“I’ll just have soda water with a lime, please,” I remember sheepishly ordering from the bartender when I was in early sobriety. “…just soda water…” I was apologizing for being so lame. Apologizing to someone I didn’t know and who didn’t care what I drank, or more importantly, didn’t care how cool I was or was not.
I had ordered a beer hundreds, maybe thousands of times, from a bartender. I had ordered more than my fair share of whiskeys or vodkas on the rocks. Not once did I use the word just when ordering liquid poison. But when I ordered a drink that wouldn’t make me obnoxious or loud, that’s when I chose to apologize? It’s as if I thought the bartender was into people who were annoying and slurred while demanding another drink.
I used to think my innocent insertion of the word, “just,” was a sign of discomfort in my new sober skin – a lack of confidence and an acknowledgement that as a non-drinker, I was the odd man out, and I knew it. But I don’t think it is simple or innocent anymore. I think it’s tragic and insidious. A grown man with a career and a family apologizing for not toxifying his brain function? That is a cultural disaster. The degree to which we feel alcohol is required or expected, well, we humans have failed the test.
It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s the reason we humans are so tribal. When we see others repeat an activity or opinion that we embrace, the “others” solidify our belief system.
I know what you’re thinking. Awesome, this guy is going to write about politics and how broken our society is because of tribal stubbornness and because we only listen to people who sound like us, right? Wrong! I’ve got news for us all. Confirmation bias impacts a lot of aspects of our lives beyond the polarizing issues of politics. In fact, your confirmation bias might just be the biggest hurdle keeping you from long-term sobriety.
A double negative is not nearly as effective as a positive. I’m an eternal optimist, so as someone who is perpetually fixated on the positives, I should know the difference. Less (negative) of a bad thing (negative) is not nearly as awesome as a good thing. And this, my friends, is why our traditional addiction recovery system doesn’t work. I should probably do some explaining.
Where did that come from? In my life that features so many memories lost to blackout drinking, that’s a pondering I’ll never forget. That question dominated my brain on several occasions in my late teenage years when I was experimenting with alcohol.
It happened once the morning after a huge drunken fight I had with my high school girlfriend at a party on full display in front of probably a hundred friends. It happened another time after I took a swing at my best friend after drinking together for many hours. Thankfully, I was drunk enough to miss, but I’ve never been in a fist-fight in my life, so it was beyond surprising when I was putting the pieces of the puzzle back together the next day.
In fact, had I woken up after either of those instances having grown a third butt cheek I would have been less surprised than I was to learn of my aggressive and abhorrent drunken behavior.
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.
Sobriety is not as simple as making a decision to no longer drink beverages containing alcohol. For me, for most people who have drank hard enough, long enough, alcohol has twisted and tangled into every aspect of our lives from drunken antics, to our sober, warped brain dysfunction. Sobriety, therefore, is not a simple choice of beverage. Sobriety, if successfully accomplished, changes everything.
It took me ten years to quit drinking. Ten! Almost no matter how long this little earthly jaunt lasts for me, that’s a double-digit percentage of my life spent trying to quit drinking. I know I make abstinence look effortless and marvelous now in my fourth year of permanent sobriety, but I know how gruelling it is early on (and by early sobriety, I mean that whole first year – don’t get cocky early on me now, unless you want it to take you a decade to get over that hump).
I wanted sobriety to change nothing for me. I wanted to go through my normal life, just without a beer in my hand. It doesn’t work that way – not for me, nor for any of the thousands of sober badasses with whom I’m familiar. Sobriety changes everything, but in a good way (which I never believed possible until a couple of years ago).
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.
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.
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.