If you think reading about the impact of alcohol and recovery is therapeutic, you should try writing about it.
If you are battling a compulsion to drink, or if you are the loved one of a heavy drinker, you are probably protecting a closely guarded secret. It is the kind of secret that will eat you up from the inside while the poison does mental and biological damage to you, the drinker or second-hand drinker. The erosion of self-esteem, relationships and capacity to manage are all universalisms, yet we protect our secrets like we are somehow unique in a nation with over 15 million alcoholics.
And we protect our secrets because we can’t find a safe place to let them out.
“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.
A little over two years into my sobriety, I chaperoned a week-long church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation. We fed a huge bison, built a fence, learned about the culture, and met a lot of interesting people (side note – if you want to see the impact of terrible government policy resulting in rampant alcoholism throughout a community, chaperone a church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation).
I returned feeling really good about myself. I had given my time and energy to two of my kids and the teenagers in our church community. The kids got an exposure to addiction that no amount of talking could have equaled, no one was trampled by the buffalo, and no digits or limbs were lost to the novice operation of power saws. The worst thing I did all week was eat at McDonald’s. Twice.
I felt really good about myself. That is, I felt good until I reunited with my wife.
When we surrender, we signal defeat. This is one of the main reasons for the dismal recovery rates from traditional alcoholism recovery methods in our society. Humans don’t want to be losers. That’s not how we are wired. Surrender feels hopeless and helpless. Surrender feels like the end.
My recovery from high-functioning alcoholism wasn’t about surrender. It was about changing teams and continuing the fight. The success of my permanent sobriety has a lot of contributing factors. Recovery is complex and individually unique. But in the end, the most important thing I did was to change my mind.
Words matter because the way we use them matters. When we assign to words painful, intentionally hurtful associations, we take perfectly good words, and drown them in stigma. When we use words as weapons, people will do everything they can to distance themselves. Denial prevents healing. When we reject the words because they have been weaponized and stigmatized, we move further from recovery. Our denials and rejections become a self-fulfilling prophecy of pain. We get stuck.
I’m a recovered alcoholic, but you probably already know that. Naturally, you might be thinking this article will be about the words “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” based on my introductory paragraph about weaponized words dripping with stigma. You are not wrong, but we’ll get to those words in a minute. This isn’t an alcoholism problem. It is a much bigger societal problem. So let’s start by considering some non-alcoholic words.
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.
Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
Last week, I saw dozens of social media posts from people experiencing their first sober Halloween. As is customary when using the communication tool designed to allow us to compare our lives to the lives of hundreds of others, the posts were cheery and positive, with captions like, “First booze-free Halloween, and I feel great!” or, “I can’t believe what I was missing when I used to drink my way through Halloween.” Two things went through my mind when I saw so many of these posts last week, and in this order. First, I thought, that person is full of shit or trying really hard to convince him or herself. Second, I thought, wait a minute…maybe something is wrong with me because that’s not what my first sober Halloween was like at all.
I get this feedback all the time. Sometimes it is polite but dismissive, like this: “I have trouble paying attention to the opinion of someone with just four years of sobriety. Talk to me in a decade or so.” Other times, it is downright mean: “Shut up and get to a meeting, asshole!” Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but some people really should consider a little less caffeine or maybe doing something about the constipation that’s putting built up pressure on the old kindness gland.
I’m sober. I’m fully and completely sober. I feel like I need the coroner of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz to declare about my active alcoholism, “She’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” (Now you’ve got that voice and that song stuck in your head, don’t you. Go ahead and Google that scene and watch it on YouTube – I did.)
There. It’s done. I just decided that I’m done drinking alcohol. I’m sober now. There’s just too much pain, deceit and insanity. End of discussion. It’s over.
I had those very thoughts, full of determination and resolve, more times than I could count. It seemed so simple to me – severe and punitive – but simple just the same. I am strong and definitive. I’ve made thousands of decisions over the first half of my lifetime, and I have a very good track record of follow through. I don’t waiver or vacillate. I analyze, decide and execute. No analysis paralysis for me. Let’s go.
And that’s why my relationship with alcohol was so diabolical and transfixing to me. I couldn’t leave it behind no matter how determined I was, and no matter how good my track record for decision making otherwise was. Alcohol was like a permanent fixture, an irreversible commitment tattooed on my soul.