I imagine my summer vacation with my extended family is a lot like most. Lots of warm, squeezy greetings between adult siblings and cousins who live across the great expanse one from another. Sincere desires to keep in better touch that are, in reality, words wasted due to busy schedules and naturally occurring self absorption. A Christmas card. Maybe a birthday text. Then the one week spent together every summer rolls back around.
Often, the contrast between drinking and not drinking is dramatic and obvious. Like the time my next door neighbor called over the fence for me to come try a new whiskey he found at the mega liquor store. He found a winner this time, and he invited me to share it with him and his friend who was visiting from San Diego. I don’t remember the brand, but that would be beside the point, anyway. My neighbor bought it because it was distilled with liquid smoke, and it smelled like we were drinking a barbeque grill. It was delicious, but that was beside the point, too. The new and interesting blend and the friend from out of town were just excuses for the three of us to drink most of a bottle of whiskey, with some beers mixed in, and become numb to the rest of the world around us.
If you don’t fill the void left behind when you quit drinking, you’re not really recovering from alcoholism. You’re just a dry drunk, and if there’s one thing all dry drunks have in common, it’s that they all eventually relapse and start drinking again. This is very common knowledge in the recovery community, and something I’ve proven through my own failed attempts at sobriety dating back a dozen years.
But here’s the part that’s interesting to me. Where does the void come from? Is it really a void left behind when we stop drinking alcohol, or was the void there to begin with, and alcohol fit the emptiness just perfectly? I’ve written about it before, but my opinion is evolving as my experiences in recovery develop. I no longer think of it as a, “chicken or the egg,” conundrum. I believe when alcohol flows into our lives, it finds the vacant space and fills all of our nooks and crannies of our naturally occurring voided space. I receive a lot of emails from people struggling to quit drinking. The stories they tell me about the reasons they started drinking and became addicted to the liquid poison are as diverse and unique as your imagination. But when people tell me about their challenges with sobriety, it’s like their stories are squeezing through a funnel of sameness. Their lives go from different and unexpected, to predictably identical. Their stories are identical to my struggle to quit, too.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.
Christmas leaves me feeling like shit. It has for at least a couple of decades. I’m not talking about Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m talking about the month or so that follows Christmas. It’s easy to point to January as a long, cold month devoid of major holiday festivities, and for many years, I blamed my post-Christmas blues on winter. A lot of people do. But that’s not it. Short days and cold temperatures don’t have much to do with it, really. My January dreariness is because I’ve been doing Christmas wrong.
New on the Untoxicated Podcast – Jason and I talk about my dance with addiction.
It started with sips from my dad’s beer when I was young, grew to experimentation in high school, graduated to constant binge drinking in college, developed into a daily habit in young adulthood, and metastasized into alcoholism as I plummeted into the pit of debilitating alcohol-induced depression.
As I awoke from my very brief slumber alone on my neighbors’ front porch swing, the party raged on in the house behind me. What happened? Did I pass out? Only minutes earlier I was engaged in conversation with the smokers in attendance who were indulging their habit outside. I was indulging my habit, too. I was probably five or six beers into the evening when I ventured outside to join their conversation. Sometime while trading stories and laughing effortlessly as drinkers do while drinking, I passed out mid-conversation. It seemed the long work week and soothing motion of the swing combined with the alcohol to lull me to sleep. Now awake, I slithered back across the street to my house and joined my family who had left the party and gone to bed in the previous couple of hours.
I was not drunk. I was not slurring my words and I had not said anything rude or insulting. I had not gotten sick or danced on a table or spilled food or drink on the carpet – nothing like that. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed about my undignified nap.
I don’t think I’m meant to be happy – at least not all of the time – not even close.
Like many, many adults with families and responsibilities, I am burdened with stress and pressure. I would describe myself as contemplative and unsure of myself. I wouldn’t describe myself as lost or directionless as it relates to what my future holds, but I would describe myself as unsure of my plan and praying for signs that I am on the right path.
I spend much of my time in a state of contemplative unsureness. It is an uneasy feeling. It lacks the comfort and confidence of happiness. It lacks the contentedness of pleasure. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The place I spend most of my time is in a state of discontent. And I think for me, that is how it is meant to be.
Saint Patrick’s weekend started early for me. At 5:15am Friday I was opening cans and bottles from a couple of cases of beer and dumping them all into a bucket. We were making our huge annual batch of pale ale and cheddar bread at the bakery my wife and I own, and we needed the warm foamy beer to settle and flatten a bit before we could pour it into the mixing bowl.
I didn’t expect the reaction I had to the sounds of the cans popping open with a carbonated hiss. I was surprised by the wave of emotions that washed over me as I breathed in the aroma. I have been sober for fourteen months. We have beer, wine and booze in our house for guests or on the rare occasion Sheri has a drink, and it doesn’t bother me at all.
But the sounds of cracking cans and the sweet and bitter smell of my beloved hops and barley stirred something deep within me. It was unexpected. It was unwelcomed. The Irish band Blackthorn played drinking songs from the bakery speakers reminding me it was one of my very favorite holidays. At that moment, all I wanted to do was go back to bed.
Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.