My Sobriety Tried to Kill Me
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.
I did not see a doctor. I am not opposed to Western medicine, but I am not a big fan, either (Western medicine did, after all, create the opioid epidemic). I figured my doctor would do one of three things. Maybe she would tell me about the virus or bacterial infection that was going around, and give me a chemical to ingest or tell me to let it run its course. After all I have learned about health and nutrition, I try not to ingest chemicals unless as a last resort. I am keenly aware of my “grumpy old man” attitude, but I didn’t want to pay $120 to hear that I should ride something out. The third piece of advice I anticipated from my doctor was to look at food eliminations to determine the source of my pain. I figured I could run that little trial-and-error experiment myself. Any medical professional, or anyone as devoted to the prosperity of medical professionals as my mother (my brother-in-law nicknamed her, “Pills,” because of the number of medications she takes daily), surely finds me a stubborn, arrogant fool at this point. I can live with that.
What I couldn’t live with was my stomach pain. I eat a pretty healthy diet. Most days I eat vegan until dinner time, and I try to avoid processed foods. I don’t drink caffeine, so excessive coffee consumption was not the culprit. My mother and sister suffer from celiac disease, so the horrific thought of gluten intolerance did enter my mind (mostly because my wife made the snarky suggestion knowing it would irritate me immensely). Since Sheri and I own a 100% whole grain bread business and mill and bake thousands of pounds of the amber waves of grain a month, I value the nutritional goodness and body-strengthening power of wheat above all other foods. Sheri just grinned while she watched me process her suggestion that I was developing the family gluten plague.
Alas, my symptoms did emerge exclusively after eating, but it did not seem to matter what I ate. I could have a banana and an apple for breakfast (no gluten there) and be doubled over in pain twenty minutes later. Sometimes it happened in the morning. Sometimes it happened in the evening. Sometimes it was mild and irritating. Sometimes it was intense and debilitating. I stopped drinking even decaf coffee, and I laid off my beloved bread for a while. Nothing helped.
Then one Saturday morning, I was getting things started at our bakery. In the quiet pre-opening hours as I fired-up the oven, brewed coffee and wiped down the counters, my mind was full of big-picture, “what will the future hold,” type questions. Our lease at the bakery would be up in February, and our landlord will not renew. They are scraping our tired, run-down shopping center and replacing it with a shiny new mega-grocery store. We have invested lots of money and tons of time in our business. I didn’t retain everything I learned in business school, but I remembered learning about the lifecycle of a business. Our business is in the phase where we are taking money out of the bakery. Our investments bore fruit, and now is the time to harvest. Now is not the time for significant reinvestment. The thought of borrowing money again to build-out a new bakery in a new location made me throw-up in my mouth a little. We are selling our business. Without a lease, our business is not worth much. I had come to grips with that many months ago. The question for that day, and many days leading-up to that quiet Saturday morning, was, what’s next?
I had received encouraging feedback that could be loosely defined as job offers. You know the sayings about flying in first class, or for a woman, having intimate relations with a well endowed black man? The thought of returning to corporate America after fifteen years of small business ownership reminded me of those sayings. Once I’d been my own boss, I didn’t ever want to go back to work for a big company. Still, the idea that a former boss and a current customer thought enough of me to entertain the idea of bringing me into their organizations provided me some solace.
As we made public our looming departure from the bakery business, I faced the same questions about our future literally a hundred times a day. I told our loving customers that I was focused on doing the best job I could to transition the bakery to new owners and help them find a new location in which to invest. I explained that once that process was completed, I would think about my own plans for the future. That answer was a half-truth. I was fully devoted to keeping our beloved bakery alive and moving it into the next chapter. But I wasn’t waiting to think about my future – I thought about it constantly. Sheri and I had four kids nearing college age. We had a mortgage. We were otherwise debt-free, but the idea of taking on debt made me convulse and curse under my breath.
Our future was on my mind almost exclusively. It occupied the part of my brain that was, for a decade, devoted to thinking about alcohol. I am far enough into sobriety that I no longer worry about if I should or should not drink, I no longer fret constantly about overindulgences of the past, and I don’t give much of a rip about what others think when I teetotal. Any peace of mind I found by exorcising those demons had been replaced by an ever-present, gnawing anguish about the future.
On that quiet Saturday morning, as my apprehension roiled, my belly began to twist and knot. In one of those rare moments of clarity (if I had been a cartoon character, a lightbulb would have appeared over my head), I knew the source of my stomach misery: stress. I had an ulcer or some similar intestinal abnormality brought-on by worry and doubt. I quickly recounted the times of most gut pain over the past couple of months, and each time the discomfort was preceded by a period of concern for the future.
Yes! I had a stress-induced, acid-churning, hole in my stomach! I didn’t have celiac disease. I didn’t need to stop eating food altogether. All I had to do to cure my malady was to stop worrying and shed my perpetual stress.
