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.
“Is that it?” came the question from one of our four kids sitting behind my wife and me in the last hundred miles of our road trip to the Grand Canyon. “No,” I replied as we passed a relatively small crack in the Arizona desert. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
When we saw it, the massive hole was bigger than any of us imagined. And flowing through the bottom of the canyon was the surprisingly modest Colorado River. The persistence required for that stream of water to cut that ginormous canyon over that amount of time – hundreds of millions of years – was too much for me to comprehend.
It’s the kind of relationship where we tolerate each other for the sake of our mutual friend. We’ve all been there. I wouldn’t hang out with this guy if he wasn’t so close with a good friend of mine. But since he is, we end up in the same place doing the same thing once every couple of months. We have little in common. He is a little younger than me and a lot more confident. He talks about his stuff and never asks me about mine. He isn’t arrogant or aloof, he just doesn’t know any better.
A couple of days ago, our mutual friend brought us together again. As people were gathering and plans were being made, I found myself alone with my friend’s friend. As I was struggling to think of a conversation starter, he told me he heard that I write about addiction and recovery, and that he thinks it is really cool. I was speechless. In the probably 100 or so conversations we have had over the years, this was the first time he’s ever talked about me.
I had long believed I should never talk about the perils of drinking with drinkers while they are drinking. I was wrong.
If you love to drink alcohol like me, there is no time of year quite like the holiday season. There are holiday-themed work happy hours, neighborhood Christmas potlucks complete with BYOB, booze flowing secret Santas, wine-centric cookie exchanges, appetizer and cocktail parties with church friends and lots of family gatherings with spiked eggnog and warm cider. You eat and drink your way through the busiest, often most stress-filled, time of the year. And it’s great…until it isn’t.
When people live through trauma, they often talk of how the experience shows them who their true friends are. I have always thought of that as quite sad. I’m not sure why, but my mind has always focused on the many friends who deserted the afflicted in his time of need. I have always looked at it all wrong.
My alcoholism and my decision to discuss it openly has led me to find out who my true friends are. And it has been among the best experiences of my life.
When you take away an alcoholic’s alcohol, you take away his only known tool to manage stress. When you take away an alcoholic’s alcohol, a lot of good things happen. But some bad things happen, too.
I got sick this summer. Initially I thought I had a mild case of food poisoning. When the stomach cramping and associated frequent and unpleasant attempts to relieve said cramping did not abate after a few days, I thought it more likely that I had an intestinal bug. After a couple of weeks of on-and-off stomach pain with varying degrees of severity, I started to worry.
Loving and protecting my wife, Sheri, and our four kids, is the most critical component of my life. I think about the safety and development of my children constantly, and struggle to balance being present with letting them explore their worlds on their own. I don’t really care about money, power, status or control. I have made a mess of much of my life, and I just want to help them avoid the same pitfalls. This top priority of mine is both pretty simple and overwhelmingly complex. I pray daily for the strength and wisdom to get it right.
So when my oldest child, Cathryn, asked me if I would be OK with her writing her first essay of her junior year in high school about my alcoholism, I was excited that she was taking an interest in the topic that consumes much of my life. I expected her to write a story about our family overcoming this deadly disease. I was eager to read about the closeness of our father-daughter relationship. I anticipated reading of her trepidation about addiction and her plan to tread cautiously into the waters of alcohol consumption in her adult life.
What she wrote was not what I expected. Her essay was the most painful collection of words I have ever read.