A little over two years into my sobriety, I chaperoned a week-long church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation. We fed a huge bison, built a fence, learned about the culture, and met a lot of interesting people (side note – if you want to see the impact of terrible government policy resulting in rampant alcoholism throughout a community, chaperone a church youth mission trip to a Native American reservation).
I returned feeling really good about myself. I had given my time and energy to two of my kids and the teenagers in our church community. The kids got an exposure to addiction that no amount of talking could have equaled, no one was trampled by the buffalo, and no digits or limbs were lost to the novice operation of power saws. The worst thing I did all week was eat at McDonald’s. Twice.
I felt really good about myself. That is, I felt good until I reunited with my wife.
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.
We have a detached garage behind our house that was built in 1915 and was originally intended to be more of a shed than a place to park cars. At some point in our house’s history, the garage was extended, presumably when a previous homeowner came to the conclusion that he needed to protect a car from the weather. We now jam two cars in the garage with barely a few inches between them. The garage serves two purposes: to protect our Jeeps, and as incentive not to gain so much weight that we can’t squeeze our fannies into the driver’s seats.
The path that brings us to and from the garage is a thin patch of concrete squeezed between the north side of our house and our neighbor’s fence. Backing down the driveway feels like threading a needle, especially where our house’s furnace exhaust makes the bricks jut out, or where the fence posts extend a few inches past the fence.
In the twelve years we’ve owned the Jeep that my wife drives (which, in my defence, is substantially wider than mine), I’ve bashed the rearview mirrors into the brick protrusion, or the fence posts, so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve also detached two downspouts from the house so that they now dangle precariously from the gutters without a mooring to the exterior wall, so at least I spread the damage around.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
Alcoholism is a winless waiting game. We wait for things to get better. We wait for the solution to emerge. As the drinkers, we wait for our new rule to keep us in control, or for the stress to decrease so we can enjoy our beloved beverage in harmonious peace. As the loved ones of drinkers, you wait for us to see the light and come to our senses. You wait for us to stop or to slow down – to prioritize family over liquid poison.
But waiting isn’t a strategy. Waiting is a slow, excruciating defeat. Waiting is inevitable failure.
Our friend and leader in the soberevolution could only wait so long. As the wife of an active alcoholic, she knew waiting any longer would deliver a tragic result. Here are her words:
It was over. It was time to move on. The regrets had been overwhelming. In fact, the debilitating shame was the only thing powerful enough to force my hand and mandate my need for behavioral change. The stigma, the embarrassment, the broken promises, the trust I crushed under my clumsy heel like an insignificant ant – all of it accumulated into a malignant mass that had to be cut out of my soul for my very survival. And I did just that. I changed for the only reason anyone ever makes significant change. Pain. I was drowning in pain.
But even the deepest, most fundamental change was not enough for her. The trillions of sincere apologies. The remorse. The repentance. The reparations. None of it was enough. It was never enough.
This is Jane’s story.
For Jane, alcohol was an accent. It was something complimentary and expected, but never really necessary or compulsive. Jane drank when she danced. The alcohol kept her inhibitions quiet, but the drinks were never the main event. Cutting loose and moving her body to the music made her feel alive and free. Jane learned to drink to wash away the stress and pressure of the day. It is a lesson almost universally ingrained in our adult American culture. She drank to feel numb when no one needed her to be present.
Then Jane had kids, and the numbable moments disappeared. Alcohol turned from an accent to an unacceptable distraction from her responsibilities. There was no time to zone out. There was no room for hangovers and sluggishness. She was needed 24/7, and she answered the call every single time.
Jane matured. Her husband kept going. It’s like they were flying to a destination together, and the journey included a change to a connecting flight in some far-away airport. Jane got off the initial flight and boarded the connection, while her husband stayed glued in his seat and rode the first plane to oblivion.
There. It’s done. I just decided that I’m done drinking alcohol. I’m sober now. There’s just too much pain, deceit and insanity. End of discussion. It’s over.
I had those very thoughts, full of determination and resolve, more times than I could count. It seemed so simple to me – severe and punitive – but simple just the same. I am strong and definitive. I’ve made thousands of decisions over the first half of my lifetime, and I have a very good track record of follow through. I don’t waiver or vacillate. I analyze, decide and execute. No analysis paralysis for me. Let’s go.
And that’s why my relationship with alcohol was so diabolical and transfixing to me. I couldn’t leave it behind no matter how determined I was, and no matter how good my track record for decision making otherwise was. Alcohol was like a permanent fixture, an irreversible commitment tattooed on my soul.
It is my wife’s turn to recover. She knows it. I know it. Getting here was anything but simple.
Listen Now! It’s Sheri’s Turn
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. When I was drinking, I put my love of alcohol ahead of everything, including my wife and kids. I would never have admitted it, but it was true. When I decided to stop drinking, I put my work to stay sober ahead of everything, again, including my wife, Sheri, and our four kids. This time, the selfishness was necessary. But that doesn’t change the fact that my family continued to take a backseat to my addiction.
I remember when I first started learning that alcoholism was a disease. I learned about alcohol’s hijacking of the pleasure neurotransmitters. I learned how our subconscious minds develop an association between alcohol and survival. I learned about the progressive nature of the disease, and I learned about the link between addiction, and the depression and anxiety from which I suffered. I shared it all with my wife because I wanted her to learn about my affliction, too.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Sheri.” I explained while very early in sobriety. “All this neurological dysfunction and the changes in my behavior are the result of my addiction. We should stop blaming me for what happened to us, and start blaming the disease.” My wife replied, “If you want me to blame the disease, maybe you should stop acting like an asshole.”