As we were wrapping up our first ever Sober and Unashamed Couples Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado, on Sunday, one of the the attendees told me that he and his wife wanted to go to Estes Park before their flight home Sunday night. He showed me the route that Google suggested to him, and we discussed his options.
The summer drive from Grand Lake to Estes Park takes you right through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, and is among the most beautiful 47 miles of scenic roadway in the world. You crest the majestic Rocky Mountains, are likely to see moose or elk, look across clear mountain lakes and experience views that are unmistakably Colorado. It is a winding road full of switchbacks and steep ascents that will take well over an hour to traverse, but the drive is the experience, and you won’t mind if it takes all day.
“This is the best I’ve ever felt in my life!” claims the caption on Instagram. “Tap the heart if you are waking up sober!” The rainbows and unicorns approach to addiction recovery so popular on social media actually makes sobriety harder for me. I want to drink to settle my nausea from the transparent grovelling for likes and cyber-appreciation. “Since I’ve given all my troubles to God, I don’t want to drink anymore and I feel so free!” Listen, I’m all about prayer and repentance, and I feel like God is firmly on my side. But the idea that we can hand over the steering wheel and take a nap, and our addiction will melt away, is too much for me to embrace.
I’m not trying to pick a fight, and I am happy for anyone who can recover based on inspirational slogans and dogma. That’s just not me. And I’ve heard from enough readers on the topic to know that’s not helpful to many of you, either.
The benefits of permanent sobriety are neither instantaneous nor simple. But once I put in the significant time, made the gruelling effort and opened my mind and heart to the changes in my life, the enlightenment has far exceeded my wildest expectations of recovery.
My holiday season was great. At least, it was great on paper. I had lots of family time, lots of neighborhood parties and festive work events. I slept-in to the best of this early riser’s ability on many days. I didn’t write much, didn’t record any Untoxicated Podcast episodes, spent almost no time on social media, didn’t promote my SHOUT Sobriety program, had two weeks off from high school soccer coaching and hardly watched the news at all while listening to Christmas music and watching football bowl games. I took some downtime and relaxed. During the first 11 1/2 months of the year, I put in long hours like most Americans, and the rest was well deserved. Perfect, right?
Here’s the problem. All those things I didn’t do are the things that make me feel good. There’s a line from the movie, Tommy Boy, that often pops into my mind. Tommy’s father, and very successful business owner, Tom Sr., says, “You’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” I feel a lot of stress to keep going, and sleeping-in before watching college football doesn’t do anything to scratch that itch.
Saturday was Christmas Tree Day for my family. The Salis Six, as my wife affectionately calls us, trudged out into the Colorado mountain forest with our tree cutting permit and killed the healthiest looking evergreen we could find. It’s now slowly rotting in the corner of our living room.
As strange as this tradition is when you really think about it, I love it just the same. It is my favorite day of the year. We listen to Bing and Eartha croon about the magic of the season, drink hot chocolate and eat a lunch of chili-cheese dogs at the volunteer fire station on the edge of the forest. It’s as much fun as my family can have together.
When we pulled into our driveway at home, I left the tree on the roof of our Jeep and went inside to retrieve the tape measure. As I entered the house, my wife’s heart sank. For just a moment, her memory of Christmases past dragged her back to the many times when arriving at home sent me immediately to the refrigerator for a beer. Old patterns die hard, and memories die even harder. Reality set it, and the terror passed for my wife as quickly as it came. She told me about it later, and I told her I understood. Because I did. Alcoholism is a very emotional disease. The pain and resentment is thick and not easy to wash off. Only time can heal some of the wounds. And sometimes, they reappear uninvited, unexpectedly.
I’m going to a holiday party with my people tomorrow night, and you’re invited to join us! There will be appetizers and festive non-alcoholic beverages, and lots of people to talk to who are also on a sober journey. I am on a panel at this event to lead a discussion geared toward people on all parts of the spectrum of alcohol use and abuse. If you are sober, this party is for you. If you are considering sobriety, we want you to be there. If you know something is not quite right, but you’re not sure what to do about it, you’ll be in good company at a party like this.
If you’re in the Denver metro, I so very much hope you’ll come to the party so I can meet you in person. If you live somewhere else, I hope you’ll look for an event to attend in your area. That’s really the point here. It has less to do with this specific party on this exact night in this particular town, and everything to do with engaging in your sobriety. If you don’t, you’ll drink. It’s as simple as that.
Sometimes progress is the enemy. Sometimes we gain some comfort from the strides we’ve made, but that comfort only serves to make the unexpected all that more jolting. Sometimes, our efforts leave us in dangerous middle ground – not yet strong enough to claim victory, but not weak enough to feel helpless and hopeless. That middle ground can be the most dangerous place of all.
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a drinker who is considering quitting like a person with 30 years of sobriety who still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. You mean he’s not fixed yet? He’s still got to attend these damn meetings to keep from drinking? What the sober curious don’t yet understand – what nobody outside the recovery community understands, frankly – is that sobriety is not a cure. Sobriety is a blessed lifestyle. Sobriety is how we humans were designed to function optimally.
Early sobriety is so complex that a guy could make a living writing about all the different components, challenges and associated stigmas. Oh wait, that’s what I’m trying to do. One of the greatest humps to get over for people new to sobriety is the idea that abstinence from a deadly poison is not, in fact, a punishment. Giving our bodies exercise, exposure to nature, connection with other humans, a sense of spirituality, plenty of sleep, intimate relationships, challenges to overcome and healthy food and beverage inputs is the key to happiness. Warping our brain function and destroying our organs is not exactly in the human body user’s manual.
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?
I met a guy last week who saw Jesus in an IHOP. He had a serious drug problem (the guy I met, not Jesus), and he had been praying hard for God to help him. I guess I figure that if the way you are living your life is questionable enough for Jesus to meet you for pancakes, change is probably in order. The guy I met has been clean for two years now.
I don’t know what really happened in the IHOP that day, and neither do you. I believe God is with us, all around us always, and we choose, consciously or subconsciously, to let Him into our lives to varying degrees at varying times. How’s that for a concrete assessment of what happened at that IHOP?
One day at a time. I hate that dogma. When I needed to get sober, the idea of thinking about it each day – making a daily commitment not to drink – felt like a form of imprisonment. I wanted to make a permanent lifestyle choice and move on. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t underestimating the gravity of the decision. I tried and failed to quit drinking enough times that I understood how impactful and significant the decision was. I equated it with the decision to get married or have kids. I wanted to make a decision that once done, could not be undone (at least not without major effort and negative consequences).
On the other hand, I understand how important those five words are to millions of people. One day at a time means you don’t have to make a permanent life decision. You just have to decide not to drink today. For some people in early sobriety, the one-day-at-a-time approach can lift a huge burden of foreverness, and put the commitment easily within reach. One day at a time can be a lifesaver.