If there is anything that twenty-five years of heavy alcohol consumption had left me woefully unprepared for, it was stress management in sobriety.
When a drinker faces stress, we find relief in the drink. Even toward the end of my drinking, when it was painfully clear that alcohol was the cause of my stress and depression, I still turned to my beloved drink to ease the pain that it caused. Now, a year-and-a-half into sobriety, as the stress mounted, I was without the only form of protection and comfort I had known in my adult life. I quit drinking because alcohol was killing me. Now sobriety was trying to kill me, too.
On that quiet Saturday morning, in that rare and compelling moment of clarity, I surrendered. The stress was killing me. The weapon I sharpened for years to defeat the stress was no longer at my disposal. I gave up. I quit. I was backed in a corner, and I fell to my emotional knees.
I have always struggled with the Alcoholics Anonymous one-liners. I didn’t want to take it one day at a time. I wanted to quit drinking permanently and not think about it daily. I didn’t want to be powerless. I wanted my strength to grow in recovery. And I definitely didn’t want to let go and let God.
I had always had a strong faith and close relationship with God. Even during my decades of drinking, I prayed frequently and tried to live the life I thought God wanted. I could not equate my sobriety with developing a relationship with my higher power. We were already good buddies. My spirituality was vital to my recovery from addiction, but not because a bunch of alcoholics in a church basement told me so. It was because it had always been guiding me even when I resisted and made shitty decisions. God protected me from killing myself or someone else when I was drinking. God kept my family together and guided me into career decisions that left me in this stress-inducing predicament.
And now, on that quiet Saturday morning, I was out of options. My business was coming to an end and I couldn’t drink to quiet the storm. So I did what I hated AA for telling me to do. I let go and let God. He had gotten me to this point for a reason. I had been along for the ride so far. I might as well see how the story was going to end. My next career move would be to do what I was put on this earth to do, even if I couldn’t yet understand what that was.
As my moment of clarity passed, so too did my stomach pain. When a customer asked me what I was going to do with my life after the bakery, I told him I was going to write. As the words left my mouth, I felt my stress melt away.
I have no idea how to make money as a writer, but I know a lucky few people do, and I am just going to have to figure it out for myself. Even now as I type these words, I feel a little embarrassment and naivety as I picture my readers scoffing at the notion that I can transition from the humble beginnings of a booze-swilling sad-sack into a writer who is able to cover my considerable family expenses. I would scoff, too, but that just makes my stomach hurt.
Since that quiet Saturday morning, I have only felt the belly cramping once when a took a couple of ibuprofen. Otherwise, I have been pain and pain-killer free for about six weeks now.
I still don’t have the nerve to tell everyone who asks that I’m going to be a writer. If I am tired of talking, or the inquirer is a daunting presence and I fear his scoffing, I keep it to myself. But I tell most people. I feel a little grin form everytime I do.
I am thankful for my alcoholism and the man it transformed me into. I am thankful for my ulcer and the corner it backed me into. I am thankful I don’t have celiac disease (eat it, Mom. You’ve given me a lot of great things, but you haven’t passed that shit sandwich on to me yet). And I’m thankful God was brewing coffee with me that quiet Saturday morning in the bakery.
I’m thankful to you, too. You see, a writer needs readers. You just read two-thousand words of my writing. I don’t know where to go from here. Maybe you do. As my reader, any career advice is welcome in the comments. Just keep in mind I soon won’t have a day job to not quit.
Thanks for being part of my next chapter. Hey, look, my first writer’s pun.
I once heard someone say, “Faith and fear can’t live in the same house.” Easier said than done, but nothing worth doing is easy. You are smart and capable. Keep your eyes on Him for open and closed doors. I love you, brother.
Great insight from my little sis. Faith & fear – that will spin in my mellon for a while. Thanks for believing in me. I love you, too!
Reading your blog makes me feel you are on the right track. I could even see you as a counselor. you are so honest in your writing that I could see you helping others with stress related issues. Good luck and I’m sure your side of Denver will miss you in the bakery.
Thanks, Mike. I do love to talk to people about this stuff. People on my side if Denver aren’t the only ones who will miss the bakery. There is a lot I will miss, too!
Matt! You are amazing! Give it all you’ve got, cause you are one Hell of a great writer!!
Thanks for the inspiration. That will keep me going!
You can have no idea just how right it was for me to read this tonight. I am not coping with the intense pressure I’m putting myself under, and I no longer have – nor want to have – my wine valve. No wonder I’m writhing in discomfort. Wasn’t expecting this struggle over a year in but this is exactly what I have to learn: to let go, listen and trust. Thank you Matt, and all my best wishes on what strikes me as a very rewarding path for you.
Thank you, Helen. The writhing sneaks up on us. I’m so glad the timing of this post was right for you!