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.
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.