If you’ve been lied to by an alcoholic, don’t take it personally. Denial is the cornerstone of the disease. And believe me, no one is getting lied to by an alcoholic more than the alcoholic himself. We don’t want to do it. It is not in our DNA. It is not a sign of spiritual deficiency. It isn’t a choice, either. In fact, when I was in active addiction, and expending massive amounts of energy hiding my predicament, I swore to my wife that I never lied, and that I was the most honest person in her life. And I believed that to my core.
Denial is a powerful tool. Sometimes, when we feel trapped and alone – out of options and staring the stark and bitter reality right in the face – denial is all we have left.
Sometimes, often really, denial is what keeps us drinking.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.
When you need help, really need help, you’ll take it wherever you can get it.
It had been almost two months since our initial visit with the transplant team, when they’d unexpectedly advised us that a liver transplant was not just the next step, but the only remaining step available. John had subsequently, spectacularly, failed tox screens for both alcohol and pot. And instead of being fast-tracked for the transplant list, so I could be reviewed for donation, the team told us they wouldn’t do anything until he was seeing a substance abuse counselor. Steps vital to survival were suddenly, maddeningly, on hold.
He didn’t want to do it, to go to a counselor. He told me, standing there in our kitchen, that it would be easier to just let him die. He’d prefer it.
I’m not just looking for the cure to addiction. I’m looking for the solution to the pain of the human condition. That is what I am researching, and when I find clues, I am eager to share them. So when I heard a fellow writer in a story-writing group read about the power of authenticity, I knew immediately that more people needed to receive the gift of his insight. He chooses to remain anonymous, but I’ll be forever thankful for his friendship, and for these words…
Authenticity is my superpower.
I learned many years ago that I can literally become bigger than life when I show up authentically. When I share my self or my story from an authentic place, I can share a powerful example of connection that can reach across aisles, oceans, generations, and color lines. I think that my authenticity is most powerful when it is as natural as a gentle breeze, as unique as a snowflake, as refreshing as a drop of rain.
We were talking about parts of my childhood when my therapist said, almost wistfully, “It sounds very lonely.”
There was a long quiet spot in the conversation while I thought about that.
Lonely? Me? Surely she was mistaken. I had a family. I had friends. I liked being alone, even as a kid. And as an adult … man, I was born to quarantine. I’ve joked before about the moat I’m building. This feels especially conspicuous right now, with so many so excited that they’ll be getting back out there, seeing people, seeing friends, going to school, going to parties, laughing.
I’m dreading that I’m so out of practice making up excuses as to why I can’t make it.
Maybe I don’t understand what loneliness is. And not understanding it, how would I even recognize it?
But I was lucky, at the start. I’d found the perfect partner: someone who felt as good to be with as it felt to be alone.
“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.
“But we cannot simply sit and stare at our wounds forever.” – Haruki Murakami
There’s light at the top of the stairs.
(It was never light before. His door was closed, his window shut, his blinds drawn against people, sun, wind and stars.
It was always dark at the top of the stairs.)
So we opened the blinds, opened the window, painted the wall facing it firefly yellow.
Flat Earthers and alcohol drinkers have one thing in common. They deny the truth in the face of mounting evidence (I could add people who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen to this category, but I don’t want to get political, because Trumpsters drink alcohol, too).
I wasn’t hanging around Greece in 500 B.C., so I really don’t know how the initial conversations went, but maybe it was something like this: “Hey, do you see the end of the earth over there? Well, I sailed over there, and the edge just kept moving,” said Greek guy 1. Greek guy 2 probably retorted, “Oh yeah, well I’ve never sailed over there, and I can see the edge of the earth from here, so I think you’re full of shit.” The edge of the earth, or lack thereof, didn’t impact Greek guy 2’s daily life, so there was no reason for him to pay attention to his friend or adjust his belief system. He just kept living his life and believing the plastic he put in his recycling bin was being melted down and reused, and not that it was being dumped into the Pacific.
Now, 2,500 years later, evidence is mounting that there is no safe quantity of alcohol, and it is a leading contributor to all kinds of chronic and acute human disasters, yet we drink on with reckless abandon because we can’t see that it impacts us directly. It makes me want to walk over to the end of the earth and jump off in frustration.
I want to talk about intimacy.
When I say “want to,” I actually mean “would prefer to pull my own toenails out with pliers than.” Why would anyone ever want to talk about intimacy? After all, the best thing about the dreams in which you suddenly realize you’re naked in public is waking up from them and realizing they never happened. Whew.
But if you’re reading this, I bet you already know why: intimacy is the most insidiously fucked-up part of life with an alcoholic, and it’s so hard to talk about that some of us would rather part with pieces of our own bodies than even start that conversation.
I occasionally get lured into an argument about the disease designation of alcoholism. People like me believe addiction is a disease for two reasons. First, just like cancer negatively impacts our cellular makeup (biology) and can kill us if left untreated, alcoholism changes our neurotransmitter function (neurology) and can kill us if left untreated. Second, alcoholism prevention is woefully underfunded considering the three million alcohol-related deaths annually, and dropping the disease designation will do nothing to get this epidemic the attention it deserves.
Similarly, from time to time, I am baited into arguing about my personal conviction for owning the alcoholic label. Others argue that the word is so stigmatized that people avoid the label, and thus keep drinking and denying to their considerable peril. I don’t disagree, which is precisely why I own the label. By doing so, I take the power out of the stigma. What are you going to do, tease me by calling me an alcoholic? I just called myself an alcoholic, you slow-witted loser. If we want people to get help early, like at the first signs of dysfunction, we need to destigmatize the disease of alcoholism (just as cancer, which, by the way, afflicts slightly fewer Americans than alcoholism).
Is alcoholism a disease? Yes. Is crushing the stigma associated with alcoholism crucial to ending the epidemic. An emphatic yes!
But that’s not the point. If we want to reach our human potential, we must evolve past the arguments about this diabolical disease.