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.
We tell our teenagers not to drink, then follow it up with, “If you do drink, don’t ever drive.” Leaving out the second part would be parental neglect even though it tacitly undermines the instruction to abstain altogether. Kids understand where we draw the line in the sand. Not drinking becomes a strong suggestion with limited consequences. As parents, we are in one of the many impossible situations inherent in loving teenagers.
I answer emails and texts and social media comments and phone calls daily from people dealing with temptations to drink alcohol and violate their commitments to sobriety. While each situation is unique, and thus my responses are individualized, generally speaking, I try to provide encouragement, information about brain chemistry, resources for pro-recovery nutrition and suggested activities that worked for me when I was in their exact same situations.
But I never tell them it is OK to give in and drink.
But wait, there’s more!
I remember watching those TV advertisements as a kid. You know the ones – the offer just kept getting better and better. There where Ginsu Knives, the Slap Chop, some flashlight with a military grade beam strength (whatever that means) and a variety of non-stick pans with revolutionary coatings (that we eventually ingest as the coatings come off into our food over time).
The product didn’t really matter. The success of the commercial model was all in the anticipation and buildup. First, the announcer would demonstrate the product. Then he would throw in unexpected accessories. After that, the price would be slashed from what he told us we expected to pay. Last, he would make it a two for one deal if we called within the next ten minutes. BUT YOU MUST ACT NOW!
I remember bringing my dad beers on the Saturday afternoons of my youth. In exchange for my courier services, he would give me sips. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I do remember how it felt. It wasn’t about a buzz from alcohol back then, it was about the comfort and love of bonding with my dad.
I remember finding a six-pack of beer hidden in the branches of a tree back in middle school. My two buddies and I each had two, and they were magnificent. I still don’t really remember the taste. I do remember the buzz. It came both from the alcohol and from the mischievous intent. We were doing something forbidden. If either our parents or the high schoolers who hid the beer caught us, we would have been in trouble.
“Is that it?” came the question from one of our four kids sitting behind my wife and me in the last hundred miles of our road trip to the Grand Canyon. “No,” I replied as we passed a relatively small crack in the Arizona desert. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
When we saw it, the massive hole was bigger than any of us imagined. And flowing through the bottom of the canyon was the surprisingly modest Colorado River. The persistence required for that stream of water to cut that ginormous canyon over that amount of time – hundreds of millions of years – was too much for me to comprehend.
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.
Often, the contrast between drinking and not drinking is dramatic and obvious. Like the time my next door neighbor called over the fence for me to come try a new whiskey he found at the mega liquor store. He found a winner this time, and he invited me to share it with him and his friend who was visiting from San Diego. I don’t remember the brand, but that would be beside the point, anyway. My neighbor bought it because it was distilled with liquid smoke, and it smelled like we were drinking a barbeque grill. It was delicious, but that was beside the point, too. The new and interesting blend and the friend from out of town were just excuses for the three of us to drink most of a bottle of whiskey, with some beers mixed in, and become numb to the rest of the world around us.
If you don’t fill the void left behind when you quit drinking, you’re not really recovering from alcoholism. You’re just a dry drunk, and if there’s one thing all dry drunks have in common, it’s that they all eventually relapse and start drinking again. This is very common knowledge in the recovery community, and something I’ve proven through my own failed attempts at sobriety dating back a dozen years.
But here’s the part that’s interesting to me. Where does the void come from? Is it really a void left behind when we stop drinking alcohol, or was the void there to begin with, and alcohol fit the emptiness just perfectly? I’ve written about it before, but my opinion is evolving as my experiences in recovery develop. I no longer think of it as a, “chicken or the egg,” conundrum. I believe when alcohol flows into our lives, it finds the vacant space and fills all of our nooks and crannies of our naturally occurring voided space. I receive a lot of emails from people struggling to quit drinking. The stories they tell me about the reasons they started drinking and became addicted to the liquid poison are as diverse and unique as your imagination. But when people tell me about their challenges with sobriety, it’s like their stories are squeezing through a funnel of sameness. Their lives go from different and unexpected, to predictably identical. Their stories are identical to my struggle to quit, too.
I fell asleep at 7:30pm last Friday night. I was feeling exhausted after dinner, and I laid down before cleaning the kitchen. Within a minute, I was out and didn’t wake until 8am Saturday. I have a teenage son for whom my twelve plus hours of sleep is an every weekend tradition, but for me, sleeping like that was very rare. It was also glorious and necessary.
Do you know what else my half-day hibernation was? It was a part of my recovery from alcoholism. It was really important and totally uncontrollable.