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.
It takes me about ten minutes to lock down our house each night. That’s a long time to secure a small, one story bungalow. It’s kind of a problem. I get irrationally upset if my wife needs to get something out of the car in the detached garage or water the plants after I’ve set the alarm. I’m getting better, though. It used to take fifteen minutes.
When I was in my twenties – fearless and thirsty – alcohol was the glue that kept me bonded to my friends. In beer we found laughter and silliness. Vodka gave us courage and lowered our inhibitions. Shy, private individuals became a loud, extroverted community of fun seekers when we shared our lubricating beverage. We were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When we drank, we fit together.
With the encouragement of my community, I shaved my head except for a strip of long hair running down the middle from my forehead to the back of my neck. It was my junior year in college. I would be interviewing for a job soon, and I would need to look professional. This was my last chance to have a mohawk, and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.
As I drove west out of Denver on Highway 6 toward the mountains, I wasn’t seeking a particular destination. I was seeking an answer. The 19 miles between Golden and Idaho Springs twist and weave through Clear Creek Canyon. It is among the most breathtaking stretches of pavement in the country, but I barely noticed. In Idaho Springs, Highway 6 joined Interstate 70 and I continued into the mountains through the Eisenhower Tunnel and into Silverthorne.
The top was down and the windows were open on my Jeep, but I still felt like I couldn’t catch my breath as I drove aimlessly through mountain towns surrounded by people eager to hike or mountain bike or relax in mountain retreats. I was as far from relaxation as I’d ever been. My mind swirled as I tried to make sense of what seemed a cataclysmic predicament.
When I quit drinking, I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I was too ashamed – ashamed of my disease and embarrassed to be tainted with the stigma that is persistently and unfortunately associated with AA. I didn’t go away to a 30 day rehab because I couldn’t wrap my brain around letting go of my family and business responsibilities for a whole month. I took a different path to permanent sobriety.
I read. I read book after book after book about alcoholism and recovery. I read clinical books about how the body processes alcohol and the many diseases and biological dysfunction heavy drinking causes. I read books about neurotransmitters and other detailed explanations of brain function. And I read memoir after memoir written by alcoholics who had visited the same depths of despair where I wallowed, but made it out and had the strength to tell their stories.