I’m a big horror movie fan. The beginning of October marks the start of the three-month holiday season for me. Up first…as many scary movies as my eyeballs can consume in 31 days. I like some of the slasher movies, most of the psychological thrillers, and the best of the classics. One thing I have no time for, however, is a movie centered around the old and tired plot of someone who turns into a despicable creature and does unspeakable things that he can’t later remember. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, An American Werewolf in London, and any movie featuring the Incredible Hulk don’t do anything for me. The concept is boring because I’ve lived that plot. I’ve transformed into a monster who could do or say things I wouldn’t dream of in the light of the next day. Add a little toxic elixir, and the results were unpredictably terrifying. I don’t need to watch a movie to see the diabolical transformation. Been there, done that.
It was my first experience being among people at a gathering where drinking alcohol would be assumed, almost mandatory. This was also my first experience with people that had no idea I quit drinking, had no idea of my disease of alcoholism, and certainly had no idea of the roller coaster of a life I had lived in the past year. This was my first time being with co-workers at a social happy hour and work/dinner conferences since getting sober. My brain started to worry days ahead of time. My default way of thinking started my racing patterns long before I should have been worried about the event. My past habits, dysfunctional thinking, and excessive thoughts caused me to fixate on a tiny event in my future that should not have even been a thought in my mind.
As the first day of conferences wound down that afternoon, my coworkers and I all went back to our rooms to take off our work attire and get ready for the upcoming dinner. Shortly after getting to my room, a co-worker texted the group. “Meet at the bar in 15 minutes…I’m buying the first round.” Three others in our group replied. “Hell yeah!” “I’ve been craving a beer all afternoon.” “Let’s get our drink on!” I instantly started to worry. Should I reply? I wondered if I should go. Maybe I should just drink. No one in my personal life would have to know anything about it. I impatiently and anxiously paced around my hotel room. I finally texted the group after many crazy thoughts spun through my mind.
For us imbibers, the calendar can be divided into three drinking seasons.
The holiday season starts about mid October for most. I am an overachiever, both as a lush and as a lover of scary movies, so my holiday season starts on October first, sharp. The holiday season runs through the fourth quarter of the college football national championship game when one SEC team that I don’t care about crushes the year’s eager victim. Between the bookends, the excuses to drink line up in an organized, dependable, evenly spaced out succession making sobriety unthinkable, and moderation a celebratory faux pas. Drinkers have plenty of reasons to drink during the holiday season.
As a prolific drinker, I confused politeness and stigmatized silence for concealment. Maybe it was my ego. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe my internal shame was all I could handle, and considering the truth about what my friends and family observed would have killed me from embarrassment. Whatever the reason, I actually thought most people who experienced my overconsumption didn’t notice.
Some people drink until they pass out. Others drink to blackout – that fully functioning, zombie-like state where we say and do stupid things, but are spared from the memories in the morning. I was an overachiever, proficient at both the blackout and the pass out under any circumstances and with very little warning. I often even surprised myself with my alcoholic dexterity.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.” When journalist Johann Hari made that statement as part of the conclusion of his TED Talk in 2015, I didn’t disagree with him. I mostly didn’t disagree with him because I was still drinking in 2015 and didn’t give a shit about a speech titled, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” But even now, today, I think Hari got that first part right. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It is neither the solution, nor is it the opposite of the addictive behavior that has brought millions of us to our knees.
It’s the second part of his concluding statement that has been increasingly adopted as indisputable fact in the recovery community for the past six years. Hari ended his talk saying, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” From the first time I heard it, until a few months ago, I thought Hari was right. Now, I’m convinced that while the concept is useful, it is incomplete.
I believe the opposite of addiction is neither sobriety nor connection. I believe the opposite of addiction is self-esteem.
Flat Earthers and alcohol drinkers have one thing in common. They deny the truth in the face of mounting evidence (I could add people who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen to this category, but I don’t want to get political, because Trumpsters drink alcohol, too).
I wasn’t hanging around Greece in 500 B.C., so I really don’t know how the initial conversations went, but maybe it was something like this: “Hey, do you see the end of the earth over there? Well, I sailed over there, and the edge just kept moving,” said Greek guy 1. Greek guy 2 probably retorted, “Oh yeah, well I’ve never sailed over there, and I can see the edge of the earth from here, so I think you’re full of shit.” The edge of the earth, or lack thereof, didn’t impact Greek guy 2’s daily life, so there was no reason for him to pay attention to his friend or adjust his belief system. He just kept living his life and believing the plastic he put in his recycling bin was being melted down and reused, and not that it was being dumped into the Pacific.
Now, 2,500 years later, evidence is mounting that there is no safe quantity of alcohol, and it is a leading contributor to all kinds of chronic and acute human disasters, yet we drink on with reckless abandon because we can’t see that it impacts us directly. It makes me want to walk over to the end of the earth and jump off in frustration.
There is no better indication of strength, integrity and intelligence than a person who owns his mistakes and takes responsibility for corrective action. It’s why I prefer stand-up comedians to politicians. I’d take Stephen Colbert or Dennis Miller for president over any denying or deflecting boob who actually squirms his way into the job.
Honesty, humility and vulnerability are admirable traits. They are the reason we have thousands of listeners and readers (although this particular sentence isn’t very humble). Taking ownership is a sign of confidence. A mistake can’t take me down! We admit, we fix, we learn and we do better the next time. It’s a sign of maturity.
All of these lofty philosophical ramblings about ownership make my position regarding the culprit responsible for my alcoholism kind of surprising.
“How Aliens Confirmed Earth is Devoid of Intelligent Lifeforms”
Think about it for a minute – pretend you know nothing about the role alcohol plays in our culture, or in your personal life. With a completely open mind, read my fair and honest explanation of alcohol as I would describe it to an extraterrestrial being:
Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
Have you ever cheated the alcoholic death you deserved? I have. I can tell you fuzzy, intoxicated stories about at least a dozen times when I should have died. So when I talk about my sobriety saving my life, I am talking about two things. I am talking about a return to health and the reversal of the long, slow, gradual slide toward my alcoholic demise. But I’m also talking about the fact that I no longer cheat certain alcohol-induced death.
That second one – the acute, not the chronic – that’s the kind of alcoholic disaster that we don’t think or talk enough about. That’s the kind of death that our friend, Cheryl Kuechler, stared in the face a couple of weeks ago. That’s the kind of sudden, tragic, immediate, heartbreaking death that Cheryl’s sobriety saved her from.
I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll get to Cheryl’s story in a minute. First, I want to talk about you and me.