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.
Robin Williams once said, “As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you will lower them.” I define my bottom – the point I had to reach to finally stop drinking and start healing – based on this quote. After 25 years of drinking, the last ten of which I knew I was an alcoholic, my behavior was deteriorating faster than my ability to lower my own behavioral self-standards. I was left in a state of debilitating depression and hopelessness. I had to quit drinking. Death was the only other alternative.
Behavioral self-standards. Morals. I had a long way to fall – a lot of moral deterioration to endure – on the way to my bottom. Others are not so lucky.
When you leap from a plane flying too close to the ground, there isn’t time to open the parachute.
My plane was flying high in the sky. I didn’t come from a broken home. There was no abuse or neglect. My parents love me very much, and provided a stable and nurturing environment. Alcohol was ever present, but drunkenness was not. My parents taught me right from wrong, Nancy Reagan taught me to, “Say no to drugs,” and my Sunday School teachers taught me to worship God and Jesus. My spirituality has grown much stronger as I have relied upon it more and more, but it was always there from the beginning. Morals are defined as personal principles or standards, and I was drenched in strong morality from the day I was born.
My moral foundation was rock-solid when alcohol began chipping away at it. There were glimpses of deterioration in high school. A jealous argument with a girlfriend after many beers at a party. An alcohol-fueled fight with my best friend at a party thrown by his older sister. What looked like collateral damage from age-appropriate experimentation was really the beginning of the decline in my personal behavioral standards.
In college, the pace of the descent quickened as the pace of my alcohol consumption accelerated. One night my friends video taped me passed out on my couch clutching a vodka bottle in my hand. Even in my drunken coma, I held tight to the bottle as my friends laughed and tried to pry it away. Like the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones replaces the gold statue with a bag of sand, they finally loosened my grip enough to replace my beloved bottle with a huge rubber penis (not a dildo – it was the size of a two-liter soda bottle – think Spencer Gifts) that had been floating around my fraternity house for a few weeks. My friends cackled and roared as the video captured me clinging to and snuggling the penis in defiant unconsciousness. The next day we all watched the video and laughed until we cried. I was laughing too. I got super drunk. I looked like a fool. Who cared? I thought it was no big deal.
It was typical college drunken behavior. It was also me accepting a decline in my standards in the interest of humor and camaraderie. It was moral decline, and it was not an isolated incident.
As an adult, the devolution continued. There was the occasional drunken buffoonery, but that wasn’t as morally damaging as the less obnoxious but far more consistent chipping away at my own standards. I would wake with scattered and disconnected memories of the night before – like someone had flickered the lights as I proceeded through the events of the evening. I would make crass or uncaring comments to my wife. Not fighting words, but the selfish remarks of a man more concerned about my beloved drink than the feelings of my disrespected wife. I would “fall asleep” in my chair rather than come to bed.
Again, my behaviors when considered individually were no big deal. But when considered cumulatively, I was on a slow, consistent descent from a solid moral foundation toward the gates of hell. So slow was my descent that I was for many years able to lower my standards faster than my behavior deteriorated. So slow was my descent that I was able to hide my truth from myself and most people around me. That’s the insidious nature of the beast called alcoholism.
For alcoholics like me, morals matter. Our moral starting point is the difference between life and death. Do we have time to recognize the decline – admit our moral failings – and make drastic life changes before alcohol and our alcoholic behaviors kill us? Do we have time to get the parachute open before we hit the ground?
This is why our societal moral deterioration is so crushing for me to witness. The United States has for over two centuries been respected for our honesty, justice, decency and integrity. That reputation is dissolving right before our very eyes. It pains me to see us relinquish the moral high ground, not for reasons of pious superiority, but because when we suffer personal moral decline (and we will all suffer personal moral decline at some point) our diminished starting point puts us a lot closer to fatally smacking the ground. We aren’t leaving much room for the parachute.
I am strongly in favor of a robust economy. I want more jobs, lower taxes and higher wages. But I am not willing to sell my soul to achieve those results. When lies, narcissism, insults and a general lack of intelligence from the leader of the free world are the price we have to pay, that price is way, way too high. The ends don’t come close to justifying the means.
And when we put the rule of law above the sanctity of the relationship between parents and their children, we are not in moral decline, we are completely devoid of any morality at all. There is nothing more sacred than the parental nurturing of a child. This hits home hard for me.
What if my parents had been drunks and taught me alcoholic behavior was acceptable? What if my home had been broken and I did not have my mother’s love to nurture my respect for friends and family? What if my father had not been there to teach me to work hard and protect my loved ones? What if my moral starting point had not been so strong and solid?
I would be dead. I would have drank myself from my unfortunate beginnings into an early grave. My parachute would not have had time to open.
This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about your position or mine on any of the policies. We must unite to raise the bar of acceptable behavior for all Americans before we no longer recognize what it means to be an American. Your opinions or policies shouldn’t matter unless you are morally qualified to lead all Americans into your vision of the future. If we don’t return to the moral high ground, we are perilously close irrevocable immorality.
If your drinking is a concern to you – if your behavior is in decline in small barely-perceivable increments – if you are an alcoholic on the descent to the gates of hell, you don’t want the man in the highest office in the land racing you to the moral bottom.
Morals matter – not because I am on a political soapbox railing against a leader with whom I disagree from a policy standpoint – but because if we don’t start from the top the journey to the bottom is much too short and easy. Morals matter because we have an addiction epidemic in our society, and those of us afflicted need to look up for moral guidance rather thinking, “I might drink too much, but at least I’m not a lying cheat like our president.” Morals matter because our starting point matters.
Morals matter because when we need our parachute – and we will all – alcoholic or not – need our parachute sooner or later – we can’t survive if it doesn’t have time to open.
Morals matter. It’s not a cliche. It’s not a catch phrase or a talking point.
It’s life or death.