Relapse

Relapse

Whiskey on the rocks. No mixer. No room-temperature shots. Just harsh brown liquid barely diluted by the slowly melting ice. But who am I kidding? The way I drink, the ice doesn’t have time to melt much.

 

Jack Daniels, probably. We have high-end, small-batch, local bourbons distilled here in Colorado now. They are too expensive for my purpose. They are meant to be sipped. I know better than to pretend. Gut-rot, bottom-shelf, sold-in-a-plastic-bottle whiskey would feel like failure. I am trying to reestablish an identity here. Jack will do nicely. No need to return the bottle to the cabinet. It can sit on the end table next to my glass until they’re both empty.

 

I’ve never pretended I could be a moderate, in-control, social drinker. At least I’ve not considered that impossibility to apply to me for a very long time. Over a decade-and-a-half easily. No, when I consider drinking again, it’s not because I think my brain has reset or my willpower has magically improved. When I consider relapse, I know I would be all in. It would be a fifth a day habit. Unless, of course, it got worse.

 

My good friend and advocate for recovery reform, Kathy McDonald, says, “Alcohol kills you slowly, until it kills you fast.” Her words rattle through my head sometimes. A lot lately. “I have seen enough to know I have seen too much.” That line from A League of Their Own is stuck on cranial repeat, too. I cannot reconcile the knowledge I have accumulated over the past almost six years of sobriety with the idea that I can drink and everything will be OK. It won’t. I know it. My destiny will be horrific and shameful. It will be the most selfish imaginable act of betrayal. Still, this acknowledgement is not enough to wipe away the fantasy.

 

I have been under a lot of new and extra stress lately. There just are not enough hours in the day. I know that’s a relatable reality. I am not whining, just explaining to people who I expect can understand. On top of that, football season has started. I don’t really even care very much about specific teams or outcomes anymore. I know that the Big10 kicks off at noon eastern, and that’s 10am my time. I know I can have the NFL going in the background from right after church on Sunday until after I go to bed. It’s not really an interest. It’s a signal or an association. Cooler weather means sweatshirts and open windows and turning leaves and football and whiskey. How did that last one slip in there?

 

That’s as honest as I can be as I approach my sixth consecutive sober holiday season. Sixty-nine months in a row without a drink, and yet the triggers still exist. They lie dormant for months and months at a time – knowing I am strong, saving their strength for when I’m not. They pick their opportunity carefully, and pounce with relentless tenacity when they think there’s a chance – when they see enough darkness spilling through the cracks in my armor.

 

I am permanently sober. I really, really, really don’t think I’ll ever drink again. I think it’s more likely that my head will spin on my neck like at the end of The Exorcist. But when I talk about my permanent sobriety in more confident, less stressful, less footbally times, I say definitively that I’ll never drink again. Period. Today, I am describing it as extremely unlikely. I can’t muster the strength to say, “never,” and mean it.

 

I have built my life around my sobriety. I have preached about the glories of recovery to my wife and kids. Much, much more importantly, I am an exponentially better father and husband now than I was when I drank. I have built a thriving nonprofit business on the foundation of my sobriety. I have pushed hundreds of thousands of words into the ether pontificating about recovery – for individuals and for marriages. I have created an identity, obnoxiously at times, that makes alcohol consumption an impossibility without a witness-protection-program caliber relocation. Sobriety isn’t just something I practice, it is who I am. And I’ve toiled to make sure everyone knows it.

 

Look, I’m not going to drink. Not now, and with almost total certainty, not ever. But my dam gets slivery cracks sometimes. Too small for anyone, even my wife, to see. But they’re there. I can ignore them, and they will go away, because I’ve built a dam that’s impenetrably solid. I built it out of passion, not for security. The protection it provides for my sobriety is just a lucky coincidence. Or maybe it’s divinely inspired. I am trying to do God’s work, and He’s got my back.

 

How do people without the infrastructure stay sober when the pressure mounts and the pigskin flies? That’s a different level of commitment. If you are single, working a pressure-filled job without someone looking over your shoulder at night, I salute you most sincerely. If your work has nothing to do with recovery, if you don’t have kids who need a role model, if you don’t know the neurological and physiological truth about alcohol; and you still stay sober…wow! You are quite literally a hero. You are doing something I don’t possess the strength to do.

 

I remember when I thought I could do it on my own. I was smart, successful and confident (some might say arrogant, but let’s stay focussed, Sheri). I drank too much. I acknowledged the issue like it was an embedded splinter or a broken kitchen appliance. I had work to do, but I could handle it. That’s what I thought. I didn’t understand that poison was killing my organs and my home’s foundation was going to dwarf the inconvenience of the broken appliance as it collapsed around my family. I thought I could do it on my own. I wasn’t just arrogant. I was catastrophically ignorant.

 

I relapsed for ten years thanks to that ignorance.

 

Nothing brings me more joy than the foundation and identity I’ve built to support my sobriety. When I talk about the value of SHOUTing about sobriety, I get a lot of pushback. “I’m a private person. My alcoholism is nobody’s business.” “My employer, my industry, just would not tolerate the liability of someone with an addiction problem.” “What if I tell everyone, and then I change my mind and decide to drink again?” Those are all valid concerns. I’m not here to tell anyone they are wrong. At least not today. Not as I write about my struggles with temptation.

 

As we sat at the kitchen table late at night after the rest of the family was in bed, my dad said something I’ll never forget. We were all in town to bury one of my grandparents, and my dad whispered, “I don’t know how people who don’t have faith get through this – the loss of a parent.” He was right. At that moment, I realized that it didn’t matter what you believe, but it sure was important that you believe.

