them very much. Some people were there because that’s where they go to church and they had no idea I was going to take to the pulpit to share my story and encourage them to help end the stigma associated with alcoholism.
The word, “alcoholic,” conjures images of drunk bums living in the gutter. Or maybe you think of a loud and obnoxious uncle you only see at holiday dinners who can’t seem to get it together and blames everyone but himself for his lot in life. Alcoholics get multiple DUIs, get divorces and lose all their money. Alcoholics beat their wives and abandon their children choosing a bottle over life’s responsibilities.