Do you want to know how to shock someone? Start with someone who cares about you. When they think they know you, when they think your life is smooth and easy, when they least expect it…tell them you are an alcoholic.
The first four people I talked to about my addiction had very similar reactions. I could see their faces transition as they heard the word, “alcoholism.” Their expressions softened and their attention to my words intensified. It was as if my admission allowed them to ever so slightly drop their guard on their most protected secrets. Their gaze of empathy seemed to draw my words from my mouth. They leaned closer. Their breathing quieted as a signal that my story would have no interruptions. I instantly felt indescribable warmth as my story transformed our relationships forever.
The first four people to whom I revealed my secret had one more thing in common as well. They listened with patience and concern. But much to my surprise, they were eager to respond to my news. I could tell just a few moments into my explanation that they, too, had something to say.
Anna is one of my very best friends. Our closeness is not because we communicate frequently. To the contrary, our relationship has long lapses in connection. Anna is the first person I told of my alcoholism because I knew at times my drinking had disappointed her and I wanted her to be proud of me. Anna reached over and touched my hand as I told her of my debilitating alcohol-induced depression and the steps I had taken to gain my permanent sobriety. When I finished my explanation, she asked many intelligent questions.
Anna’s questions made clear that she had a surprisingly high degree of knowledge about alcoholism. I couldn’t help but wonder why. When I finished answering her questions, Anna explained that her mother was an alcoholic. In fact, her mother had died from alcoholism. Although she had a treatable form of cancer, the liver damage caused by decades of heavy drinking rendered her unable to tolerate the chemo that would have saved her life.
I was stunned to hear of Anna’s mother’s alcoholism. Anna had clearly suffered alongside her mother for many years, yet she had never before mentioned her mother’s addiction. When her mother died, Anna reported the cancer as the cause of death because the truth about her alcohol-damaged liver was too shameful. I had told one person about my battle with alcoholism, and that person had also been deeply affected by the disease, but was too ashamed to share – until I shared first.
I turned to Sophia for advice and guidance about how to eventually share the story of my alcoholism with the world. We did not know each other well, but I could sense from our first interaction that Sophia was a special person with plenty of room in her heart to nurture my story and help me find and develop my voice. Rarely, it seems, people figure out what they were put on this earth to do. Sophia makes me feel as though her helping me fulfill my mission is the purpose of her life. My story became her story – like we were walking through the events of my life together.
Just like Anna, Sophia waited patiently and caringly as I introduced her to my disease. When I finished, Sophia created an immediate bond between us by sharing her story of growing up with a father who abused alcohol on a nightly basis. By her admission of the challenges she faced growing up in the shadow of alcohol, Sophia created an environment where painful cleansing honesty is not only welcomed, but required.
I was two for two – but not in a good way. The first two people I told of my addiction told me of the profound and detrimental impact of alcoholism on their lives.
Stacey and her husband, Steve, have been friends and neighbors for a dozen years. Stacey has experience and expertise in an area that is critical to a writer. It is an area where I have little interest and less knowledge. Thus, I turned to her for advice. Asking for her help required me to tell her about my alcoholism. The very first thing she said when I explained my years of struggle was something about me having a compelling story or being brave for sharing it – it was a nice compliment, but I don’t remember her specific words.
What I do remember with complete clarity is that the second sentence out of Stacey’s mouth was about the profound impact daily alcohol use had once had on her and Steve. Steve quit drinking five or six years ago. When he did, symptoms of what was eventually determined to be a liver-damage-related illness came straight to the fore. Steve’s daily habit was both creating and masking a serious health concern that was diagnosed and treated only once he stopped drinking. Steve’s story exemplifies the insidious effects of constant exposure to alcohol on our bodies.
Stacey went on to share with me her anger about our society’s worshiping of alcohol as the solution to any situation. Booze is a social lubricant, a requirement for dealing with the stress of parenting, the headliner in most book clubs, and the topic of slogans that make perfect hostess gifts when printed on a sign intended to be hung in the kitchen – “Uncork and Unwind,” “Wine Me Up and Watch Me Go,” “It’s Wine Thirty,” and my favorite, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy Wine and that’s kind of the same thing.” Stacy still drinks, but she is ready to take on Anheuser Busch and U.S. lawmakers to encourage legislative and social change to the pervasive message that life is better with alcohol. She pointed to the eventual deterioration of the power of the tobacco industry. Personally, I think the booze industry and society’s love of alcohol dwarfs that of tobacco even in its heyday. But Stacey’s enthusiasm for activism is inspiring and infectious.
By this point, I had shared my story of alcoholism with three friends. All three revealed the pain alcohol had brought to their lives. All three were vulnerable and transparent…but only after I went there first.
Chelsea has been a close business associate for years. We have shared some highs and lows in the whole grain bread business, including a devastating accident that knocked Chelsea’s business on its heels several years ago. We have often laughed together, but our bond lives in the many tears we have shed.
When I told Chelsea my alcoholic story, her lips parted and her gaze intensified. At first I confused her expression with shock. As our conversation evolved, I realized she was waiting almost breathlessly for her turn to share her deepest sadness with me. Chelsea’s college-aged daughter was about a year sober in her secret battle with alcoholism. Sobriety had cost her all of her friends in her senior year in college, and filled Chelsea with the bitter pain of helplessness as she watched her daughter toil in what is supposed to be a happy time for a young adult. My heart broke as I listened to the details of Chelsea’s daughter’s struggle. The story was surprising and painful. That story is what I fear the most for my own children.
I was four for four. In sports, that is statistical perfection. But when sharing stories about the damaging effects of alcohol on the lives of loved ones, that statistic is perfectly tragic. The fact that all four friends kept their stories secret until I shared mine is more than a little scary. How many other friends, filled with shame and sorrow, are hiding their own painful truth about the impact of alcohol on their lives?
While my research as to the origin of this quote proved inconclusive, I love it for the all-inclusive compassion that it offers. “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” It is a message of understanding without knowing. While I love it for its kindness, I hate that is applies to alcohol abuse.
Why are we embarrassed about contracting such a common disease? Why can’t we bring the discussion of the battles fought into the open? Why must our shame hide our struggle and debilitating sadness? Why must the fifteen million Americans who are afflicted with alcoholism suffer in silence or anonymity?
I am four for four. Let’s see what the statistics look like now as I share my story of alcoholism and unashamed sobriety with the rest of the world. I don’t pretend to have a solution to the widespread catastrophe of alcoholism. I merely hope to help unveil the conversation.