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.
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.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.
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.
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.
My hands trembled as I approached the betting window at the casino’s sports book. The man behind the glass wouldn’t accept my $600 bet. When he explained that it exceeded their limit for a single bet on an over/under, I hesitated momentarily. Reason and maturity tried to take control of the argument in my head, but rational thought was washed away by my elevated blood alcohol level. My pulse raced as I pushed the money back toward the man and asked him to place two identical $300 bets on the under.
I wasn’t being greedy. I just had to get back to even. I hadn’t showered or changed clothes or slept much, really, in over 40 hours. The thing I had done relentlessly for the past two days was drink alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.
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.
The frozen, desolate, grey rocks shoot vertically from thick layers of untouched white snow making a majestic contrast. The bitter cold and howling wind give the peaks a deadly and isolated feel, while my proximity – just a few hundred yards away – give the tippy-top of the mountain an uncomfortable accessibility. The clear sky is a rich, dark blue reminding me how close I am to the edge of the atmosphere. The last thirty seconds of the ride on the Lenawee lift at the A-Basis Ski Area is one of my favorite places on earth. Getting so close to such uninhabitable beauty should not be so easy. The splendor is never lost on me.
Christmas leaves me feeling like shit. It has for at least a couple of decades. I’m not talking about Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m talking about the month or so that follows Christmas. It’s easy to point to January as a long, cold month devoid of major holiday festivities, and for many years, I blamed my post-Christmas blues on winter. A lot of people do. But that’s not it. Short days and cold temperatures don’t have much to do with it, really. My January dreariness is because I’ve been doing Christmas wrong.
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.