She was good. Really good. Like most high school stars who are awarded full-ride athletic scholarships to division one universities, Amber was used to being the best ball player on the diamond. Her freshman year at Baylor University in 2000 would be her first experience having to work hard to keep up. How did she respond? She drank.
“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.
You are not just an emptiness that breathes and walks and eats…
The melting point of chocolate is the temperature of the human mouth. It’s one of those happy accidents in the universe, like the apparent sizes of the discs of the moon and sun being the same, so that total solar eclipses can even happen at all.
I cook my own drugs. I confess that raw concoctions, like the batter for my chocolate chocolate chip muffins, are often superlative to the finished product. It’s the way they coat your mouth. The sugar, fat, and salt are just merging. The baking soda and powder are starting to fizz. The whole chemical reaction is taking off, right there on your tongue, studded with solid cocoa pearls that immediately begin their surrender.
But you’ll get the jitters so quick. You’ve got to take the edge off, cut it with baking, or it’s too pure, too strong.
This is a family week, if such a thing exists. In the United States, Thanksgiving marks time spent with, or at the very least thoughts about, family. Joyous times. Painful times. Sober thoughts. Intoxicated memories. Family is complicated. The grip they have on our emotions comes and goes, often in correlation to our geographical proximity. But make no mistake about it – on a week like this one, the family-o-meter is pegged in overdrive.
I recently challenged my friends in our SHOUT Sobriety program with this writing prompt: “Describe the stages of knowing that alcohol had no place in your life.” Sarah wrote the response to the prompt that follows. As we navigate the messiness of a week with family in the spotlight, I thought it particularly appropriate to share her experience. And yes…there is a bit of irony to featuring the lessons of a Canadian on U.S. Thanksgiving week (in my defense, she wrote it very close to Canadian Thanksgiving last month).
I can’t remember not knowing that alcohol was likely to be a danger in my life – that the number of alcoholics on both sides of my family tree meant I was at high risk. I was lectured to. from a young age, about this by my mother, the same person who insisted I have a glass of wine with dinner the day my first child was born. Because that drink was safe.
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.
I recently watched the documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ NBA dynasty called, “The Last Dance.” Their coach, Phil Jackson, was a well-known Zen Buddhist, and he brought a lot of those principles to the team. During the relentless number of interviews Micheal Jordan had to tolerate, he was often asked about his plans for the future. Would he play another year, or was it time to retire? Would the team stay together, or was it time to rebuild? Sometimes Jordan would refer to what he learned from his coach about living in the present. He would plead with the media pestering him with questions about the future to please let him enjoy the celebration of the moment.
I’m not sure if there is more attention lately on staying focused on the present, or if I’m just more aware of it now because there was no room for mental-health theory when I was in active alcoholism, but it feels rare for a day to go by when I am not reminded to live in the moment. Phil and Michael were talking about it over 20 years ago, and Buddhist philosophy certainly goes back a skosh further than that. But it feels like there is an increasing emphasis on choosing to focus on the day we are in and ignore both the target destination and the rear-view mirror.
My holiday season was great. At least, it was great on paper. I had lots of family time, lots of neighborhood parties and festive work events. I slept-in to the best of this early riser’s ability on many days. I didn’t write much, didn’t record any Untoxicated Podcast episodes, spent almost no time on social media, didn’t promote my SHOUT Sobriety program, had two weeks off from high school soccer coaching and hardly watched the news at all while listening to Christmas music and watching football bowl games. I took some downtime and relaxed. During the first 11 1/2 months of the year, I put in long hours like most Americans, and the rest was well deserved. Perfect, right?
Here’s the problem. All those things I didn’t do are the things that make me feel good. There’s a line from the movie, Tommy Boy, that often pops into my mind. Tommy’s father, and very successful business owner, Tom Sr., says, “You’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” I feel a lot of stress to keep going, and sleeping-in before watching college football doesn’t do anything to scratch that itch.
There is a sign on Interstate 70 eastbound in the Floyd Hill area just before you exit the Rocky Mountains headed for Denver that says, “Attention Truckers: You Are Not Down Yet – Four More Miles of Steep and Winding Highway.” I am in pretty close contact with a lot of people who are navigating the holidays sober for the first time. If you are one of those people, that message on I70 is meant for you.
If you made it through Halloween without drinking, I am proud of you. Congratulations if you successfully abstained through Thanksgiving. That is awesome. If you waded through the excesses and overindulgence of December, including Christmas Day, and you protected your sobriety, that is outstanding. But don’t drop your guard now. There is a lot of work and immediate threat staring you in the face, and I’m not talking about New Year’s Eve.
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.
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.