If you’ve been lied to by an alcoholic, don’t take it personally. Denial is the cornerstone of the disease. And believe me, no one is getting lied to by an alcoholic more than the alcoholic himself. We don’t want to do it. It is not in our DNA. It is not a sign of spiritual deficiency. It isn’t a choice, either. In fact, when I was in active addiction, and expending massive amounts of energy hiding my predicament, I swore to my wife that I never lied, and that I was the most honest person in her life. And I believed that to my core.
Denial is a powerful tool. Sometimes, when we feel trapped and alone – out of options and staring the stark and bitter reality right in the face – denial is all we have left.
Sometimes, often really, denial is what keeps us drinking.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.
Flat Earthers and alcohol drinkers have one thing in common. They deny the truth in the face of mounting evidence (I could add people who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen to this category, but I don’t want to get political, because Trumpsters drink alcohol, too).
I wasn’t hanging around Greece in 500 B.C., so I really don’t know how the initial conversations went, but maybe it was something like this: “Hey, do you see the end of the earth over there? Well, I sailed over there, and the edge just kept moving,” said Greek guy 1. Greek guy 2 probably retorted, “Oh yeah, well I’ve never sailed over there, and I can see the edge of the earth from here, so I think you’re full of shit.” The edge of the earth, or lack thereof, didn’t impact Greek guy 2’s daily life, so there was no reason for him to pay attention to his friend or adjust his belief system. He just kept living his life and believing the plastic he put in his recycling bin was being melted down and reused, and not that it was being dumped into the Pacific.
Now, 2,500 years later, evidence is mounting that there is no safe quantity of alcohol, and it is a leading contributor to all kinds of chronic and acute human disasters, yet we drink on with reckless abandon because we can’t see that it impacts us directly. It makes me want to walk over to the end of the earth and jump off in frustration.
I occasionally get lured into an argument about the disease designation of alcoholism. People like me believe addiction is a disease for two reasons. First, just like cancer negatively impacts our cellular makeup (biology) and can kill us if left untreated, alcoholism changes our neurotransmitter function (neurology) and can kill us if left untreated. Second, alcoholism prevention is woefully underfunded considering the three million alcohol-related deaths annually, and dropping the disease designation will do nothing to get this epidemic the attention it deserves.
Similarly, from time to time, I am baited into arguing about my personal conviction for owning the alcoholic label. Others argue that the word is so stigmatized that people avoid the label, and thus keep drinking and denying to their considerable peril. I don’t disagree, which is precisely why I own the label. By doing so, I take the power out of the stigma. What are you going to do, tease me by calling me an alcoholic? I just called myself an alcoholic, you slow-witted loser. If we want people to get help early, like at the first signs of dysfunction, we need to destigmatize the disease of alcoholism (just as cancer, which, by the way, afflicts slightly fewer Americans than alcoholism).
Is alcoholism a disease? Yes. Is crushing the stigma associated with alcoholism crucial to ending the epidemic. An emphatic yes!
But that’s not the point. If we want to reach our human potential, we must evolve past the arguments about this diabolical disease.
June 22, 2019, dawns beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic, calling to mind the day of our wedding twelve years before. The second half of those dozen circuits around the sun have been hard. Today, we’re barely seven months post-transplant. My single liver we now share between the two of us, his own having been incinerated with the rest of the biohazardous waste accumulated by the hospital that day back in November. I’ve had plenty of chances to think that we’d never see another anniversary together.
He’d told me, a week or so earlier, “Don’t do anything for the anniversary, I’ve got something planned.”
It felt like the first good sign since our transplant team had diagnosed him as rejecting the new liver graft. Maybe we were finally getting the rejection under control? Maybe we’d finally gotten the meds right? Except for his waxy skin, and his drifting in and out of vacant stares, and the yellow tinges to his eyes coming and going like I might be imagining them…
There is no better indication of strength, integrity and intelligence than a person who owns his mistakes and takes responsibility for corrective action. It’s why I prefer stand-up comedians to politicians. I’d take Stephen Colbert or Dennis Miller for president over any denying or deflecting boob who actually squirms his way into the job.
Honesty, humility and vulnerability are admirable traits. They are the reason we have thousands of listeners and readers (although this particular sentence isn’t very humble). Taking ownership is a sign of confidence. A mistake can’t take me down! We admit, we fix, we learn and we do better the next time. It’s a sign of maturity.
All of these lofty philosophical ramblings about ownership make my position regarding the culprit responsible for my alcoholism kind of surprising.
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.
This stigma is strong. The stigma is the enemy. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is what keeps us drinking. I spent ten years in active alcoholism. Much of that time was spent trying to get out while being pulled back in by the shame and stigma. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is perpetuated from within the walls intended for healing.
When I read Victoria’s story about shame and stigma, I asked if I could publish it here. She not only understands the incarceration of the stigma, she describes it as well as I’ve ever heard it described. I’m betting you’ll resonate with Victoria’s words, too.
“Hello, my name is Victoria, and I am an alcoholic.”
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.
Your voices. Many voices. Consistent voices telling the same stories about how addiction works, and how denials only make matters worse.
I hear you. I hear from you. Mostly in private messages, but sometimes out in the open for all to see. I’ve heard how my story gives you hope. I need you to hear from me how your stories give me strength to keep going. To keep sharing.
To keep telling our stories.
And now, I want to expand the story into your voices. There is strength in numbers. If we are going to crush the stigma that makes high-functioning alcoholism so pervasive, it will take all of our voices.