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.
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. As a drinker, I worked hard to turn mundane activities into drinking events – to justify celebration or a spontaneous party. Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays because it provided cover for my alcoholic tendencies. I didn’t need to justify drinking heavily on a Wednesday evening. Our society, our culture and my neighborhood made it totally acceptable. Halloween was never about the kids or the costumes or the candy. Halloween was all about my wicked liquid poison.
My memory is filled with snapshots from Halloweens past. They are ingrained photos that were never really taken. They often capture the moment my anxiety and eagerness drained from my body and was replaced by the fulfillment only alcohol could provide for an alcoholic.
The only difference between me and the homeless drunk who dies in a gutter is our starting point. All alcoholics fall toward death. It can be a slow, gradual decline or a crashing, tumbling, free-fall descent. Some of us stop drinking before we reach the ultimate lethal bottom, and some of us don’t. My starting point saved my life. I’m talking about my socio-economic place in this world. I’m talking about how much I had to lose – how many loving relationships and how much tangible stuff I possessed. But most of all, I’m talking about morals. Morals matter. For an alcoholic, morals can be the difference between life and death.
When I gave the benediction on Sunday to conclude the church service where I had just delivered the sermon, I told the congregation they were made up of three groups of people. Some people were there because of concerns about their drinking or the drinking of a loved one. Some people were there because they are my friends and they love me and I thanked them very much. Some people were there because that’s where they go to church and they had no idea I was going to take to the pulpit to share my story and encourage them to help end the stigma associated with alcoholism.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I
Life is just one big list of priorities that starts with our highest priority like faith or family and dwindles down through the ranks to things that are decreasingly important to us such as paying bills or washing the car until there is no time or energy left and our lowest priorities, thing like reading junk mail or trimming our ear hair, are all but ignored. At the end of my drinking, alcohol held a very elevated place on my list of priorities second only to my closest family members that depend on me for survival. Everything and everyone else had slowly and over many years relinquished its place on my list of priorities to one of the deepest loves of my life – alcohol.
The morning after my last night of drinking began like so many such mornings before it. The agonizing stress and pain of failure consumed me. It had happened again! I had allowed a minor stress – an unexpected and innocent change of plans from my teenage daughter – to throw me across the line from planned and limited Sunday night beer drinking to out-of-control, straight-from-the-bottle, warm gin guzzling in search of relief – relief from the stress, relief from the constraints of controlled drinking and relief from the shame of my failure.
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, I stared sullenly into the bathroom mirror at the despicable, disgraceful drunk I had become. My eyes were puffy and my face was bloated and the sadness in my
My eyes blinked open. Before I could distinguish 3:07am from the blurry-red glow on my bedside table, a paralyzing wave of panic washed over me. A bucket of ice water thrown in my face would have been a more peaceful wakeup. Again! I had failed again! The Pit, as I called it, was more dark, deep, lonely, inescapable and depressing than ever. I had to start another week – another Monday morning – without a shred of pride or self esteem.