I used to think sobriety was about determination and willpower. I remember countless mornings when I swore I would never drink again. Never. Sometimes I didn’t drink for months. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes days. Sometimes, my determination was replaced by anxiety or frustration or pain, and I drank that same evening.
Alcoholism is a diabolical disease, and it hasn’t a thing to do with willpower or determination. Alcoholism is about how our different brains react to being poisoned. For some of us, the experience is euphoric, and our brains adapt to prioritize alcohol. We aren’t weak or broken. We introduce our brains to one of the world’s most highly addictive substances, and our brains take the bait. And just like that, we are hooked.
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.
For the last few years of my active alcoholism, I came to know the most wretched, dark, and debilitating alcohol-induced depression I called, “The Pit.”
Recovery from alcoholism is fixing a lot of things. My shame is diminishing, my confidence is returning, I am a much better listener and my relationships are stronger than ever.
But recovery doesn’t fill in the pit. It is still there – it will always be there – because my brain has been permanently damaged by years of drinking. How can I be so sure? Because I tumbled back into the pit last week. I am finishing the desperate and grueling process of climbing out right now, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly two years.
The pit is deep, and it is dismal and hopeless. The pit is a hole in my brain, and it is the most unfortunate part of my destiny.
A girl was locked in a room and held down on a bed while a boy fondled her breasts and greedily explored her body through a drunken haze at the encouragement of his intoxicated friend. A man with an impeccable reputation, a beautiful family and a mountain of credentials vehemently denies any involvement in such a dastardly assault in spite of his accuser’s 100% certainty that he’s the one.
Both are convincing and believable – the victim and the man she accuses. I don’t know what happened, and neither do you.
But I have a unique perspective. I have been through experiences similar enough to add a twist to the discussion. It’s a twist I have not heard explored on CNN or FOX News. It’s not hard for me to believe the violated, abused girl and the irreproachably qualified man are both telling the truth. Their truth, as they remember it. Their truth as their subconscious minds in survival mode (our subconscious is all about survival) have manipulated them to remember it.
I was very drunk one of the first times I had sex as a teenager, and so was the neighbor-girl who was alone in that bedroom with me. We had not been dating. We had never flirted or shown affection for one another. We got drunk and we kissed. We were clumsy and inexperienced, but nothing was stopping our hormones and curiosity. There was brief, bumbling, inept penetration followed by embarrassment, awkward silence and months of mutual avoidance. I didn’t force myself on her, but I was as ashamed of my sexual persistence as I was of my performance. I was eager, and she was willing. We were both very, very drunk.
The only difference between me and the homeless drunk who dies in a gutter is our starting point. All alcoholics fall toward death. It can be a slow, gradual decline or a crashing, tumbling, free-fall descent. Some of us stop drinking before we reach the ultimate lethal bottom, and some of us don’t. My starting point saved my life. I’m talking about my socio-economic place in this world. I’m talking about how much I had to lose – how many loving relationships and how much tangible stuff I possessed. But most of all, I’m talking about morals. Morals matter. For an alcoholic, morals can be the difference between life and death.
“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned,” sings Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He has left behind a life of imprisonment, torment and misery. Through grit and determination, and by the grace of God, he has built a successful business and become mayor of his town. When an innocent man is mistaken for Jean Valjean and threatened with life in prison, Valjean sacrifices his reputation, his financial stability and his very freedom by owning his label – prisoner number 24601. He risks everything to save a man he does not even know.
What does a story about courage and truth in the face of tyranny and oppression during the French Revolution have to do with sobriety and shame? Everything. Just like Valjean, I have a dark and shameful past. I was imprisoned by addiction for a decade. I clawed and scraped and begged for mercy from debilitating alcohol-induced depression only to sink deeper into the pit of despair with every drink.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
I had high expectations. For starters, I expected swift and significant weight loss. I expected my wallet to fatten and my energy levels to increase. I saw no reason why I would not be more alert and free from sadness. I envisioned an immediate return to trust, warmth and desire from my bride of nineteen years, Sheri. I had no doubt that I would leave shame and suffering behind. Hours spent wallowing in what I called The Pit, the depths of depression and self-loathing, would be a distant memory. I would be myself again instantly. Was that too much to expect from my decision to quit drinking? If I was going to abstain from the second most important love of my life – second only to my wife and four kids – those benefits had better be the result.
Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I