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.
Do you know why geese fly in flocks? I think it’s because when a goose catches a glimpse of its own reflection, it doesn’t believe that a bowling ball with wings could possibly get off the ground. They all depend on each other to prove to themselves that they can actually fly.
How about monkeys? Have you ever seen a monkey picking the bugs off its own back? I don’t think so, and that’s why monkeys stay together in packs. If bees didn’t swarm, we wouldn’t have honey. If ants didn’t colonize, we wouldn’t have dirt piles jutting out from cracks in our sidewalks. And if moths weren’t looking for places to congregate annoyingly on warm summer nights, why would any of us have front-porch lights?
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.
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.
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.
Sober people are losers! Look, I’d like to tell you that my opinion wasn’t this superficial, jaded, prejudiced, narrow, misinformed, misguided, misintellectualized, bigoted, arrogant, and just plain asinine, but it was. I thought people who didn’t drink alcohol, for any reason, were losers.
This included my own mother for quite a while. God, how shallow and despicable was I?
And I’d like to tell you that my opinion changed when I started exploring sobriety, or at least once I was sober myself. Nope! I continued to consider people who didn’t drink alcohol to be losers, I just tucked my tail between my legs and joined their pathetic ranks.
It was a typical icebreaker for such events: tell us your name, your genre and the topic of your current project. “I’m an alcoholic. I work and write in the addiction and recovery community. My name is Matt Salis, and my book is about recovering from alcoholism.” I was at a publishing seminar last weekend, and when it was my turn, that was how I introduced myself to the other seven writers in the session.
During a break, one of the writers probed a little further asking the name of our nonprofit. “It is called, Stigma,” I told her. I went on to explain that the stigma associated with alcoholism is the top reason the disease is so hard to cure. I told her that by owning the label, “alcoholic,” I take the power out of the stigmatized word. “I introduce myself as an alcoholic. When someone wants to take a shot at me, what are they going to do? Call me an alcoholic? I already said that.” The group giggled and nodded, and the subject of the intermission conversation turned a different direction.
Saturday was Christmas Tree Day for my family. The Salis Six, as my wife affectionately calls us, trudged out into the Colorado mountain forest with our tree cutting permit and killed the healthiest looking evergreen we could find. It’s now slowly rotting in the corner of our living room.
As strange as this tradition is when you really think about it, I love it just the same. It is my favorite day of the year. We listen to Bing and Eartha croon about the magic of the season, drink hot chocolate and eat a lunch of chili-cheese dogs at the volunteer fire station on the edge of the forest. It’s as much fun as my family can have together.
When we pulled into our driveway at home, I left the tree on the roof of our Jeep and went inside to retrieve the tape measure. As I entered the house, my wife’s heart sank. For just a moment, her memory of Christmases past dragged her back to the many times when arriving at home sent me immediately to the refrigerator for a beer. Old patterns die hard, and memories die even harder. Reality set it, and the terror passed for my wife as quickly as it came. She told me about it later, and I told her I understood. Because I did. Alcoholism is a very emotional disease. The pain and resentment is thick and not easy to wash off. Only time can heal some of the wounds. And sometimes, they reappear uninvited, unexpectedly.
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.
“Is that it?” came the question from one of our four kids sitting behind my wife and me in the last hundred miles of our road trip to the Grand Canyon. “No,” I replied as we passed a relatively small crack in the Arizona desert. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
When we saw it, the massive hole was bigger than any of us imagined. And flowing through the bottom of the canyon was the surprisingly modest Colorado River. The persistence required for that stream of water to cut that ginormous canyon over that amount of time – hundreds of millions of years – was too much for me to comprehend.