Last week, I saw dozens of social media posts from people experiencing their first sober Halloween. As is customary when using the communication tool designed to allow us to compare our lives to the lives of hundreds of others, the posts were cheery and positive, with captions like, “First booze-free Halloween, and I feel great!” or, “I can’t believe what I was missing when I used to drink my way through Halloween.” Two things went through my mind when I saw so many of these posts last week, and in this order. First, I thought, that person is full of shit or trying really hard to convince him or herself. Second, I thought, wait a minute…maybe something is wrong with me because that’s not what my first sober Halloween was like at all.
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.
I get this feedback all the time. Sometimes it is polite but dismissive, like this: “I have trouble paying attention to the opinion of someone with just four years of sobriety. Talk to me in a decade or so.” Other times, it is downright mean: “Shut up and get to a meeting, asshole!” Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but some people really should consider a little less caffeine or maybe doing something about the constipation that’s putting built up pressure on the old kindness gland.
I’m sober. I’m fully and completely sober. I feel like I need the coroner of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz to declare about my active alcoholism, “She’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” (Now you’ve got that voice and that song stuck in your head, don’t you. Go ahead and Google that scene and watch it on YouTube – I did.)
Last week, we took our daughter to college to start her freshman year, but that’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about something much bigger than our sadness swirled with excitement. But for context, here’s what happened when we dropped her off.
The drive from Denver to Minnesota was uneventful. I don’t think my daughter noticed how much I stared at her sitting behind me through my sunglasses using the rearview mirror. I don’t think she understood why I got so upset with our son, who was loud, waking her when she fell asleep on one of her other brother’s shoulders. With the exception of my wife, Sheri, I don’t think any of them understood how hard it was for me to keep pushing forward knowing every mile we covered increased the distance that would ultimately reside between me and my beloved first-born child.
My wife almost didn’t marry me because I couldn’t wrap a gift. Alcoholism – we survived that. Four kids, emergency room visits, emotional immaturity, running a business together – we made it past all of those major hurdles, but Sheri almost dumped me before any of it got started because I did such a crappy job of wrapping her present on our first Christmas together.
It’s true. My wife takes the act of giving seriously. At first, I thought her rejection of my feeble attempt at wrapping made her selfish. Then I realized I had it backwards. She puts so much thought and effort into the act of giving, and she didn’t want to be with someone who half-assed it. It’s not about materialism, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. But if it’s not from the heart, she’s not interested.
Sheri used to make a really big deal about her birthday. She would celebrate for a week. Again, it was never about gifts or receiving. It was always about spending quality time with quality people – the kind of people who take their time with the wrapping if they do give her a gift. It was experiential, and Sheri wanted everyone to be as happy as she was that she was a year older. She didn’t need a big, fancy party. Her smile and laugh were celebration enough. She oozed carefree joy.
It is terrifying. I’m running as fast as I can, but something is bogging me down. It’s like my joints have been soaking in rubber cement and I’m wearing clown shoes. I’m trying to get away from whatever is chasing me. Is it a man with a knife, or is it a monster? I’m unsure, and really, it’s unimportant. What matters is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t run fast enough, and whatever it is, it is gaining me.
Have you ever had this kind of dream? I have this one semi-regularly. It isn’t just about being chased, it is about my own ability to run being hampered or limited. I don’t know what it means. I’ve never had any of my dreams analyzed. But I can tell you what it reminds me of. It reminds me of trying to get away from the high-functioning alcoholism that was slowly killing me. My progress was slow and clunky, and I felt like I could not put distance between me and my pursuer. My top speed, as mediocre as it might have been, was completely elusive as I trudged weakly forward, trying to gain traction while the earth oozed like quicksand below my feet.
“I’ll just have soda water with a lime, please,” I remember sheepishly ordering from the bartender when I was in early sobriety. “…just soda water…” I was apologizing for being so lame. Apologizing to someone I didn’t know and who didn’t care what I drank, or more importantly, didn’t care how cool I was or was not.
I had ordered a beer hundreds, maybe thousands of times, from a bartender. I had ordered more than my fair share of whiskeys or vodkas on the rocks. Not once did I use the word just when ordering liquid poison. But when I ordered a drink that wouldn’t make me obnoxious or loud, that’s when I chose to apologize? It’s as if I thought the bartender was into people who were annoying and slurred while demanding another drink.
I used to think my innocent insertion of the word, “just,” was a sign of discomfort in my new sober skin – a lack of confidence and an acknowledgement that as a non-drinker, I was the odd man out, and I knew it. But I don’t think it is simple or innocent anymore. I think it’s tragic and insidious. A grown man with a career and a family apologizing for not toxifying his brain function? That is a cultural disaster. The degree to which we feel alcohol is required or expected, well, we humans have failed the test.
It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s the reason we humans are so tribal. When we see others repeat an activity or opinion that we embrace, the “others” solidify our belief system.
I know what you’re thinking. Awesome, this guy is going to write about politics and how broken our society is because of tribal stubbornness and because we only listen to people who sound like us, right? Wrong! I’ve got news for us all. Confirmation bias impacts a lot of aspects of our lives beyond the polarizing issues of politics. In fact, your confirmation bias might just be the biggest hurdle keeping you from long-term sobriety.
A double negative is not nearly as effective as a positive. I’m an eternal optimist, so as someone who is perpetually fixated on the positives, I should know the difference. Less (negative) of a bad thing (negative) is not nearly as awesome as a good thing. And this, my friends, is why our traditional addiction recovery system doesn’t work. I should probably do some explaining.
Where did that come from? In my life that features so many memories lost to blackout drinking, that’s a pondering I’ll never forget. That question dominated my brain on several occasions in my late teenage years when I was experimenting with alcohol.
It happened once the morning after a huge drunken fight I had with my high school girlfriend at a party on full display in front of probably a hundred friends. It happened another time after I took a swing at my best friend after drinking together for many hours. Thankfully, I was drunk enough to miss, but I’ve never been in a fist-fight in my life, so it was beyond surprising when I was putting the pieces of the puzzle back together the next day.
In fact, had I woken up after either of those instances having grown a third butt cheek I would have been less surprised than I was to learn of my aggressive and abhorrent drunken behavior.