“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.” When journalist Johann Hari made that statement as part of the conclusion of his TED Talk in 2015, I didn’t disagree with him. I mostly didn’t disagree with him because I was still drinking in 2015 and didn’t give a shit about a speech titled, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” But even now, today, I think Hari got that first part right. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It is neither the solution, nor is it the opposite of the addictive behavior that has brought millions of us to our knees.
It’s the second part of his concluding statement that has been increasingly adopted as indisputable fact in the recovery community for the past six years. Hari ended his talk saying, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” From the first time I heard it, until a few months ago, I thought Hari was right. Now, I’m convinced that while the concept is useful, it is incomplete.
I believe the opposite of addiction is neither sobriety nor connection. I believe the opposite of addiction is self-esteem.
It was early in June the day our friend Tom got out of bed, long before the sunrise, without disturbing his wife. He got dressed, went to the basement, and fed lettuce to his Russian tortoise Nadenka, as he did every morning. While she munched away in her pen, he wiped the hard drive on his desktop. Looking over his significant gun collection, a point of pride, he selected one of the pair of pearl-handled revolvers, loaded it, and pocketed it. He then stole silently up the stairs, grabbed his cell phone, his wallet, and his car keys, and left a note for his wife telling her where he would be.
He drove for a while that morning, about an hour, to a nature reserve that was one of his favorite spots. He parked along the side of the road, conspicuous, not in any parking spot. But it was still early, quiet. He’d have some time. He got out, left his cell phone and wallet on the dashboard and the keys in the ignition. He took the revolver.
“How Aliens Confirmed Earth is Devoid of Intelligent Lifeforms”
Think about it for a minute – pretend you know nothing about the role alcohol plays in our culture, or in your personal life. With a completely open mind, read my fair and honest explanation of alcohol as I would describe it to an extraterrestrial being:
This stigma is strong. The stigma is the enemy. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is what keeps us drinking. I spent ten years in active alcoholism. Much of that time was spent trying to get out while being pulled back in by the shame and stigma. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is perpetuated from within the walls intended for healing.
When I read Victoria’s story about shame and stigma, I asked if I could publish it here. She not only understands the incarceration of the stigma, she describes it as well as I’ve ever heard it described. I’m betting you’ll resonate with Victoria’s words, too.
“Hello, my name is Victoria, and I am an alcoholic.”
Your voices. Many voices. Consistent voices telling the same stories about how addiction works, and how denials only make matters worse.
I hear you. I hear from you. Mostly in private messages, but sometimes out in the open for all to see. I’ve heard how my story gives you hope. I need you to hear from me how your stories give me strength to keep going. To keep sharing.
To keep telling our stories.
And now, I want to expand the story into your voices. There is strength in numbers. If we are going to crush the stigma that makes high-functioning alcoholism so pervasive, it will take all of our voices.
It is said that those of us who suffer from alcoholism froze our emotional maturity at the age at which we started to drink regularly. I am living proof of the voracity of that statement as I lived decades of my life, well into my early sobriety, with the emotional maturity of a teenager.
Impatience is a cornerstone attribute of emotional immaturity, and my ability to calmly wait for anything was as undeveloped as that skill can be in a human. I learned early in my recovery that patience was a tool I needed to master if I hoped to make it over the elusive hump to permanent sobriety.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
Where did that come from? In my life that features so many memories lost to blackout drinking, that’s a pondering I’ll never forget. That question dominated my brain on several occasions in my late teenage years when I was experimenting with alcohol.
It happened once the morning after a huge drunken fight I had with my high school girlfriend at a party on full display in front of probably a hundred friends. It happened another time after I took a swing at my best friend after drinking together for many hours. Thankfully, I was drunk enough to miss, but I’ve never been in a fist-fight in my life, so it was beyond surprising when I was putting the pieces of the puzzle back together the next day.
In fact, had I woken up after either of those instances having grown a third butt cheek I would have been less surprised than I was to learn of my aggressive and abhorrent drunken behavior.
If I told you that I never think about drinking alcohol anymore, that would be a lie. So I won’t tell you that. I’ll tell you the truth about what a return to drinking would look like for me. It isn’t a lie, but it isn’t pretty, either.
One of the greatest benefits from permanent sobriety for me is the end of the mental gymnastics of high-functioning alcoholism. When I was a drinker, I spent countless hours debating my alcoholic status, and creating drinking rules in a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable.
“This is the best I’ve ever felt in my life!” claims the caption on Instagram. “Tap the heart if you are waking up sober!” The rainbows and unicorns approach to addiction recovery so popular on social media actually makes sobriety harder for me. I want to drink to settle my nausea from the transparent grovelling for likes and cyber-appreciation. “Since I’ve given all my troubles to God, I don’t want to drink anymore and I feel so free!” Listen, I’m all about prayer and repentance, and I feel like God is firmly on my side. But the idea that we can hand over the steering wheel and take a nap, and our addiction will melt away, is too much for me to embrace.
I’m not trying to pick a fight, and I am happy for anyone who can recover based on inspirational slogans and dogma. That’s just not me. And I’ve heard from enough readers on the topic to know that’s not helpful to many of you, either.
The benefits of permanent sobriety are neither instantaneous nor simple. But once I put in the significant time, made the gruelling effort and opened my mind and heart to the changes in my life, the enlightenment has far exceeded my wildest expectations of recovery.