Robin Williams famously said, “As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you can lower them.” He’s right, of course. When I drank, my brain often went to a different place. It was a dark and sinister place full of evil creativity. I could think of things to say when arguing with my wife that would make the devil blush. They say alcohol lowers inhibitions, and that’s right, too. My brain would dive deep to create the most malevolent thing I could possibly think to say to crush my wife’s spirit, and I would deliver the verbal blow without a moment’s hesitation.
Sheri would fight back, and she became adept at it, as is often the case with the spouse of an alcoholic. Her weapons were less perverse and twisted, but they were equally impactful. She would rant about divorce and death and her deepest wish that she had never met me in the first place. We hurled our filth at each other relentlessly. When we would go to that place – that dark corner in the seething and desperate pit of hell – the damage delivered was permanent and our love had no hope to survive the onslaught.
And the next day, we would lick our wounds and try to move forward. It happened again and again. Often enough, in fact, that we elevated the most despicable of human behaviors to a place of normalcy. Couples fight, and that’s just part of marriage. But what we did was not natural.
And when we accepted the evil as something normal, we became powerless to stop it.
Normal is a tricky word. We base that which we believe to be normal on the behavior we experience around us, and the threshold set by the humans we elect to represent our values. Physical or sexual abuse is not legal, and thus, we universally deem it to be abnormal behavior regardless of the presence or absence of alcohol or any other extenuating circumstance. But couples argue and are hurtful, and we accept this as part of the cultural norm of trying to harmoniously pair off and mate and live in long-term relationship.
And in between the acceptable and the clearly unacceptable is this gray area of conduct that our morality and decency steers us clear of, unless we intoxicate our navigation system. And when that happens, the gray becomes the new normal.
The day after a vile and vicious, alcohol-induced fight, my wife would remind me that alcohol acts as a truth serum loosening lips and letting secrets slip out. She believed that my next-day apologies were worthless because my venomous comments contained my true feelings that the alcohol pried out of my heart. Her feelings made logical sense. But that’s not how it works. Not at all.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions and unlocks the vault on our secrets, but only to a point. And when we would have our most inhuman of arguments, my alcohol consumption was well past that point. I wasn’t unlocking some despicable truth, I was spewing lies of terror in an effort to crush my opponent without concern for her wellbeing. The alcohol erased that concern. The alcohol masked my natural instinct to protect and cherish the woman I loved.
The alcohol made me say it, but not because it was some hidden inner truth. The alcohol made me say it because I had drowned my capacity to consider the consequences.
I spend a lot of time working with alcoholics who are trying to start the arduous path to recovery. In the beginning, they are usually fixated on how much they drink, how often they drink and their inability to set limits and stick to them. We think Robin Williams is talking about quantity when he speaks of violating standards faster than we can lower them. He’s not. Quantity consumed is a cause, but it’s not the undesired outcome.
Robin Williams and I are both talking about the behavior that brings with it shame, despair and irreconcilable consequences. I was high-functioning as an alcoholic. That just means the damage I did was not readily apparent. It may have been almost entirely hidden, but it was lethal and crippling, just the same.
And that behavior lived in that gray area between morality and illegality.
When we ask for help and open-up about our addiction, we talk about how much and how often. We talk about a strain on finances and suffering work performance. We speak of a lack of motivation, exhaustion and even depression. And we even note some very general and innocent negative impact on our relationships.
But what we don’t say – what we are hardly even capable of admitting to ourselves – it that we have normalized inhuman insults and lashing repudiation from which our relationship will never fully recover.
We never, or at least almost never, lay hands on each other. Right? We stay just behind that red line. Sticks and stones, may break my bones, but the gray area can never hurt me. Right?
Robin Williams and I have some news for you. The gray area is where all the pain lives. And the pain that lives in the gray area – that pain will never, ever die.
When we live for a few decades, we are going to have permanent regrets and resentments whether we face alcoholism or not. Managing our trauma from the past is part of the human condition, and it is not a requirement uniquely placed on those of us recovering from addiction. But we alcoholics certainly are overachievers. We pack the memory banks full of unnecessary trauma and unforgivable mistakes. Our gray area plentiful-ness spills over. Just like a diabetic has to take insulin for the rest of his life, or a person suffering from bipolar disorder makes lithium part of the permanent routine, the memory of late nights spent in the gray area of normalcy are our eternal internal legacy.
I hate the puppy dogs and cotton candy approach to recovery inspiration popular on social media and in half the quit lit available on Amazon. There is nothing bubble-gum and sunshine about addiction – not even recovery. Sobriety and the work undertaken to thrive as a human is tireless and gruelling and requires patience that’s almost unavailable to most of us with addictive tendencies. But it’s worth it. It is totally and unquestionably worth the pain and effort to live free of the toxins that distort what normal means.
In a way – in a big way, in fact – carrying the ball and chain of the gray area into my forever is a blessing. I can live a pure and meaningful life without wondering what I’m missing when I’m missing the booze-fest party. I can live humbly and respectfully without fear of arrogance because I know what my evil mind is capable of if driven to my deepest depths. And most importantly, I can live in peace because I know what chaos feels like and how easily I could slide back there again,
Just like alcoholism isn’t really about quantity and frequency, recovery isn’t just about sobriety and making amends. It’s about coming to grips with the evil in the gray, and never forgetting how painful it is to consider that area to be normal.
If you want to pull your normal out of the gray area of high-functioning alcoholism for good, please consider enrolling in our SHOUT Sobriety program to help people navigate early recovery. We offer this six-week online course absolutely free because we don’t think you should have to pay for your freedom. We rely on donations from people who believe in our mission and want to support our work. To learn more, to enroll or to make a donation, please check-out our SHOUT Sobriety website.