It is terrifying. I’m running as fast as I can, but something is bogging me down. It’s like my joints have been soaking in rubber cement and I’m wearing clown shoes. I’m trying to get away from whatever is chasing me. Is it a man with a knife, or is it a monster? I’m unsure, and really, it’s unimportant. What matters is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t run fast enough, and whatever it is, it is gaining me.
Have you ever had this kind of dream? I have this one semi-regularly. It isn’t just about being chased, it is about my own ability to run being hampered or limited. I don’t know what it means. I’ve never had any of my dreams analyzed. But I can tell you what it reminds me of. It reminds me of trying to get away from the high-functioning alcoholism that was slowly killing me. My progress was slow and clunky, and I felt like I could not put distance between me and my pursuer. My top speed, as mediocre as it might have been, was completely elusive as I trudged weakly forward, trying to gain traction while the earth oozed like quicksand below my feet.
It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s the reason we humans are so tribal. When we see others repeat an activity or opinion that we embrace, the “others” solidify our belief system.
I know what you’re thinking. Awesome, this guy is going to write about politics and how broken our society is because of tribal stubbornness and because we only listen to people who sound like us, right? Wrong! I’ve got news for us all. Confirmation bias impacts a lot of aspects of our lives beyond the polarizing issues of politics. In fact, your confirmation bias might just be the biggest hurdle keeping you from long-term sobriety.
A double negative is not nearly as effective as a positive. I’m an eternal optimist, so as someone who is perpetually fixated on the positives, I should know the difference. Less (negative) of a bad thing (negative) is not nearly as awesome as a good thing. And this, my friends, is why our traditional addiction recovery system doesn’t work. I should probably do some explaining.
An acquaintance of mine posted on social media on July 5th that if the people he heard shooting off fireworks from home the previous night would just spend 1% of what they spent on the fireworks on the wine he makes and sells, he would be very happy. He made reference to the money people spent on fireworks as “going up in smoke.” The crystal clear insinuation was that money spent on craft wine was classy, elegant, refined and clearly more socially esteemable than money wasted on celebratory explosions.
So much of the stigma that keeps alcoholics trapped is encapsulated in this one misguided post. Wine is desirable. People who drink it are savvy and wise. As a wine producer, he holds his industry and his product in high regard. He is proud of his alcohol, and he is fearless in throwing a little shade on people who don’t share his passion for using their disposable income for intoxication.
Could you imagine a cigarette company executive teasing people about recklessly sending their money up in smoke rather than buying tobacco? How about an illegal drug dealer? If you sold meth or heroin, would you brag on social media about how much less of a waste of money your product is versus fireworks?
If I told you that I never think about drinking alcohol anymore, that would be a lie. So I won’t tell you that. I’ll tell you the truth about what a return to drinking would look like for me. It isn’t a lie, but it isn’t pretty, either.
One of the greatest benefits from permanent sobriety for me is the end of the mental gymnastics of high-functioning alcoholism. When I was a drinker, I spent countless hours debating my alcoholic status, and creating drinking rules in a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable.
I awoke slowly and tried to blink my eyes into focus. I stared at the ceiling and realized my memory of the previous night was incomplete. There were missing pieces – again I had gaps in my recollection I would have to piece together. It had been happening like this for decades now. Not every night, or even every week. But every month, certainly, I drank far too much and couldn’t remember the details.
I started looking around for clues. Were my clothes on or off? Did I brush my teeth? Was there a cup of water on the bedside table? Did I plug in my phone to charge? Did I put myself to bed, or did I simply fall down when I’d had too much?
I was terrified to wake my wife, so I laid silently still until my fear of the unknown surpassed my fear of her reaction. I didn’t roll into her and put my arm gently around her for fear of an elbow to my ribcage. I shook her shoulder gently, and braced for her reaction.
I listened yesterday to Dax Shepard and Glennon Doyle talking on Dax’s podcast (Armchair Expert – it’s my favorite) about how in many ways, it is harder to be a high-functioning alcoholic than an obnoxious, obvious, stumbling lush. When we keep our predilection quietly hidden behind a veil of normalcy and productivity, not only must we manage the internal chaos of alcoholism, but we also expend incalculable energy keeping our secrets hidden. We all agreed this was a valid and significant point (they agreed, and I was nodding, but I feel like they could sense my support).
Do you know what’s even harder than being a high-functioning alcoholic? It’s loving a high-functioning alcoholic. The deceit is still there. All the downplaying, making excuses and covering up still exists, but by participating in the denials, the loved one is perpetuating the disease and dysfunction that they so loath. It must feel like constantly painting the house that your alcoholic is trying to tear down from the inside out.
Ten days ago, when restaurants and bars in Denver were ordered to close seating areas, but allowed to stay open for delivery and carryout only, I said to my wife, “They’ll never close liquor stores. They’ll have riots on their hands.” I thought about the double whammy liquor store owners would face. Not only would they have weeks of lost revenue, but they’d have thousands of dollars in glass repair expenses after nightly break-ins. We talked about the idea with pathetic chuckles, but there was nothing funny about it. I believed every word of our discussion.
Two days ago, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered all liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries closed as part of the city’s “stay home” restrictions. Lines immediately wrapped around the block outside liquor stores and pot shops as consumers panic-bought as much as they could fit in their vehicles. When asked for a comment regarding liquor store closings, Mayor Hancock told reporters, “As much as I might think it’s essential for me, it’s not essential for everyone.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and as he tried to enact measures to keep people home and stop the spread, and while he was making decisions that would crush our local economy and bankrupt small business owners, he made a joke about his own alcohol dependence? Isn’t that what calling alcohol, “essential for me,” means?
A week ago, the thought that March Madness could actually be cancelled given the billions of dollars involved had not yet crossed my mind. Now, just seven days later, my brain is whirling with the depth and breadth of the collateral damage from the doctrine of isolation that is more severe than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. Is that too dramatic for you? Can you name a time when government ordered constitutionally protected private businesses to close, churches were shuttered and the travel industry was destroyed? I can’t. Dramatic? Yes. Really, inconceivably happening? Also yes.
(If you are struggling with the temptation to drink as we isolate and our everyday lives are so dramatically changed, please click here to read my Elephant Journal article published this week on the topic of the unrelenting shame of drinking alcohol through crisis.)
“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.