The school year is ending, the grass is green as flowers bloom, and the savory smoke will once again begin to roll off the backyard grills of America. It is Memorial Day weekend signaling the unofficial beginning of summer. It is time for bathing suits, neighborhood barbeques, patriotic parades, afternoons by the pool, freedom for the kiddos and family vacations. I love all the seasons, but there is something special about the start of summer. The anticipation of relaxed enjoyment and those long, lazy summer nights is almost tangible. The impatient wait is over. We made it back to summer again.
For us alcoholics in recovery, this most anticipated of seasons carries with it a measure of trepidation. As a tool of self preservation, our brains naturally block bad memories while shining a spotlight on the good times. As we approach Memorial Day, we remember our alcohol-enhanced summers full of drinking beers on sun-drenched afternoons, tropical umbrella drinks on the beach, block parties with full coolers and impromptu Thursday night cocktails on the porch. Memories of regret from overindulgence and blackouts are suppressed to make way for recollections of champagne toasts at summer weddings and gin and tonics on family vacations.
Alcohol is wicked, and our subconscious mind is a willing accomplice. So even with years of sobriety under my belt, the changing of the seasons brings on a yearning of sorts. I wouldn’t describe it as a temptation so much. I really have almost no fear that I’ll drink, but like feelings for a long-lost love, Memorial Day conjures an unwanted pang of desire.
It’s an uncomfortable reminder I thought my life was perfect once. That’s what I believed when in the trance of my beloved alcohol. The thought was fleeting as time revealed the uncontrollability of a life inspired by booze. The crash to reality was all the more violent and abrupt for the euphoric place from which my descent began.
There were lots of distressing and miserable times that resulted from drinking. And when I try on a conscious level, they are easy to access. But when I don’t try – when I just let the calendar do its thing – when Memorial Day rolls around again – the carefree and mesmerizing thoughts of summers past come flowing back on a rolling wave of alcohol like my last drink was yesterday and the promise of euphoria is as close as the nearest bottle opener.
Everything has changed – mostly for the best, but just a little bit for the worse – and yet turning the corner on cold and snow and rolling into months of soothing warmth makes it feel like all the pain was just a bad dream.
I’m going to the Indianapolis 500 this weekend. I go to the race every Memorial Day weekend. I’ve been attending since I replaced my ill mother in the grandstands as a five-year-old sitting next to my dad and rooting for Mario Andretti in the bright red Budweiser car (that’s the beer my dad drank). I love the event and the festivities every bit as much as the racing itself. I love the pageantry and the history and even the huge, greasy clog of humanity. It is special to be somewhere joined by 300,000 others. It makes me wonder if anyone else is left to keep the world plodding forward since it seems everyone is with me at the race.
The patriotism of the pre-race ceremony is the absolute highlight for me. Tears stream down from behind my sunglasses as we sing “God Bless America” and watch a military display that’s gets better every year. I can’t imagine watching on TV and missing the swell of pride that envelopes all 300,000 of us as we come to grips with how fortunate we are to live where we live thanks to the men and women who have died to earn and preserve our freedom. It is like no other feeling ever, and it makes auto racing a distant second reason to be in Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend.
When we dry our tears and the cars take to the track, beer flows as though there will never again be consequences. And that’s when cheering and loving and shouting and crying with 300,000 people with tons of common interests and passions – even in the middle of all of that – I feel like the loneliest guy on earth.
The ceremony – the pageantry and patriotism – it unites us like politics and economy and humanity never can. Then – psssst – 299,999 beer cans open and I’m discarded like a freedom hating traitor.
I don’t want to drink beer. I’m too smart for that now. But I want to drink beer and I don’t care what I know.
I write words for a living, and a direct contradiction is the best I can do to explain what it feels like to be me on Memorial Day weekend. I don’t want to, but I wish I could. I know I won’t, and that makes me proud. I know I won’t and that fills me with isolating sadness.
I’ll watch the race and be a good father. I’ll watch the race and not annoy my wife. I’ll watch the race and enjoy the company of friends I love and see only once a year. I’ll watch the race and pity the people around me who drink too much and pass out in the grandstands in front of 300,000 people.
Even with all of that – with my heart bursting with love and joy and pride – I’ll still feel that longing.
I won’t wish I could drink like everyone else. I won’t wish I could go back to my ignorant 20s when I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’ll wish I’d never tasted the forbidden fruit. I’ll wish the powerful enlightenment of my recovery had been unnecessary.
I’ll wish 300,000 of us gathered to celebrate our country and watch racing. I’ll wish I didn’t know that’s just an excuse for most of them. I’ll wish I didn’t understand with every cell in my body that the main event is in the twelve ounce cans in their hands.
I had it perfect once. At least that’s what I thought, but perfect is not what God has in mind for our time on earth. The reality of the human condition is a little extra jarring for those of us hiding in a euphoric cloud of intoxication. Perfect was an illusion, and reality is as stark and shocking as an unexpected ice bath.
I fought reality with all my might. And the part of reality I couldn’t ignore I tried to drink into oblivion. But eventually, reality caught me from behind and beat me into a reluctant submission.
Reality is not so bad. In fact, it’s peaceful and fulfilling and guilt-free. Reality is a sun-drenched summer afternoon that’s not followed by a hot, sweaty, painful, mind-reeling summer morning filled with foggy memories and dehydration.
Reality is knowing enough to know that I don’t want to go back to perceived perfection. Reality is letting the pang of desire from summers past wash over knowing the longing will pass. Reality is making the hard and dramatic turn toward summer with a seltzer in my hand and pride in my heart.
No one said sobriety would be easy. On Memorial Day weekend, no one is listening anyway. So if you feel the longing, please know you are in good company. And if you want some help, I encourage you to enroll in my new online course, SHOUT Sobriety. It is free to us drinkers and our families who want to learn more about our disease, and it is designed for high-functioning alcoholics like me who want to stop wrestling with our affliction and start dealing with reality.
If you’re not quite there yet, but you’d like to read my free ebook that inspired SHOUT Sobriety, please download Guide to Early Sobriety.