 

That lesson of faith applies here, I think. I don’t know how people who aren’t wearing a constraining and uncomfortable safety harness survive the moments of alcoholic weakness. I was painfully private until I went public. I was terrified that I would lose my job, until I watched my boss’s indifference about my sobriety. And I was afraid I would tell everyone, then drink anyway, until telling everyone became my biggest reason not to drink.

 

We’re only right until we’re wrong. That’s the promise of the imperfection of humanity.

 

When it’s your turn to be wrong, what’ll protect you from your imperfection?

 

Support is no guarantee, but if it’s not part of your solution, you’re asking for catastrophe when you least expect it. If you are a high-functioning alcoholic trying to build your infrastructure, I hope you’ll consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.

SHOUT Sobriety

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May 17, 2018
Thanksgivings
November 17, 2021
Kill Switch
March 23, 2022
13 Comments
  • Reply
    Anne Scott
    September 14, 2022 at 6:58 am

    Thanks as always Matt for being here now, being real about where you are here and now.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      September 14, 2022 at 7:42 am

      It feels good to be honest, Anne Thanks for having my back!

  • Reply
    Emma
    September 14, 2022 at 9:22 am

    Wow …. Really powerful. My job also came out of my sobriety so I know I can’t drink if I want to keep it….
    My family are still reeling albeit quietly from the years that I drank and watch sometimes nervously if I mention that I feel like drinking.
    I’m without doubt in the full knowledge that if I pick up again it will be the worst decision I could make for me and for all near me. It is sometimes only that knowledge that stops me.
    I’m on holiday alone in Paris for a few days and there’s loads of my old favourite lagers in the shops … they don’t sell it in the U.K. …. It’s a reminder of back then. And unfortunately I can’t deny some level of desire … but it stops there when reality hits . Another sober friend reminds me to imagine they are full of vomit….. that helps!
    I too loved (yes that is the word ) whisky ….. didn’t give me the awful hangovers that wine did although I managed to get drunk way quicker .
    The journey downhill would be like diving off a cliff of that I’m pretty much certain.
    And no – I never dream of one drink . Never …. I always imagine the taste and the feelings followed by the numbing out of everything….. that in itself is very telling I think….. love you work and your honesty Matt …. It’s the only way to be in sobriety I think

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      September 14, 2022 at 11:30 am

      Your vulnerability and honesty is such a blessing to me, Emma! Thank you so much for relating.

  • Reply
    Nancy McKay
    September 14, 2022 at 10:35 am

    Brutiful (Beautiful & Brutal) honesty. Thank you Matt for your vulnerability. You made my heart skip a beat…xo

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      September 14, 2022 at 11:28 am

      Thank you for reading and supporting, Nancy!

  • Reply
    Mark W. Bailey
    September 14, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    Man, how I can totally relate to this, Matt! Fall is full of triggers for me, starting with when they begin putting all of the “Octoberfest” microbrews out in the grocery stores – that used to be one of my most joyous sights! I am sober for six and a half years now and don’t have thoughts about drinking very often anymore, but that is one thing that always tempts me this time of year. Thankfully, I have been able to stave off the ridiculous fantasy that I could ever have one of those ever again. At this point, my sobriety has gone beyond a badge of honor and has become like a cherished possession that I guard with extreme ferocity. I actually feel truly blessed that I endured the extreme pain of addiction and was able to come through it to find that no real happiness can be induced by the ingestion of any chemical substance. I have been able to find the true and lasting happiness that sobriety and being honest with yourself brings, and I never want to get away from that again. I love the work you do, my friend – it feels like you are writing directly to me, and I can tell by the comments you always get that many others feel exactly the same way. Please keep up the great work because you are damn good at it!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      September 14, 2022 at 1:34 pm

      Well that made my day! Thank you, Mark.

  • Reply
    Gregory Rake
    September 16, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks Matt, this came just at the right time. For the first time in my 14 weeks of sobriety, after listening to our son describe his personal situation, I said to my wife, “Wow, I would really like a couple of whiskeys!” I easily recognized that it was because I didn´t want to hold the feelings and emotions that the conversation had caused. But, I also know that just taking one drink would end what I have said is more important to me than anything else in the world: the relationship restored with my wife. And now, I am traveling to see our kids in the US for a few weeks and my wife asked me if I thought I was ready to face the challenge. Once upon a time, I would not have hesitated and I would have said, “Of course!!!!” However, today, I said, I have thought about it a lot and I know it will be hard. Your blog states it well even though my life is not dependent on my being sober, I finally understand that my relationships are dependent on that and I don´t want that the change! Thanks again!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      September 16, 2022 at 5:52 pm

      Wow, Gregory! I love your cautious attitude about this trip, and I’ll certainly be pulling for you and your whole family. Thanks for sharing and relating!

      • Reply
        Gregory Rake
        September 28, 2022 at 8:11 am

        Thanks Matt, I really appreciate your support for me and others. I had to come early to the US and all is going well. Our son is going through a really difficult situation. Fortunately, my wife will be joining me and she is a big help! Our daughters have criticized my wife because she still drinks wine (I serve her sometimes). Like you shared sooner or later you have to go into the world and everyone will be drinking. And I need to be okay with that. And I find that it is not a temptation. Thanks again!

  • Reply
    Mike
    September 30, 2022 at 9:50 am

    I never say never Matt. I don’t believe in the concept of “permanent sobriety”. The graveyards are full of people who didn’t think they’d drink again.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      September 30, 2022 at 10:39 am

      Thanks for your perspective, Mike! i’ve met a lot of people for whom “forever” is a daunting concept. Conversely, I’ve met a lot of people (and I am one of them) for whom one day at a time doesn’t give the comfort of decisiveness. That’s what’s so diabolical about alcohol. There is no silver bullet. I appreciate you reading and sharing!

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