“This is the best I’ve ever felt in my life!” claims the caption on Instagram. “Tap the heart if you are waking up sober!” The rainbows and unicorns approach to addiction recovery so popular on social media actually makes sobriety harder for me. I want to drink to settle my nausea from the transparent grovelling for likes and cyber-appreciation. “Since I’ve given all my troubles to God, I don’t want to drink anymore and I feel so free!” Listen, I’m all about prayer and repentance, and I feel like God is firmly on my side. But the idea that we can hand over the steering wheel and take a nap, and our addiction will melt away, is too much for me to embrace.
I’m not trying to pick a fight, and I am happy for anyone who can recover based on inspirational slogans and dogma. That’s just not me. And I’ve heard from enough readers on the topic to know that’s not helpful to many of you, either.
The benefits of permanent sobriety are neither instantaneous nor simple. But once I put in the significant time, made the gruelling effort and opened my mind and heart to the changes in my life, the enlightenment has far exceeded my wildest expectations of recovery.
While most retailers are recovering from the exhaustion of the most fiscally important time of their year, those who sell diet plans and gym memberships are just getting revved up. The transition from the way we live our lives during the holidays to the crushing reality of January can give us whiplash, for sure.
For us high-functioning alcoholics, January is the most important time of the year, too. The shame of holiday overindulgence and regret of festive alcohol-induced decisions is fresh is our minds.
Christmas Eve was one of the biggest days of the year, not just personally or spiritually, but for our business. For fifteen years, my wife and I were bread bakers. We owned a neighborhood whole grain bakery, and holidays that brought families together around the dinner table where huge for us. Christmas Eve meant long production hours, stressful decisions about how much of each product to bake and hundreds of additional customer interactions. Many people think of relaxation and family when they think of Christmas Eve. For those of us in retail or hospitality, Christmas Eve means balls to the walls work. While everybody else was listening to Andy Williams sing about, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I was working my ass off.
One particularly stressful Christmas Eve about a decade ago, I was working late to closeout the Christmas season at the bakery while my wife took our four small children to church with my parents who were visiting for the holiday. The bakery was closed and the door was locked. I turned out all the lights and turned up the volume on the Christmas music. I drank eggnog as I worked in the dark. I blended it about 50/50 with the whiskey I kept in my desk drawer, like Lou Grant, for just such occasions.
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.