Have you ever eaten chili so hot that it burned your penis? Well, I have. In fact, I not only ate it. I made it. And I tried to serve it to my family. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start this story at the beginning.
For several years, my wife received a subscription to Martha Stewart’s magazine for a Christmas present. I’m not really sure how much Sheri got from the monthly compilation of food, crafts and home-decor tips, but I loved it! Every month, the morning after it arrived, Martha accompanied me into my tile and porcelain office, and I examined all the seasonal recipes with great delight. I was more enamored with the savory than the sweet, but even a simple sugar cookie recipe from the queen homemaker, Martha, deserved a cursory glance.
One autumn, maybe a decade ago, I opened Martha’s mag to find it staring back at me in all of its simple and authentic glory: The “Cowboy Chili” recipe that would leave an indelible mark on my manhood.
My mom’s alcoholism instilled in me a core belief that I was different, inadequate, and deeply flawed. I developed a belief that there was something wrong with my family, and there was something wrong with me. My parents were divorced. We didn’t have a lot of money. My mom was an alcoholic, and no one explained to me what that meant, or how she struggled with an illness.
Instead, it was normalized to smell whisky and see an adult passed out or wobbling around or urinating on the carpet in a half-asleep, half-drunk stumble. I didn’t understand, but I knew that this was my life. I didn’t know that my fight or flight system was in high gear, probably most nights. I developed a subconscious defense mechanism crafted from perfectionism and high achievement.
“You’re awful proud of yourself,” he scoffed. “I’ll save a seat for you at a meeting for when you relapse.” I’d just met this AA lifer at a church service that catered to people suffering from addiction. He had asked me how I got sober. When I told him Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t part of my solution, I guess he didn’t like my answer.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve heard that pride leads to relapse. From the best I can surmise, the idea that “pride is dangerous” is a foundational tenet of twelve-step philosophy. There’s just one problem.
The concept is total bullshit.
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.
This is a family week, if such a thing exists. In the United States, Thanksgiving marks time spent with, or at the very least thoughts about, family. Joyous times. Painful times. Sober thoughts. Intoxicated memories. Family is complicated. The grip they have on our emotions comes and goes, often in correlation to our geographical proximity. But make no mistake about it – on a week like this one, the family-o-meter is pegged in overdrive.
I recently challenged my friends in our SHOUT Sobriety program with this writing prompt: “Describe the stages of knowing that alcohol had no place in your life.” Sarah wrote the response to the prompt that follows. As we navigate the messiness of a week with family in the spotlight, I thought it particularly appropriate to share her experience. And yes…there is a bit of irony to featuring the lessons of a Canadian on U.S. Thanksgiving week (in my defense, she wrote it very close to Canadian Thanksgiving last month).
I can’t remember not knowing that alcohol was likely to be a danger in my life – that the number of alcoholics on both sides of my family tree meant I was at high risk. I was lectured to. from a young age, about this by my mother, the same person who insisted I have a glass of wine with dinner the day my first child was born. Because that drink was safe.
If you think reading about the impact of alcohol and recovery is therapeutic, you should try writing about it.
If you are battling a compulsion to drink, or if you are the loved one of a heavy drinker, you are probably protecting a closely guarded secret. It is the kind of secret that will eat you up from the inside while the poison does mental and biological damage to you, the drinker or second-hand drinker. The erosion of self-esteem, relationships and capacity to manage are all universalisms, yet we protect our secrets like we are somehow unique in a nation with over 15 million alcoholics.
And we protect our secrets because we can’t find a safe place to let them out.
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.
I awoke slowly and tried to blink my eyes into focus. I stared at the ceiling and realized my memory of the previous night was incomplete. There were missing pieces – again I had gaps in my recollection I would have to piece together. It had been happening like this for decades now. Not every night, or even every week. But every month, certainly, I drank far too much and couldn’t remember the details.
I started looking around for clues. Were my clothes on or off? Did I brush my teeth? Was there a cup of water on the bedside table? Did I plug in my phone to charge? Did I put myself to bed, or did I simply fall down when I’d had too much?
I was terrified to wake my wife, so I laid silently still until my fear of the unknown surpassed my fear of her reaction. I didn’t roll into her and put my arm gently around her for fear of an elbow to my ribcage. I shook her shoulder gently, and braced for her reaction.
The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.
Relapse. It’s such a dirty word to us alcoholics. When we first dip our toes into the frigid waters of sobriety, avoiding relapse is, quite necessarily, our singular focus. But it happens, and when it does, our failure can be brought on in a variety of ways. Sometimes it happens in an instant – a solitary trigger overwhelms us, and we are drinking before we can rationally process the situation.
But often, relapse doesn’t work like that. It isn’t instantaneous and unpredictable. Often, relapse is the last step in a series of events. It is a downward spiral spread out over some period of time. We try to fight it, but resistance seems futile. It is as if the universe or the devil is working against us in a diabolical plot to keep us mired in alcoholism.