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.
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.