“Come here and listen to this voicemail,” insisted my coworker, Loraine. She had a concerned look on her face, and she gestured in a way that assured me that my participation in her dilemma was not optional. She held her desk phone to my ear as I listened to the wife of another of our coworkers curse and spit venomous insults that would make Louis C.K. blush. “Jim’s wife dialed the wrong extension and left that on my phone instead of his,” Loraine surmised. “Have you ever heard anything so vile? I’m worried about them. If they talk to each other like that…that is not OK.”
More shocking for me than Jim’s wife’s language was Loraine’s reaction. I had heard vile, unhinged communication like that. In fact, I had heard a similar diatribe the previous weekend. And I gave it as good as I got it. For me, that voicemail was hardly noteworthy. For me, talking like that was normal.
I was an alcoholic. Vicious verbal combat had been normalized.
I was an alcoholic, but I didn’t yet know it. I thought I was normal. I thought I had a stressful job, and I thought I hit it pretty hard sometimes, but I certainly didn’t think I had an addiction to alcohol. I didn’t sleep in the gutter. I didn’t drink from a paper-bag-wrapped bottle. I didn’t piss myself or beat my wife. I lacked all of the culturally assigned characteristics of alcoholism. I was a hard-working man who loved his wife and drank booze because it was my birthright.
I had partial blackouts most nights of my active addiction. I drank vodka with ice from monogrammed rocks glasses we received as a wedding present. Over time, I broke them all, one by one, and started drinking my nightly cocktails from pint glasses. I tried to contain my consumption to only two “drinks” on weeknights. A pint of vodka was like four doubles, but who was counting (my wife was, of course, but in my inebriated state, I would have had to take off my shoes to calculate the number of shots)?
I got louder, and less patient with our young children. I participated in the bedtime routine, winding the kids up while my wife tried to settle them down. I shifted from court jester to prison warden with the smooth transition of a punch in the nose when I had run out of tolerance for the people in footy pajamas who were resisting being tucked into bed.
My recollection of these nightly events is foggy at best. In her best selling book, Blackout, Sarah Hepola describes the missing segments of memories as though the lights flickered, on sometimes, and pitchblack others. She’s right. I would wake up in the mornings remembering some details with pristine clarity, but unsure if I had brushed my teeth, or why my socks were still on in bed (I strongly prefer to sleep with naked tootsies). I would tiptoe into morning conversations with my wife, confused as to the state in which I left the relationship as I faded into oblivion.
Then I took a shower, brushed my teeth for an extra long time in case I had forgotten the night before, and headed off to work fully assured that my family was living a normal existence.
There is nothing normal about nightly memory loss. There is nothing normal about mood swings, and there is nothing normal about drinking enough vodka to stumble a rhinoceros.
I was an alcoholic. I normalized the abnormal.
I went to neighborhood parties and drank too much. I didn’t overdo it to the point where I was outwardly obnoxious or vastly drunker than the other big hitters at the party. As long as I had company and was not the only attendee drinking with reckless abandon, I felt like a normal adult blowing off steam and entertaining the polite sippers in the room.
On one such neighborhood occasion, I passed out on the front porch during a conversation with a bunch of the host’s coworkers. I was on a porch swing, and I kind of rocked myself to sleep. I woke up some unknown number of minutes (hours perhaps?) later, slumped over with beer spilled down my leg. The porch was empty as the outside temperature had dropped significantly, and my wife had walked home alone. I went into the house and rejoined the waning party, joking about my nap and what a stressful week I had at work. I don’t know what the remaining late-night partiers really thought, but I know that in that moment, they joined me in laughing it off.
A mid-party pass out. Normalized.
One night, after the kids were in bed, an alcohol-induced argument with my wife escalated until I tore our bedroom apart with my bare hands. I ripped the mirror off of my wife’s vanity, threw the television and VCR onto the floor, and tore pictures violently off the walls. My wife was terrorized, and our kids awoke in the middle of the night to the screams of their parents.
Eventually, we calmed enough to get the kids back into bed. We put our possessions that survived my tirade back into place, and carried the unfixably mangled out to the dumpster in the alley. We made up stories and excuses to explain the screaming and the redecorating.
The sheer volume of collateral damage made it a challenge, but I normalized that most abnormal of nights, too.
I grew so competent at normalizing the chaos of alcoholism that I eventually lacked a realistic grasp on what normal was. I was a professional alcoholic, proficient in both declining behavior, and the tactics necessary to cover it up.
It took a lot of sobriety for me to recognize the abnormality in the life I had carved out of vodka bottles and cases of IPAs. Now that I see the difference, I have a great deal of compassion for those who are stuck in the downward spiral of alcoholic normalization.
Normal is so much better than the normalization of the abnormal.
But normal is far from perfect. Nirvana is for escapists. Reality takes courage, patience and the strength to stand back up when we fall. Here’s what normal looks like to me…just this past week:
My seventeen-year-old son locked up the brakes and slid through a snowy intersection clipping a parked car. No one was injured, but we have a fender bender with which to deal.
My eleven-year-old son posed me with my hand over my heart and a sad look on my face while he played the “Star Spangled Banner” on his saxophone for a video he was making for a school project. Then he rushed me out of his room without an explanation about my frown because he was running out of time to finish the project.
My nineteen-year-old daughter called from college because all of the electrical outlets in her room were not working. She insisted none of the breakers were tripped, which worried me from 918 miles away. The 125-year-old apartment building must have had a loose wire at best, and some kind of electrical fire at worst, if the breakers were fine when the power to only one circuit was out. As the worst case scenarios filled my brain, she found the tripped breaker that she had inexplicably missed for the previous ten worrisome minutes.
My fifteen-year-old son shuffled around all weekend with extremely limited use of his legs because of the intensity of the leg workout he put himself through at wrestling practice on Friday. He has an as-of-yet-undiagnosed shoulder injury, so he thought he would focus on his legs. The orthopedic appointment is this week (for his shoulder – his legs will be fine in a few days).
I got unhealthily nervous and stressed as the Buckeyes came back to tie my Purdue Boilermakers in a men’s basketball game on Sunday. Purdue won, and I laughed at how worked up I can get about a game played by kids I have never met that has absolutely no tangible impact on my life.
My wife displayed an acceptable level of frustration with being cooped up on a cold January weekend with her husband and kids.
That all sounds pretty normal to me. It’s probably quite boring to read, in fact. But that’s the point, really. Normal can be boring. It can also be fun, sad, exciting, mundane and satisfying. As a drinker, I was confused. I thought boredom was the enemy. I normalized abnormality in an effort to avoid the peacefulness that I didn’t understand was so desirable. Charlie Sheen and Rudy Giuliani live extraordinary lives. Exta ordinary like the trainwreck you never wanted to see, but you can’t take your eyes off of. Would you want to trade places with that abnormality?
My most recent normal week lacked vicious verbal combat, blackouts, pass outs, intentional destruction of my own property and terrorizing of my own family.
Can you say the same for the life you’ve learned to accept as normal?
Stop comparing yourself favorably to the drunk living under the bridge. There is nothing normal about end-stage alcoholism, but there’s nothing normal about high-functioning alcoholism, either. When we normalize abnormality, we accept a life lived well below our potential for a robust experience of highs and lows and everything in between.
And one of the best parts about living a normal life is my confidence that my wife will never get mad enough at me to accidentally leave Loraine a vile and embarrassing voicemail. Do you live fearless of a miss dial of Loraine’s office landline number?
If you’re ready to stop normalizing the abnormal, please join us in SHOUT Sobriety – our program of growth and connection for high-functioning alcoholics in early sobriety.