My eyes blinked open. Before I could distinguish 3:07am from the blurry-red glow on my bedside table, a paralyzing wave of panic washed over me. A bucket of ice water thrown in my face would have been a more peaceful wakeup. Again! I had failed again! The Pit, as I called it, was more dark, deep, lonely, inescapable and depressing than ever. I had to start another week – another Monday morning – without a shred of pride or self esteem.
Once again, as I had in the middle of many nights before, I woke my wife, Sheri, in a panic. She was painfully used to the drill. She assured me that nothing had happened. I’d merely had a couple too many beers. We hadn’t had an argument. I hadn’t harmed the children or shown hostility toward my wife. Instead, I had sulked around looking sad, then gone to bed without saying goodnight.
Sheri’s words did nothing to slow my racing thoughts of utter self-loathing. I might have spared my family emotional distress, but I had suffered yet another complete emotional collapse myself. I wanted to be dead.
Sundays were a slow, despicable descent from a calm and joyful place to the gates of hell. Sheri is the children’s minister at our church, so skipping Sunday morning service is not an option for the Salis Six. I enjoy church. It is as close as my mind comes all week to a place of peace. I can’t work or empty the dishwasher or mow the lawn. It is mandated tranquility. To think that I would go from this state of near-serenity to the darkest of self-hating hopelessness in seventeen hours is still hard for me to understand. It was my weekly dissolution into The Pit.
One of the most common defining characteristics of a drinker in deep trouble is the attempt to follow self-imposed drinking rules. I knew something was wrong. I knew I drank too much, yet I futilely tried to control the uncontrollable. I spent a decade establishing, trying to follow, amending, bending, reworking, occasionally adhering to, altering and ultimately breaking my rules. My last version of my drinking rules did not allow for any hard alcohol – I allowed myself only wine and my most beloved beverage – beer. I drank mostly strong and bitter imperial pale ales. I did not allow myself to drink at all on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays (a rule I managed to follow most, but certainly not all, of the time). I didn’t allow myself to drink in the morning or during work (there was the rare pre-game tailgate and certainly Christmas morning mimosas couldn’t be resisted). I allowed myself only six beers a day…unless it was a special occasion…like a holiday or we were going out with friends or a date night or sporting event or if something stressful happened or if the wind was out of the south…only then would I have more than a six-pack.
As I enjoyed the third of my six Sunday IPAs, I entered the danger zone. Since the start of the week was a dry period for me, this was it. The party was almost over. Stopping after six would be the most challenging thing I did all week. Sometimes I was successful. It did not take much, however, to send me over the edge with reckless abandon for my self-defined limits. On this particular Sunday, the “not much” was a phone call from my fourteen-year-old daughter, Cathryn. She was at a movie with some friends, and the group decided to go to dinner after the movie. Cathryn was supposed to come straight home after the movie, and she did not put up much of a fight with her friends and insist that she be dropped off. Sure, it was a school night, but even after dinner she would still be home by eight o’clock. It was as innocent and inconsequential as a change of plans could be. She did not call and say she decided to go drink and smoke weed with a boy we had never met. She was going for a bite to eat with a few of her best friends and some of their moms.
After reluctant acceptance of Cathryn’s change in plans that was not without a brief over-the-phone lecture from her dear-old-dad, I practically ran to the basement to get a seventh beer. This oh-so-minor conflict was all it took. The rules were off. Part of my often-futile strategy to only drink six beers on Sunday was to have only six in the refrigerator. So, my exceedingly minor-turmoil-driven seventh beer was room temperature. I did not care. It tasted exactly like relief from the harsh constraints I had put on my ability to drink on a Sunday night. At the same time, it tasted like another Sunday of failure. Even as the stress of stopping drinking drained from my body, it was replaced with the terror of what was to come. Another free-fall descent into The Pit had begun. Total debilitating depression awaited me at the bottom.
I almost welcomed the failure of beer number seven. It was like opening the floodgates. If that rule was broken, how about the one about not drinking any hard liquor? Sheri did not really know that the most recent version of my Sunday rules had a six-beer cutoff. I didn’t think she had counted that night, anyway. I was confident she didn’t realize I was currently drinking a foamy 70-degree glass of bitter grossness. I was 100% certain, however, that Sheri knew I had sworn off hard alcohol as part of my success plan as an active alcoholic. So, taking straight pulls off of a room temperature gin bottle would have to be done in secret. Since the bottle was at the top of the kitchen pantry, and my wife and three of my four kids were roaming the house post dinner, I would have to be quick and careful. This just meant fast gulpy chugs of straight warm gin when I did not think anyone was coming. It tasted despicable and necessary at the same time. Something had gone wrong. I had stepped out of bounds. Now I was looking for the numbness that an 80 proof bottle promised in short order. I would hate myself in the morning. Might as well kill, not ease, but kill the pain of failure for now.
A couple more warm beers and a couple more hard draws on face-puckering throat-burning poison and my failure was complete. Nighty-night, Matt. I’ll hate you with every ounce of my being in the morning.
So there I was just after 3am Monday awake and in a full blown anxiety attack. Sheri tried to help. While she could not possibly understand what was going on inside my poison-warped brain, she had experienced this panic enough times to navigate the shark infested seas without chumming the water. She spoke softly and calmly. Now was not the time to express her disappointment. Besides, Sheri knew she could never be as disappointed in me as I was in myself. I did not want to face my responsibilities in a couple of hours. There was no way I could sleep. I wished for death from the bottom of the deepest imaginable abyss of despair. I prayed although I knew exactly what God wanted me to do to escape my hell on earth. My rules did not work. There was only one way to get out – get out and stay out – of The Pit.
I had to do what seemed incomprehensible. I had to quit.