It makes me chuckle when people refer to marijuana as a gateway drug. The conversation is especially amusing when had over cocktails. Easy accessibility, societal acceptance and manageable effects of weed are often cited as the reasons people choose it for experimentation. Once that door is open, further experimentation often follows, goes the argument. But this argument ignores the obvious. No drug opens the gateway quite like the most available and most abused drug in the history of the world: alcohol.
I used to think sobriety was about determination and willpower. I remember countless mornings when I swore I would never drink again. Never. Sometimes I didn’t drink for months. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes days. Sometimes, my determination was replaced by anxiety or frustration or pain, and I drank that same evening.
Alcoholism is a diabolical disease, and it hasn’t a thing to do with willpower or determination. Alcoholism is about how our different brains react to being poisoned. For some of us, the experience is euphoric, and our brains adapt to prioritize alcohol. We aren’t weak or broken. We introduce our brains to one of the world’s most highly addictive substances, and our brains take the bait. And just like that, we are hooked.
Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
It takes me about ten minutes to lock down our house each night. That’s a long time to secure a small, one story bungalow. It’s kind of a problem. I get irrationally upset if my wife needs to get something out of the car in the detached garage or water the plants after I’ve set the alarm. I’m getting better, though. It used to take fifteen minutes.
I fell asleep at 7:30pm last Friday night. I was feeling exhausted after dinner, and I laid down before cleaning the kitchen. Within a minute, I was out and didn’t wake until 8am Saturday. I have a teenage son for whom my twelve plus hours of sleep is an every weekend tradition, but for me, sleeping like that was very rare. It was also glorious and necessary.
Do you know what else my half-day hibernation was? It was a part of my recovery from alcoholism. It was really important and totally uncontrollable.
I didn’t even have to open the email. The subject line conveyed the devastating news. “Project Terminated.” Those two words delivered a massive blow to our plans for the next couple of years. We had an agreement to sell our business – an agreement complete with payment amounts and transition dates – and the buyer was trying to back out. There had been signs of his wavering commitment to the deal he had made, but my naturally optimistic outlook kept me pushing forward without consideration for what it would mean if he tried to turn and run. Now the reality stared me in the eyes from the subject line on my computer screen.
The pressure in my head began to build as the multitude of negative consequences raced through my mind. There would be practical, business matters to which I would have to attend. My lawyer would have to be consulted and litigation would have to be considered. I might have to go back to square one and try to find another buyer with barely two months left on our lease and, thus, not nearly enough time to make a deal in a new location with a new person.
But the work involved was secondary. The pressure in my head was because I knew the tidal wave of disappointment, stress and failure that had just crashed down on me would have no immediate relief. I had to live this nightmare with my eyes open and weaknesses exposed. I am an alcoholic almost two years sober. A lot of good has come from my work in recovery. For the next few days, however, sobriety meant only one thing. I was defenseless against the tremendous pain. I would have to wallow in the dire truth of my situation, and suffer through the disappointment, anger and fear without relief. I would not sleep – at least not much – and the other things that deserved my attention, like my wife and kids, would be all but ignored while I tried to figure out how to manage this disaster.
When I quit drinking, I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I was too ashamed – ashamed of my disease and embarrassed to be tainted with the stigma that is persistently and unfortunately associated with AA. I didn’t go away to a 30 day rehab because I couldn’t wrap my brain around letting go of my family and business responsibilities for a whole month. I took a different path to permanent sobriety.
I read. I read book after book after book about alcoholism and recovery. I read clinical books about how the body processes alcohol and the many diseases and biological dysfunction heavy drinking causes. I read books about neurotransmitters and other detailed explanations of brain function. And I read memoir after memoir written by alcoholics who had visited the same depths of despair where I wallowed, but made it out and had the strength to tell their stories.
I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
For the last few years of my active alcoholism, I came to know the most wretched, dark, and debilitating alcohol-induced depression I called, “The Pit.”
Recovery from alcoholism is fixing a lot of things. My shame is diminishing, my confidence is returning, I am a much better listener and my relationships are stronger than ever.
But recovery doesn’t fill in the pit. It is still there – it will always be there – because my brain has been permanently damaged by years of drinking. How can I be so sure? Because I tumbled back into the pit last week. I am finishing the desperate and grueling process of climbing out right now, and I haven’t had a drink in nearly two years.
The pit is deep, and it is dismal and hopeless. The pit is a hole in my brain, and it is the most unfortunate part of my destiny.
When people live through trauma, they often talk of how the experience shows them who their true friends are. I have always thought of that as quite sad. I’m not sure why, but my mind has always focused on the many friends who deserted the afflicted in his time of need. I have always looked at it all wrong.
My alcoholism and my decision to discuss it openly has led me to find out who my true friends are. And it has been among the best experiences of my life.