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.
New on the Untoxicated Podcast – Jason and I talk about my dance with addiction.
It started with sips from my dad’s beer when I was young, grew to experimentation in high school, graduated to constant binge drinking in college, developed into a daily habit in young adulthood, and metastasized into alcoholism as I plummeted into the pit of debilitating alcohol-induced depression.
I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
If you love to drink alcohol like me, there is no time of year quite like the holiday season. There are holiday-themed work happy hours, neighborhood Christmas potlucks complete with BYOB, booze flowing secret Santas, wine-centric cookie exchanges, appetizer and cocktail parties with church friends and lots of family gatherings with spiked eggnog and warm cider. You eat and drink your way through the busiest, often most stress-filled, time of the year. And it’s great…until it isn’t.
Do you want to know how to make an alcoholic feel like a normal, responsible drinker? You normalize his gluttonous behavior. This normalization is what separates alcoholism from other drug addictions. There is not a circumstance under which smoking meth or shooting up heroin looks normal in my world, but drinking robustly is often the norm among people who do not consider themselves alcoholics. And there is no situation that welcomes drinking to excess, even for the responsible, quite like the holidays. In fact, holidays make an active alcoholic feel normal. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Look around. I’m just like everyone else. Alcoholic? Not me.”
The void is a big deal. Filling the void left when the alcoholic quits drinking or the addict stops using is widely considered necessary in the recovery world if long-term sobriety is to be maintained. When drugs and alcohol go from a top priority to a missing chunk of an addict’s existence, something must fill that vacated time and space. Alcoholics who do not address the void are called, “dry drunks.” They might no longer drink, but their inability to find something positive to take the place of the booze leaves them spiritually and emotionally no better off than when they were active alcoholics.
I get it. The void is a real thing, and a force to be reckoned with.
But what if we are looking at it all wrong? What if the void is not the hole left behind when the alcohol is gone, but rather, the hole that was always there that alcohol filled with ease and comfort? What if rather than address the void in sobriety to prevent relapse, we address the void before we learn how good it feels to fill it with drink? What if the void is the cause of addiction, rather than its collateral damage?
A girl was locked in a room and held down on a bed while a boy fondled her breasts and greedily explored her body through a drunken haze at the encouragement of his intoxicated friend. A man with an impeccable reputation, a beautiful family and a mountain of credentials vehemently denies any involvement in such a dastardly assault in spite of his accuser’s 100% certainty that he’s the one.
Both are convincing and believable – the victim and the man she accuses. I don’t know what happened, and neither do you.
But I have a unique perspective. I have been through experiences similar enough to add a twist to the discussion. It’s a twist I have not heard explored on CNN or FOX News. It’s not hard for me to believe the violated, abused girl and the irreproachably qualified man are both telling the truth. Their truth, as they remember it. Their truth as their subconscious minds in survival mode (our subconscious is all about survival) have manipulated them to remember it.
I was very drunk one of the first times I had sex as a teenager, and so was the neighbor-girl who was alone in that bedroom with me. We had not been dating. We had never flirted or shown affection for one another. We got drunk and we kissed. We were clumsy and inexperienced, but nothing was stopping our hormones and curiosity. There was brief, bumbling, inept penetration followed by embarrassment, awkward silence and months of mutual avoidance. I didn’t force myself on her, but I was as ashamed of my sexual persistence as I was of my performance. I was eager, and she was willing. We were both very, very drunk.