Sobriety sucks. Now that I don’t drink, I’ve been stripped of my alcohol-induced intelligence and infallibility. I used to be right all the time. That’s why I talked so loud and repeated myself so often. I had a lot to say, and I was proud to bestow on everyone within earshot my slobbery wit and careless observations. They talk about the health benefits of moderate drinking like poise, attraction, decision making and better-smelling breath. I’d like to add another one. Alcohol made me smart. I was always right. Now I’m wrong a lot.
I’m a big horror movie fan. The beginning of October marks the start of the three-month holiday season for me. Up first…as many scary movies as my eyeballs can consume in 31 days. I like some of the slasher movies, most of the psychological thrillers, and the best of the classics. One thing I have no time for, however, is a movie centered around the old and tired plot of someone who turns into a despicable creature and does unspeakable things that he can’t later remember. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, An American Werewolf in London, and any movie featuring the Incredible Hulk don’t do anything for me. The concept is boring because I’ve lived that plot. I’ve transformed into a monster who could do or say things I wouldn’t dream of in the light of the next day. Add a little toxic elixir, and the results were unpredictably terrifying. I don’t need to watch a movie to see the diabolical transformation. Been there, done that.
You see, I was an alcoholic.
Your wife’s not a bitch.
She doesn’t have her stuff that’s making the relationship bad, too. She’s not half, or even partially, to blame.
I don’t know your wife, but I do know this…It’s not her fault.
It was my first experience being among people at a gathering where drinking alcohol would be assumed, almost mandatory. This was also my first experience with people that had no idea I quit drinking, had no idea of my disease of alcoholism, and certainly had no idea of the roller coaster of a life I had lived in the past year. This was my first time being with co-workers at a social happy hour and work/dinner conferences since getting sober. My brain started to worry days ahead of time. My default way of thinking started my racing patterns long before I should have been worried about the event. My past habits, dysfunctional thinking, and excessive thoughts caused me to fixate on a tiny event in my future that should not have even been a thought in my mind.
As the first day of conferences wound down that afternoon, my coworkers and I all went back to our rooms to take off our work attire and get ready for the upcoming dinner. Shortly after getting to my room, a co-worker texted the group. “Meet at the bar in 15 minutes…I’m buying the first round.” Three others in our group replied. “Hell yeah!” “I’ve been craving a beer all afternoon.” “Let’s get our drink on!” I instantly started to worry. Should I reply? I wondered if I should go. Maybe I should just drink. No one in my personal life would have to know anything about it. I impatiently and anxiously paced around my hotel room. I finally texted the group after many crazy thoughts spun through my mind.
I don’t drink, but I’ll be there.
For us imbibers, the calendar can be divided into three drinking seasons.
The holiday season starts about mid October for most. I am an overachiever, both as a lush and as a lover of scary movies, so my holiday season starts on October first, sharp. The holiday season runs through the fourth quarter of the college football national championship game when one SEC team that I don’t care about crushes the year’s eager victim. Between the bookends, the excuses to drink line up in an organized, dependable, evenly spaced out succession making sobriety unthinkable, and moderation a celebratory faux pas. Drinkers have plenty of reasons to drink during the holiday season.
I scoffed at the weak and undisciplined among us. I felt superior to anyone who struggled to control his or her sweet tooth. At a restaurant with clients or friends, I boldly drank my dessert, choosing Irish Coffee over the Creme Brulee everytime. I drank extra-bitter, extra-strong IPAs. When I drank a bourbon and Coke, I asked the bartender to hold the Coke. There was nothing sweet about me…just ask my wife.
Then I stopped drinking.
It had never occurred to me that beer – even a bitter IPA – is basically carbonated sugar water. What the hell did I think malted barley was? As I weaned off of alcohol, I discovered a ravenous sugar addiction lurking just behind the booze bottle.
My ignorance about myself extends far beyond my alcohol-induced addiction to sugar. I also had a misguided interpretation of my relationship to other people – especially people in power who exerted influence over my direction and activities.
“We can.” That’s the response I received for years when I asked my wife, Sheri, if she wanted to have sex. As an active alcoholic, that consent was good enough for me. I didn’t know it, but I was looking to sex for the same dopamine hit I got from alcohol. A reluctant, “We can,” was enough.
When the question is, “Do you want to…?” and the response is, “We can,” that’s never really enough.
I’m not just talking about the psychological damage her consent did to Sheri. “We can,” really messed me up in profound and lasting ways.
I spent way too much time on social media during the week between the holidays. I usually post about my writing and podcast, then turn it off, so anything more than a few minutes a week makes me feel gross. I probably only scrolled fb and IG for a grand total of an hour, but I still needed to take a hot shower, scrub my eyes with bleach and submerge my phone in Windex.
In case I’ve been unclear, I don’t enjoy social media. I think my dislike stems from my borderline-perverted curiosity about your messy, dysfunctional lives. I don’t want to see your family’s strained smiles wearing itchy sweaters in front of a dead evergreen adorned with LEDs and third-grade craft projects. Great – someone held Preston down long enough to comb his hair, and Bill really did a nice job sucking in his gut for the ten seconds until the timer on the phone camera ran down to zero. Precious. Send it to grandma. I want the truth, damn you!
The most temporarily effective thing my wife and I tried to help us get along during my alcoholism was simple: Be nice. I describe this plan as temporarily effective because while it created moments of peace in our house more successfully than anything else we tried for the ten years of my active addiction, it ultimately didn’t work. So it was the most effective ineffective path we went down to fix our marriage.
Here are the details. Before we said anything to each other, we were to run it through this filter: Is it nice? Yep, we banked our marriage on the childhood mantra, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
I was shocked when he said it. Not only did he admit to letting his drinking get in the way of spending time with his children, but even when he was actively engaged with his kids, he didn’t enjoy it. He wanted to be somewhere else. The connection with his own flesh and blood was empty for him.
For a proud father, that was a bold and vulnerable admission. I know a thing or two about vulnerability. I have written and spoken publicly about some of my most despicable behavior. But I have never admitted to hating spending time with my children.