For the last few years of my active alcoholism, I came to know the most wretched, dark, and debilitating alcohol-induced depression I called, “The Pit.”
Recovery from alcoholism is fixing a lot of things. My shame is diminishing, my confidence is returning, I am a much better listener and my relationships are stronger than ever.
But recovery doesn’t fill in the pit. It is still there – it will always be there – because my brain has been permanently damaged by years of drinking. How can I be so sure? Because I tumbled back into the pit last week. I am finishing the desperate and grueling process of climbing out right now, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly two years.
The pit is deep, and it is dismal and hopeless. The pit is a hole in my brain, and it is the most unfortunate part of my destiny.
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. As a drinker, I worked hard to turn mundane activities into drinking events – to justify celebration or a spontaneous party. Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays because it provided cover for my alcoholic tendencies. I didn’t need to justify drinking heavily on a Wednesday evening. Our society, our culture and my neighborhood made it totally acceptable. Halloween was never about the kids or the costumes or the candy. Halloween was all about my wicked liquid poison.
My memory is filled with snapshots from Halloweens past. They are ingrained photos that were never really taken. They often capture the moment my anxiety and eagerness drained from my body and was replaced by the fulfillment only alcohol could provide for an alcoholic.
When people live through trauma, they often talk of how the experience shows them who their true friends are. I have always thought of that as quite sad. I’m not sure why, but my mind has always focused on the many friends who deserted the afflicted in his time of need. I have always looked at it all wrong.
My alcoholism and my decision to discuss it openly has led me to find out who my true friends are. And it has been among the best experiences of my life.
The void is a big deal. Filling the void left when the alcoholic quits drinking or the addict stops using is widely considered necessary in the recovery world if long-term sobriety is to be maintained. When drugs and alcohol go from a top priority to a missing chunk of an addict’s existence, something must fill that vacated time and space. Alcoholics who do not address the void are called, “dry drunks.” They might no longer drink, but their inability to find something positive to take the place of the booze leaves them spiritually and emotionally no better off than when they were active alcoholics.
I get it. The void is a real thing, and a force to be reckoned with.
But what if we are looking at it all wrong? What if the void is not the hole left behind when the alcohol is gone, but rather, the hole that was always there that alcohol filled with ease and comfort? What if rather than address the void in sobriety to prevent relapse, we address the void before we learn how good it feels to fill it with drink? What if the void is the cause of addiction, rather than its collateral damage?
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.
A girl was locked in a room and held down on a bed while a boy fondled her breasts and greedily explored her body through a drunken haze at the encouragement of his intoxicated friend. A man with an impeccable reputation, a beautiful family and a mountain of credentials vehemently denies any involvement in such a dastardly assault in spite of his accuser’s 100% certainty that he’s the one.
Both are convincing and believable – the victim and the man she accuses. I don’t know what happened, and neither do you.
But I have a unique perspective. I have been through experiences similar enough to add a twist to the discussion. It’s a twist I have not heard explored on CNN or FOX News. It’s not hard for me to believe the violated, abused girl and the irreproachably qualified man are both telling the truth. Their truth, as they remember it. Their truth as their subconscious minds in survival mode (our subconscious is all about survival) have manipulated them to remember it.
I was very drunk one of the first times I had sex as a teenager, and so was the neighbor-girl who was alone in that bedroom with me. We had not been dating. We had never flirted or shown affection for one another. We got drunk and we kissed. We were clumsy and inexperienced, but nothing was stopping our hormones and curiosity. There was brief, bumbling, inept penetration followed by embarrassment, awkward silence and months of mutual avoidance. I didn’t force myself on her, but I was as ashamed of my sexual persistence as I was of my performance. I was eager, and she was willing. We were both very, very drunk.
Saturday night I made a mistake. I got far too close to the edge of an alcoholic relapse. I have only my pride and ego to blame. And now as I write in the quiet hours between midnight and the break of Sunday, I am willing to trade sleep for the chance to record my brush with drinking disaster so I will never forget how close I came.
Nothing is as important to my sobriety as remembering the painful lessons of the past – failures and near misses alike.
Heinrich is a dear friend to my wife, Sheri, and me. He lost his wife to suicide several years ago when she lost her long battle with mental illness. Heinrich is a loving father to two beautiful children in the same age range as our kids. Our families attend the same church, and we get together for dinner with Heinrich’s family and some other friends a few times a year.
Despite the tragedy Heinrich and his kids have endured, they are as strong and stoic as his German name suggests. Still, Sheri and I can’t help but feel sadness for all three of them. We love them, and we would do anything we could to help them have a joyful life. We have asked Heinrich many times if we can help with the kids or in any other way. He is strong. He is a very good father. He rarely takes us up on the offer. It is important to us to try to help, selfishly, so we can feel like we are doing our part.
So when Heinrich invited us to an authentic German Oktoberfest at an authentic German restaurant to celebrate his birthday, we accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. An authentic German Oktoberfest is probably the last place a sober alcoholic whose drink of choice was strong, flavorful beer in large quantities – like me – should ever be.
Loving and protecting my wife, Sheri, and our four kids, is the most critical component of my life. I think about the safety and development of my children constantly, and struggle to balance being present with letting them explore their worlds on their own. I don’t really care about money, power, status or control. I have made a mess of much of my life, and I just want to help them avoid the same pitfalls. This top priority of mine is both pretty simple and overwhelmingly complex. I pray daily for the strength and wisdom to get it right.
So when my oldest child, Cathryn, asked me if I would be OK with her writing her first essay of her junior year in high school about my alcoholism, I was excited that she was taking an interest in the topic that consumes much of my life. I expected her to write a story about our family overcoming this deadly disease. I was eager to read about the closeness of our father-daughter relationship. I anticipated reading of her trepidation about addiction and her plan to tread cautiously into the waters of alcohol consumption in her adult life.
What she wrote was not what I expected. Her essay was the most painful collection of words I have ever read.
I didn’t think I’d ever drink alcohol again. I couldn’t be sure, but my resolve was strong. Just when I was feeling confident about my sobriety, a day like this happened.
As I awoke from my very brief slumber alone on my neighbors’ front porch swing, the party raged on in the house behind me. What happened? Did I pass out? Only minutes earlier I was engaged in conversation with the smokers in attendance who were indulging their habit outside. I was indulging my habit, too. I was probably five or six beers into the evening when I ventured outside to join their conversation. Sometime while trading stories and laughing effortlessly as drinkers do while drinking, I passed out mid-conversation. It seemed the long work week and soothing motion of the swing combined with the alcohol to lull me to sleep. Now awake, I slithered back across the street to my house and joined my family who had left the party and gone to bed in the previous couple of hours.
I was not drunk. I was not slurring my words and I had not said anything rude or insulting. I had not gotten sick or danced on a table or spilled food or drink on the carpet – nothing like that. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed about my undignified nap.