The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.
It took me ten years to quit drinking. Ten! Almost no matter how long this little earthly jaunt lasts for me, that’s a double-digit percentage of my life spent trying to quit drinking. I know I make abstinence look effortless and marvelous now in my fourth year of permanent sobriety, but I know how gruelling it is early on (and by early sobriety, I mean that whole first year – don’t get cocky early on me now, unless you want it to take you a decade to get over that hump).
I wanted sobriety to change nothing for me. I wanted to go through my normal life, just without a beer in my hand. It doesn’t work that way – not for me, nor for any of the thousands of sober badasses with whom I’m familiar. Sobriety changes everything, but in a good way (which I never believed possible until a couple of years ago).
I listened yesterday to Dax Shepard and Glennon Doyle talking on Dax’s podcast (Armchair Expert – it’s my favorite) about how in many ways, it is harder to be a high-functioning alcoholic than an obnoxious, obvious, stumbling lush. When we keep our predilection quietly hidden behind a veil of normalcy and productivity, not only must we manage the internal chaos of alcoholism, but we also expend incalculable energy keeping our secrets hidden. We all agreed this was a valid and significant point (they agreed, and I was nodding, but I feel like they could sense my support).
Do you know what’s even harder than being a high-functioning alcoholic? It’s loving a high-functioning alcoholic. The deceit is still there. All the downplaying, making excuses and covering up still exists, but by participating in the denials, the loved one is perpetuating the disease and dysfunction that they so loath. It must feel like constantly painting the house that your alcoholic is trying to tear down from the inside out.
Relapse. It’s such a dirty word to us alcoholics. When we first dip our toes into the frigid waters of sobriety, avoiding relapse is, quite necessarily, our singular focus. But it happens, and when it does, our failure can be brought on in a variety of ways. Sometimes it happens in an instant – a solitary trigger overwhelms us, and we are drinking before we can rationally process the situation.
But often, relapse doesn’t work like that. It isn’t instantaneous and unpredictable. Often, relapse is the last step in a series of events. It is a downward spiral spread out over some period of time. We try to fight it, but resistance seems futile. It is as if the universe or the devil is working against us in a diabolical plot to keep us mired in alcoholism.
It is my wife’s turn to recover. She knows it. I know it. Getting here was anything but simple.
Listen Now! It’s Sheri’s Turn
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. When I was drinking, I put my love of alcohol ahead of everything, including my wife and kids. I would never have admitted it, but it was true. When I decided to stop drinking, I put my work to stay sober ahead of everything, again, including my wife, Sheri, and our four kids. This time, the selfishness was necessary. But that doesn’t change the fact that my family continued to take a backseat to my addiction.
Sober people are losers! Look, I’d like to tell you that my opinion wasn’t this superficial, jaded, prejudiced, narrow, misinformed, misguided, misintellectualized, bigoted, arrogant, and just plain asinine, but it was. I thought people who didn’t drink alcohol, for any reason, were losers.
This included my own mother for quite a while. God, how shallow and despicable was I?
And I’d like to tell you that my opinion changed when I started exploring sobriety, or at least once I was sober myself. Nope! I continued to consider people who didn’t drink alcohol to be losers, I just tucked my tail between my legs and joined their pathetic ranks.
I took a writing class with my favorite instructor over the weekend. She asked the writers to picture a particular irrelevant scene in the future, and imagine how that made us feel. The specific scene is irrelevant to what you are reading here, so I’ve spared you the details, but it wasn’t irrelevant to me. Not at all. In fact, quite to the contrary, it was very important, and the emotion that flooded my body upon considering the situation my writing coach suggested was complete and total relief.
I immediately recoiled and broke into a cold sweat. I’ve recently designated “relief” as a dirty word in my vernacular. Relief is what I chased with alcohol. I’ve used sex and food and work in search of that same soothing relief. Relief is the dangling carrot of addiction.
I remember when I first started learning that alcoholism was a disease. I learned about alcohol’s hijacking of the pleasure neurotransmitters. I learned how our subconscious minds develop an association between alcohol and survival. I learned about the progressive nature of the disease, and I learned about the link between addiction, and the depression and anxiety from which I suffered. I shared it all with my wife because I wanted her to learn about my affliction, too.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Sheri.” I explained while very early in sobriety. “All this neurological dysfunction and the changes in my behavior are the result of my addiction. We should stop blaming me for what happened to us, and start blaming the disease.” My wife replied, “If you want me to blame the disease, maybe you should stop acting like an asshole.”
“I quit drinking for you, Sheri! What more do you want from me?” I was hurting so badly from the failure and shame and debilitating depression of alcoholism. I was exerting every morsel of strength that I had to battle the cravings and brain hijacking of addiction to alcohol. I was in the fight of my life. Me. Recovery was all about me. If I was to overcome this demon, I needed my wife’s support, and I wasn’t capable of even contemplating her needs.
I had apologized for my drunken behavior so many times. On the mornings after I over drank, became irrationally angry and said despicable things, I had so often apologized and shown sincere remorse. When I made a commitment to sobriety, I had apologized again. I said I was sorry, and do you know what follows sorrow? Forgiveness. What more could Sheri have possibly needed?
Ten days ago, when restaurants and bars in Denver were ordered to close seating areas, but allowed to stay open for delivery and carryout only, I said to my wife, “They’ll never close liquor stores. They’ll have riots on their hands.” I thought about the double whammy liquor store owners would face. Not only would they have weeks of lost revenue, but they’d have thousands of dollars in glass repair expenses after nightly break-ins. We talked about the idea with pathetic chuckles, but there was nothing funny about it. I believed every word of our discussion.
Two days ago, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered all liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries closed as part of the city’s “stay home” restrictions. Lines immediately wrapped around the block outside liquor stores and pot shops as consumers panic-bought as much as they could fit in their vehicles. When asked for a comment regarding liquor store closings, Mayor Hancock told reporters, “As much as I might think it’s essential for me, it’s not essential for everyone.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and as he tried to enact measures to keep people home and stop the spread, and while he was making decisions that would crush our local economy and bankrupt small business owners, he made a joke about his own alcohol dependence? Isn’t that what calling alcohol, “essential for me,” means?