Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a drinker who is considering quitting like a person with 30 years of sobriety who still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. You mean he’s not fixed yet? He’s still got to attend these damn meetings to keep from drinking? What the sober curious don’t yet understand – what nobody outside the recovery community understands, frankly – is that sobriety is not a cure. Sobriety is a blessed lifestyle. Sobriety is how we humans were designed to function optimally.
Early sobriety is so complex that a guy could make a living writing about all the different components, challenges and associated stigmas. Oh wait, that’s what I’m trying to do. One of the greatest humps to get over for people new to sobriety is the idea that abstinence from a deadly poison is not, in fact, a punishment. Giving our bodies exercise, exposure to nature, connection with other humans, a sense of spirituality, plenty of sleep, intimate relationships, challenges to overcome and healthy food and beverage inputs is the key to happiness. Warping our brain function and destroying our organs is not exactly in the human body user’s manual.
We tell our teenagers not to drink, then follow it up with, “If you do drink, don’t ever drive.” Leaving out the second part would be parental neglect even though it tacitly undermines the instruction to abstain altogether. Kids understand where we draw the line in the sand. Not drinking becomes a strong suggestion with limited consequences. As parents, we are in one of the many impossible situations inherent in loving teenagers.
I answer emails and texts and social media comments and phone calls daily from people dealing with temptations to drink alcohol and violate their commitments to sobriety. While each situation is unique, and thus my responses are individualized, generally speaking, I try to provide encouragement, information about brain chemistry, resources for pro-recovery nutrition and suggested activities that worked for me when I was in their exact same situations.
But I never tell them it is OK to give in and drink.
My neighbor shouted to me over the fence that he had an extra ticket to the ballgame, and asked me if I wanted to join him and his friends. I was two weeks sober and determined not to let my affliction ruin my life – social or otherwise. “Thanks – sounds like fun!” I shouted back. I boldly told him I wasn’t going to drink and I could drive the whole group there and back. He looked a little dismayed at my proclamation and offer, but mostly thankful that I’d solved a problem for him.
There were so many things wrong with my thinking, my acceptance and my offer. I was an alcoholic in early recovery, and the very last place I should have gone was to a Major League Baseball game with a bunch of beer and booze swilling guys on a Saturday night. But my stubborn conviction about plowing forward with a life unchanged save the lack of beer in my hand was making my bad decision for me, and off to the Rockies game I went.
I used to think sobriety was about determination and willpower. I remember countless mornings when I swore I would never drink again. Never. Sometimes I didn’t drink for months. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes days. Sometimes, my determination was replaced by anxiety or frustration or pain, and I drank that same evening.
Alcoholism is a diabolical disease, and it hasn’t a thing to do with willpower or determination. Alcoholism is about how our different brains react to being poisoned. For some of us, the experience is euphoric, and our brains adapt to prioritize alcohol. We aren’t weak or broken. We introduce our brains to one of the world’s most highly addictive substances, and our brains take the bait. And just like that, we are hooked.
Robin Williams famously said, “As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you can lower them.” He’s right, of course. When I drank, my brain often went to a different place. It was a dark and sinister place full of evil creativity. I could think of things to say when arguing with my wife that would make the devil blush. They say alcohol lowers inhibitions, and that’s right, too. My brain would dive deep to create the most malevolent thing I could possibly think to say to crush my wife’s spirit, and I would deliver the verbal blow without a moment’s hesitation.
Sheri would fight back, and she became adept at it, as is often the case with the spouse of an alcoholic. Her weapons were less perverse and twisted, but they were equally impactful. She would rant about divorce and death and her deepest wish that she had never met me in the first place. We hurled our filth at each other relentlessly. When we would go to that place – that dark corner in the seething and desperate pit of hell – the damage delivered was permanent and our love had no hope to survive the onslaught.
This old guy at our church used to lecture us about calling the holiday by its proper name: Independence Day. “Calling it the Fourth of July diminishes it to nothing more than a box on the calendar,” he would explain indignantly. He was annoying. He always had something to say and seemed to rarely listen. A collective groan could be heard throughout the sanctuary when he raised his hand during announcements.
But in this case, I think he was right. Independence is something to be revered and cherished. We have to fight for independence, and the cost is brutally high. Celebrating independence should be solemn and sacred. What we do on the fourth day of July each year, I think, misses the mark entirely.
I felt like such a fraud. The idea that I needed to quit drinking alcohol – that I fit the classification of alcoholic – filled me with doubt and shame. Sure, I was ashamed of the instances when I drank too much, argued with my wife and wasted days nursing dehydration while trying to put together the pieces of the previous night. But I was also petrified with fear that I wasn’t alcoholic enough. I was holding my marriage together, my employment and finances were intact, I had no legal issues and I maintained my house on the weekends just like all my non-addicted neighbors. I was lying and denying if I ignored my condition, but I was a fraud if I claimed the affliction of the gutter bum or someone who drank away his family and possessions. I believed making the self-diagnosis of alcoholic or not alcoholic was a binary choice, and I was stuck firmly in the middle.
Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
The school year is ending, the grass is green as flowers bloom, and the savory smoke will once again begin to roll off the backyard grills of America. It is Memorial Day weekend signaling the unofficial beginning of summer. It is time for bathing suits, neighborhood barbeques, patriotic parades, afternoons by the pool, freedom for the kiddos and family vacations. I love all the seasons, but there is something special about the start of summer. The anticipation of relaxed enjoyment and those long, lazy summer nights is almost tangible. The impatient wait is over. We made it back to summer again.
For us alcoholics in recovery, this most anticipated of seasons carries with it a measure of trepidation. As a tool of self preservation, our brains naturally block bad memories while shining a spotlight on the good times. As we approach Memorial Day, we remember our alcohol-enhanced summers full of drinking beers on sun-drenched afternoons, tropical umbrella drinks on the beach, block parties with full coolers and impromptu Thursday night cocktails on the porch. Memories of regret from overindulgence and blackouts are suppressed to make way for recollections of champagne toasts at summer weddings and gin and tonics on family vacations.
His cough made a hollow, painful, barking sound, and his breathing was labored. Her infant son’s struggles to breath and the sudden onset of it all was beyond terrifying. It was the middle of the night, and she scooped him from his crib to rush him to the hospital. Her confident actions were betrayed by the look of panic on her face and the trembling she felt through her entire body.
Her husband seemed half coherent as she tried to wake him and explain the urgency of the moment. She worried for the safety of her young daughter as she raced her baby son out the door and into the car. Her husband had been drinking that evening. He had drank until he passed out, and now she was leaving her daughter in his disoriented and semiconscious care.