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.
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 wouldn’t wish alcoholism on anyone. But…but…if I had it all to do over again, I don’t think I’d change a thing.
Do you remember the Kiefer Sutherland advertising campaign for Jose Cuervo? One of the taglines was, “Just don’t have any regrets.” That’s more than a little ambitious for a pusher of tequila, don’t you think? I have always assumed tequila was the Spanish word for regret. Has anyone ever started a night with, “lick it, slam it, suck its,” that didn’t end in regret? My life is chalked full of regrets, and more than a few of them can be directly attributed to Jose Cuervo.
“Come here and listen to this voicemail,” insisted my coworker, Loraine. She had a concerned look on her face, and she gestured in a way that assured me that my participation in her dilemma was not optional. She held her desk phone to my ear as I listened to the wife of another of our coworkers curse and spit venomous insults that would make Louis C.K. blush. “Jim’s wife dialed the wrong extension and left that on my phone instead of his,” Loraine surmised. “Have you ever heard anything so vile? I’m worried about them. If they talk to each other like that…that is not OK.”
More shocking for me than Jim’s wife’s language was Loraine’s reaction. I had heard vile, unhinged communication like that. In fact, I had heard a similar diatribe the previous weekend. And I gave it as good as I got it. For me, that voicemail was hardly noteworthy. For me, talking like that was normal.
I was an alcoholic. Vicious verbal combat had been normalized.
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.”
Just because I no longer drink doesn’t mean I am free. This will be my fifth consecutive sober Christmas, and I still wear the chains I forged in my drinking life. They are lighter now. They no longer define me, nor do they prevent me from living the holiday season with a joyful heart. But I can still feel enough weight from the chains that confined me in addiction to serve as a reminder. I am reminded that alcohol is a diabolical poison not meant for human consumption. But I am also reminded of time lost and mistakes made in the indelible ink of holidays spent with a young family. The future is bright, but I’ll never be free of the weight of the mistakes of the past.
The ghosts are all around to remind me. The stockings hang from our fireplace as they have since each of our four children was born. Like our kids, they are ready and sparkling and full of promise. And I can’t help but remember the times my selfish drinking left the promises unfulfilled. The lights twinkle and the decorations adorn, and it all reminds me of both festive times and regrettable memories of my disease trumping the potential for peace and love. The chances are all around me this time of year. Chances to make new memories, but also chances to remember the past lest it be repeated.
Then there are the pictures.
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.
October is scary movie season for me. While watching The Exorcist a couple of weeks ago, it struck me how far we have come in the treatment of mental illness. The movie was made in 1973, and having the possessed girl talk to a psychiatrist was the absolute last resort. Psychiatrists were seen as kooks. The preferred treatment option, before talk therapy, was to drill into her skull and remove part of her brain.
I guess that is less an example of how far we have come, and more evidence of how recently we have been completely ass-backwards as it relates to mental health.