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.
I had my annual physical last week, and received the results of my blood tests on Monday. I misread one the numbers and thought I had cancer. I have been feeling great physically, and was really excited to see what a life free from alcohol with a reasonably consistent nutrition and exercise routine would mean for my blood work. When my eyes moved a decimal point over one digit, I was absolutely stunned.
I immediately started sweating out of every pour in my body, and I screamed, “Firetruck!” really loudly four or five times (minus the, “iretr”). I looked at that number over and over, and went straight were we all go for medical advice, to Google, to confirm what I thought the result meant to me. The interwebs agreed – I was in trouble.
While most retailers are recovering from the exhaustion of the most fiscally important time of their year, those who sell diet plans and gym memberships are just getting revved up. The transition from the way we live our lives during the holidays to the crushing reality of January can give us whiplash, for sure.
For us high-functioning alcoholics, January is the most important time of the year, too. The shame of holiday overindulgence and regret of festive alcohol-induced decisions is fresh is our minds.
There is a sign on Interstate 70 eastbound in the Floyd Hill area just before you exit the Rocky Mountains headed for Denver that says, “Attention Truckers: You Are Not Down Yet – Four More Miles of Steep and Winding Highway.” I am in pretty close contact with a lot of people who are navigating the holidays sober for the first time. If you are one of those people, that message on I70 is meant for you.
If you made it through Halloween without drinking, I am proud of you. Congratulations if you successfully abstained through Thanksgiving. That is awesome. If you waded through the excesses and overindulgence of December, including Christmas Day, and you protected your sobriety, that is outstanding. But don’t drop your guard now. There is a lot of work and immediate threat staring you in the face, and I’m not talking about New Year’s Eve.
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.