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.
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.
It’s the kind of relationship where we tolerate each other for the sake of our mutual friend. We’ve all been there. I wouldn’t hang out with this guy if he wasn’t so close with a good friend of mine. But since he is, we end up in the same place doing the same thing once every couple of months. We have little in common. He is a little younger than me and a lot more confident. He talks about his stuff and never asks me about mine. He isn’t arrogant or aloof, he just doesn’t know any better.
A couple of days ago, our mutual friend brought us together again. As people were gathering and plans were being made, I found myself alone with my friend’s friend. As I was struggling to think of a conversation starter, he told me he heard that I write about addiction and recovery, and that he thinks it is really cool. I was speechless. In the probably 100 or so conversations we have had over the years, this was the first time he’s ever talked about me.
When I quit drinking, I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I was too ashamed – ashamed of my disease and embarrassed to be tainted with the stigma that is persistently and unfortunately associated with AA. I didn’t go away to a 30 day rehab because I couldn’t wrap my brain around letting go of my family and business responsibilities for a whole month. I took a different path to permanent sobriety.
I read. I read book after book after book about alcoholism and recovery. I read clinical books about how the body processes alcohol and the many diseases and biological dysfunction heavy drinking causes. I read books about neurotransmitters and other detailed explanations of brain function. And I read memoir after memoir written by alcoholics who had visited the same depths of despair where I wallowed, but made it out and had the strength to tell their stories.
New on the Untoxicated Podcast – Jason and I talk about my dance with addiction.
It started with sips from my dad’s beer when I was young, grew to experimentation in high school, graduated to constant binge drinking in college, developed into a daily habit in young adulthood, and metastasized into alcoholism as I plummeted into the pit of debilitating alcohol-induced depression.
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. As a drinker, I worked hard to turn mundane activities into drinking events – to justify celebration or a spontaneous party. Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays because it provided cover for my alcoholic tendencies. I didn’t need to justify drinking heavily on a Wednesday evening. Our society, our culture and my neighborhood made it totally acceptable. Halloween was never about the kids or the costumes or the candy. Halloween was all about my wicked liquid poison.
My memory is filled with snapshots from Halloweens past. They are ingrained photos that were never really taken. They often capture the moment my anxiety and eagerness drained from my body and was replaced by the fulfillment only alcohol could provide for an alcoholic.
When you take away an alcoholic’s alcohol, you take away his only known tool to manage stress. When you take away an alcoholic’s alcohol, a lot of good things happen. But some bad things happen, too.
I got sick this summer. Initially I thought I had a mild case of food poisoning. When the stomach cramping and associated frequent and unpleasant attempts to relieve said cramping did not abate after a few days, I thought it more likely that I had an intestinal bug. After a couple of weeks of on-and-off stomach pain with varying degrees of severity, I started to worry.