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.
When my grandmother died in the summer of 2013, my family gathered in Nashua, New Hampshire, to celebrate her life and lay her to rest. On the first evening we all arrived in town, I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table late that night with my dad. The lights were out in the house, including the kitchen, and we discussed the importance of spirituality. My dad shook his head, and remarked that he didn’t know how non-believers managed life when tragedy struck. His mom had just died, and he was leaning hard on his faith that she was with God in Heaven, and that the rest of us would mourn and remember and love and keep moving forward.
I was moved by how well encapsulated the power of spirituality was at that moment. It was clearly a potent experience, just me, my dad and God sitting there in the dark, because I’ve written about it multiple times in the past. Here’s the part of that story that I’ve never before shared.
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.
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.
My neighbor shouted to me over the fence that he had an extra ticket to the ballgame, and asked me if I wanted to join him and his friends. I was two weeks sober and determined not to let my affliction ruin my life – social or otherwise. “Thanks – sounds like fun!” I shouted back. I boldly told him I wasn’t going to drink and I could drive the whole group there and back. He looked a little dismayed at my proclamation and offer, but mostly thankful that I’d solved a problem for him.
There were so many things wrong with my thinking, my acceptance and my offer. I was an alcoholic in early recovery, and the very last place I should have gone was to a Major League Baseball game with a bunch of beer and booze swilling guys on a Saturday night. But my stubborn conviction about plowing forward with a life unchanged save the lack of beer in my hand was making my bad decision for me, and off to the Rockies game I went.
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.
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.
I used to think sobriety was about determination and willpower. I remember countless mornings when I swore I would never drink again. Never. Sometimes I didn’t drink for months. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes days. Sometimes, my determination was replaced by anxiety or frustration or pain, and I drank that same evening.
Alcoholism is a diabolical disease, and it hasn’t a thing to do with willpower or determination. Alcoholism is about how our different brains react to being poisoned. For some of us, the experience is euphoric, and our brains adapt to prioritize alcohol. We aren’t weak or broken. We introduce our brains to one of the world’s most highly addictive substances, and our brains take the bait. And just like that, we are hooked.
I felt like such a fraud. The idea that I needed to quit drinking alcohol – that I fit the classification of alcoholic – filled me with doubt and shame. Sure, I was ashamed of the instances when I drank too much, argued with my wife and wasted days nursing dehydration while trying to put together the pieces of the previous night. But I was also petrified with fear that I wasn’t alcoholic enough. I was holding my marriage together, my employment and finances were intact, I had no legal issues and I maintained my house on the weekends just like all my non-addicted neighbors. I was lying and denying if I ignored my condition, but I was a fraud if I claimed the affliction of the gutter bum or someone who drank away his family and possessions. I believed making the self-diagnosis of alcoholic or not alcoholic was a binary choice, and I was stuck firmly in the middle.
Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.