Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
Have you ever cheated the alcoholic death you deserved? I have. I can tell you fuzzy, intoxicated stories about at least a dozen times when I should have died. So when I talk about my sobriety saving my life, I am talking about two things. I am talking about a return to health and the reversal of the long, slow, gradual slide toward my alcoholic demise. But I’m also talking about the fact that I no longer cheat certain alcohol-induced death.
That second one – the acute, not the chronic – that’s the kind of alcoholic disaster that we don’t think or talk enough about. That’s the kind of death that our friend, Cheryl Kuechler, stared in the face a couple of weeks ago. That’s the kind of sudden, tragic, immediate, heartbreaking death that Cheryl’s sobriety saved her from.
I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll get to Cheryl’s story in a minute. First, I want to talk about you and me.
I recently watched the documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ NBA dynasty called, “The Last Dance.” Their coach, Phil Jackson, was a well-known Zen Buddhist, and he brought a lot of those principles to the team. During the relentless number of interviews Micheal Jordan had to tolerate, he was often asked about his plans for the future. Would he play another year, or was it time to retire? Would the team stay together, or was it time to rebuild? Sometimes Jordan would refer to what he learned from his coach about living in the present. He would plead with the media pestering him with questions about the future to please let him enjoy the celebration of the moment.
I’m not sure if there is more attention lately on staying focused on the present, or if I’m just more aware of it now because there was no room for mental-health theory when I was in active alcoholism, but it feels rare for a day to go by when I am not reminded to live in the moment. Phil and Michael were talking about it over 20 years ago, and Buddhist philosophy certainly goes back a skosh further than that. But it feels like there is an increasing emphasis on choosing to focus on the day we are in and ignore both the target destination and the rear-view mirror.
My wife almost didn’t marry me because I couldn’t wrap a gift. Alcoholism – we survived that. Four kids, emergency room visits, emotional immaturity, running a business together – we made it past all of those major hurdles, but Sheri almost dumped me before any of it got started because I did such a crappy job of wrapping her present on our first Christmas together.
It’s true. My wife takes the act of giving seriously. At first, I thought her rejection of my feeble attempt at wrapping made her selfish. Then I realized I had it backwards. She puts so much thought and effort into the act of giving, and she didn’t want to be with someone who half-assed it. It’s not about materialism, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. But if it’s not from the heart, she’s not interested.
Sheri used to make a really big deal about her birthday. She would celebrate for a week. Again, it was never about gifts or receiving. It was always about spending quality time with quality people – the kind of people who take their time with the wrapping if they do give her a gift. It was experiential, and Sheri wanted everyone to be as happy as she was that she was a year older. She didn’t need a big, fancy party. Her smile and laugh were celebration enough. She oozed carefree joy.
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.
The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.
Sober people are losers! Look, I’d like to tell you that my opinion wasn’t this superficial, jaded, prejudiced, narrow, misinformed, misguided, misintellectualized, bigoted, arrogant, and just plain asinine, but it was. I thought people who didn’t drink alcohol, for any reason, were losers.
This included my own mother for quite a while. God, how shallow and despicable was I?
And I’d like to tell you that my opinion changed when I started exploring sobriety, or at least once I was sober myself. Nope! I continued to consider people who didn’t drink alcohol to be losers, I just tucked my tail between my legs and joined their pathetic ranks.
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?
Disney on Ice at the Coliseum – my oldest child, our six-year-old daughter, could not have been more excited. It was February, and the arena still smelled like livestock sweat and cow poop after the National Western Stock Show was held there a month prior, but she didn’t notice. Neither did her younger brothers who were only excited because their fearless leader, Cathryn, was bouncing off the walls.
A good friend told me she was participating in a sober October program. I told her that would have been terrifying to me when I was still drinking because of how much I used to love, LOVE, to drink on Halloween. She told me she cheated. She started her sober October on September 30th so she could drink on Halloween. That kind of defeats the purpose of exploring sobriety across the various aspects of your life, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that make the entire last week of the sober challenge useless as anticipation builds toward a night of costumes and parties and drinking?
I don’t think she has a drinking problem. I know she wishes wine wasn’t so inextricably linked to all facets of our culture, and she’s probably curious about how she will feel after a month of abstinence. Probably. But then again, no one knew I was an alcoholic before I quit drinking and told them about my disease. I sure was good about manipulating the rules I established to control my drinking. Isn’t drinking on Halloween just a sober October rule manipulation?