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.
An acquaintance of mine posted on social media on July 5th that if the people he heard shooting off fireworks from home the previous night would just spend 1% of what they spent on the fireworks on the wine he makes and sells, he would be very happy. He made reference to the money people spent on fireworks as “going up in smoke.” The crystal clear insinuation was that money spent on craft wine was classy, elegant, refined and clearly more socially esteemable than money wasted on celebratory explosions.
So much of the stigma that keeps alcoholics trapped is encapsulated in this one misguided post. Wine is desirable. People who drink it are savvy and wise. As a wine producer, he holds his industry and his product in high regard. He is proud of his alcohol, and he is fearless in throwing a little shade on people who don’t share his passion for using their disposable income for intoxication.
Could you imagine a cigarette company executive teasing people about recklessly sending their money up in smoke rather than buying tobacco? How about an illegal drug dealer? If you sold meth or heroin, would you brag on social media about how much less of a waste of money your product is versus fireworks?
I call it the pit. It is the depth of alcoholic despair where I would go as I sobered-up after drinking too much. It was an ensnaring web of depression and anxiety that left me debilitated – unwilling and unable to function. I’ll never forget that feeling. The memory both haunts me, and lifts me up solidifying my permanent sobriety.
Alcoholism isn’t about excesses, financial problems or legal issues. Alcoholism is about pain.
Alcoholism is a disease. It is a mental-health crisis as both our subconscious mind and our neurotransmitter function are hijacked by the liquid poison. It isn’t about willpower or moderation. We alcoholics can heal, but we require – we deserve – treatment and understanding.
Relapse. It’s such a dirty word to us alcoholics. When we first dip our toes into the frigid waters of sobriety, avoiding relapse is, quite necessarily, our singular focus. But it happens, and when it does, our failure can be brought on in a variety of ways. Sometimes it happens in an instant – a solitary trigger overwhelms us, and we are drinking before we can rationally process the situation.
But often, relapse doesn’t work like that. It isn’t instantaneous and unpredictable. Often, relapse is the last step in a series of events. It is a downward spiral spread out over some period of time. We try to fight it, but resistance seems futile. It is as if the universe or the devil is working against us in a diabolical plot to keep us mired in alcoholism.
I took a writing class with my favorite instructor over the weekend. She asked the writers to picture a particular irrelevant scene in the future, and imagine how that made us feel. The specific scene is irrelevant to what you are reading here, so I’ve spared you the details, but it wasn’t irrelevant to me. Not at all. In fact, quite to the contrary, it was very important, and the emotion that flooded my body upon considering the situation my writing coach suggested was complete and total relief.
I immediately recoiled and broke into a cold sweat. I’ve recently designated “relief” as a dirty word in my vernacular. Relief is what I chased with alcohol. I’ve used sex and food and work in search of that same soothing relief. Relief is the dangling carrot of addiction.
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?
A week ago, the thought that March Madness could actually be cancelled given the billions of dollars involved had not yet crossed my mind. Now, just seven days later, my brain is whirling with the depth and breadth of the collateral damage from the doctrine of isolation that is more severe than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. Is that too dramatic for you? Can you name a time when government ordered constitutionally protected private businesses to close, churches were shuttered and the travel industry was destroyed? I can’t. Dramatic? Yes. Really, inconceivably happening? Also yes.
(If you are struggling with the temptation to drink as we isolate and our everyday lives are so dramatically changed, please click here to read my Elephant Journal article published this week on the topic of the unrelenting shame of drinking alcohol through crisis.)
Kyle asked to enroll in our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism on June 13th. He was in the midst of a two month stint of sobriety and looking for something to help him make it stick. In early July, he was on day one and trying again.
Kyle is a few years younger than me, but he is living almost my exact story as alcoholism slowly destroys his life. His two kids are ages five and three, and his wife has run out of love and trust for him as he is losing his battle with the beast of addiction.
On October 13th, Kyle told me, “It seems like every relapse is harder and harder to explain. Explain to myself, my boss, family and kids. But most importantly it is harder and harder for me to have faith that I can stop for good and not lose everything.” On October 31st, Kyle drank a pint of vodka in the morning to nurse a hangover from the day before. He was passed out and vomiting by the evening, and he couldn’t even muster a smile for his children when they came home and wanted to show their candy to their daddy.
I sat crouched in the woods behind my house as the driving rain continued to lash my thoroughly drenched body. The temperature had dropped into the 40s, and I wasn’t wearing a jacket because I hadn’t planned to spend any time outside. I was drunk. Beyond drunk, really. I was in blackout territory as the lights of my teenage memory flickered in and out.
It makes me chuckle when people refer to marijuana as a gateway drug. The conversation is especially amusing when had over cocktails. Easy accessibility, societal acceptance and manageable effects of weed are often cited as the reasons people choose it for experimentation. Once that door is open, further experimentation often follows, goes the argument. But this argument ignores the obvious. No drug opens the gateway quite like the most available and most abused drug in the history of the world: alcohol.