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.