The stigma associated with alcoholism is the barrier that prevents people from admitting their truth and curing their disease. And the stigma is a product of the words we choose to describe this affliction that kills three million people a year.
You have a drinking problem. You need to get help.
A deeply imbedded splinter is a problem. A flat tire is a problem. The brain disease suffered by over fifteen million Americans is way more than a problem.
My hands trembled as I approached the betting window at the casino’s sports book. The man behind the glass wouldn’t accept my $600 bet. When he explained that it exceeded their limit for a single bet on an over/under, I hesitated momentarily. Reason and maturity tried to take control of the argument in my head, but rational thought was washed away by my elevated blood alcohol level. My pulse raced as I pushed the money back toward the man and asked him to place two identical $300 bets on the under.
I wasn’t being greedy. I just had to get back to even. I hadn’t showered or changed clothes or slept much, really, in over 40 hours. The thing I had done relentlessly for the past two days was drink alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.
Last week, I wrote about my rejection of the amends process as part of recovery from addiction. I shared that while I am endlessly sorry and apologetic to my wife and our four kids, I do not feel I owe anyone else an apology for my alcoholic behavior. I received a lot of feedback, and much of it was negative. None of it touched me quite like this email I received from my sister, Joey.
An hour or so into a several hour family meeting to discuss the impact of my alcoholism on all of our lives, my mother made an observation. My sister, her husband, my dad and my wife, Sheri, all listened intently as my mom turned to me and said, “You know what we haven’t heard? We haven’t heard you say you’re sorry.” I had been anticipating this question, and I blurted out my answer almost before my mom finished speaking. “I’m not,” I said defiantly. “I’m not sorry for my alcoholism.”
“You can’t always be doing great. Why do you always tell me you are doing great?” On the phone from 2,000 miles away, this question from my mother, asked a couple of years before I quit drinking, stunned me a little. “What do you mean? Everything is going very well,” I replied instinctually. I paused and prayed, and to my considerable relief, she dropped that line of questioning. She was right. I was lying. I was very good at lying to my parents.
Almost fifteen million Americans have cancer and over fifteen million Americans are alcoholics according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Cancer is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Alcoholism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Lung cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer worldwide. Smoking cigarettes, a personal choice, is the most common cause of lung cancer. Drinking alcohol, a personal choice, is a requirement to become an alcoholic. Many forms of cancer are treatable. Alcoholism is treatable, too.
There are many parallels between cancer and alcoholism. So why do we treat these two diseases so differently?
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I
Do you want to know how to shock someone? Start with someone who cares about you. When they think they know you, when they think your life is smooth and easy, when they least expect it…tell them you are an alcoholic.
The first four people I talked to about my addiction had very similar reactions. I could see their faces transition as they heard the word, “alcoholism.” Their expressions softened and their attention to my words intensified. It was as if my admission allowed them to ever so slightly drop their guard on their most protected secrets. Their gaze of empathy seemed to draw my words from my mouth. They leaned closer. Their breathing quieted as a signal that my story would have no interruptions. I instantly felt indescribable warmth as my story transformed our relationships forever.
The two-headed monster of shame that I was battling – shame from my behavior and lack of control when drinking, and shame from being the only non-drinker at most social occasions when I wasn’t – was fierce and daunting. By my fourth, fifth and sixth attempts to slay the beast, my resolve was strong and my attempts at sobriety lasted not just a few weeks, but four to six months each. I knew what to expect and was prepared for the unanticipated. It was the anticipated that tripped me up and sent me back to the drink.
Since, in our society, we have turned almost every event from a three-year-old’s birthday party to a 5K-run finish line into a drinking occasion, it was almost impossible to navigate life sober without drawing the attention of everyone I knew. Even when my determination to remove alcohol from my life was most firm and committed – a commitment in response to another morning of shame following another night of overindulgence – my sobriety meant I still had to face questions, ridicule and even humiliation on a weekly basis. “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Are you an alcoholic?” Simply choosing not to drink when all of my friends knew how much I loved alcohol was not an option. Something must have been wrong. I must have been broken in some way. “Did something happen?” “Did you get a DUI?” “Are you and Sheri