“You’re awful proud of yourself,” he scoffed. “I’ll save a seat for you at a meeting for when you relapse.” I’d just met this AA lifer at a church service that catered to people suffering from addiction. He had asked me how I got sober. When I told him Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t part of my solution, I guess he didn’t like my answer.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve heard that pride leads to relapse. From the best I can surmise, the idea that “pride is dangerous” is a foundational tenet of twelve-step philosophy. There’s just one problem.
The concept is total bullshit.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.
I’m not just looking for the cure to addiction. I’m looking for the solution to the pain of the human condition. That is what I am researching, and when I find clues, I am eager to share them. So when I heard a fellow writer in a story-writing group read about the power of authenticity, I knew immediately that more people needed to receive the gift of his insight. He chooses to remain anonymous, but I’ll be forever thankful for his friendship, and for these words…
Authenticity is my superpower.
I learned many years ago that I can literally become bigger than life when I show up authentically. When I share my self or my story from an authentic place, I can share a powerful example of connection that can reach across aisles, oceans, generations, and color lines. I think that my authenticity is most powerful when it is as natural as a gentle breeze, as unique as a snowflake, as refreshing as a drop of rain.
There is no better indication of strength, integrity and intelligence than a person who owns his mistakes and takes responsibility for corrective action. It’s why I prefer stand-up comedians to politicians. I’d take Stephen Colbert or Dennis Miller for president over any denying or deflecting boob who actually squirms his way into the job.
Honesty, humility and vulnerability are admirable traits. They are the reason we have thousands of listeners and readers (although this particular sentence isn’t very humble). Taking ownership is a sign of confidence. A mistake can’t take me down! We admit, we fix, we learn and we do better the next time. It’s a sign of maturity.
All of these lofty philosophical ramblings about ownership make my position regarding the culprit responsible for my alcoholism kind of surprising.
When we surrender, we signal defeat. This is one of the main reasons for the dismal recovery rates from traditional alcoholism recovery methods in our society. Humans don’t want to be losers. That’s not how we are wired. Surrender feels hopeless and helpless. Surrender feels like the end.
My recovery from high-functioning alcoholism wasn’t about surrender. It was about changing teams and continuing the fight. The success of my permanent sobriety has a lot of contributing factors. Recovery is complex and individually unique. But in the end, the most important thing I did was to change my mind.
This stigma is strong. The stigma is the enemy. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is what keeps us drinking. I spent ten years in active alcoholism. Much of that time was spent trying to get out while being pulled back in by the shame and stigma. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is perpetuated from within the walls intended for healing.
When I read Victoria’s story about shame and stigma, I asked if I could publish it here. She not only understands the incarceration of the stigma, she describes it as well as I’ve ever heard it described. I’m betting you’ll resonate with Victoria’s words, too.
“Hello, my name is Victoria, and I am an alcoholic.”
Words matter because the way we use them matters. When we assign to words painful, intentionally hurtful associations, we take perfectly good words, and drown them in stigma. When we use words as weapons, people will do everything they can to distance themselves. Denial prevents healing. When we reject the words because they have been weaponized and stigmatized, we move further from recovery. Our denials and rejections become a self-fulfilling prophecy of pain. We get stuck.
I’m a recovered alcoholic, but you probably already know that. Naturally, you might be thinking this article will be about the words “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” based on my introductory paragraph about weaponized words dripping with stigma. You are not wrong, but we’ll get to those words in a minute. This isn’t an alcoholism problem. It is a much bigger societal problem. So let’s start by considering some non-alcoholic words.
It is said that those of us who suffer from alcoholism froze our emotional maturity at the age at which we started to drink regularly. I am living proof of the voracity of that statement as I lived decades of my life, well into my early sobriety, with the emotional maturity of a teenager.
Impatience is a cornerstone attribute of emotional immaturity, and my ability to calmly wait for anything was as undeveloped as that skill can be in a human. I learned early in my recovery that patience was a tool I needed to master if I hoped to make it over the elusive hump to permanent sobriety.
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.
Have you ever cheated the alcoholic death you deserved? I have. I can tell you fuzzy, intoxicated stories about at least a dozen times when I should have died. So when I talk about my sobriety saving my life, I am talking about two things. I am talking about a return to health and the reversal of the long, slow, gradual slide toward my alcoholic demise. But I’m also talking about the fact that I no longer cheat certain alcohol-induced death.
That second one – the acute, not the chronic – that’s the kind of alcoholic disaster that we don’t think or talk enough about. That’s the kind of death that our friend, Cheryl Kuechler, stared in the face a couple of weeks ago. That’s the kind of sudden, tragic, immediate, heartbreaking death that Cheryl’s sobriety saved her from.
I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll get to Cheryl’s story in a minute. First, I want to talk about you and me.