A friend reminded me this week that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, The opposite of addiction is connection. That is a very popular saying in the recovery community. Never before have I felt as connected to my community as this past week when my wife, Sheri, and I closed our whole grain bread bakery after dedicating fifteen years of our lives to the business. You might think the grief, failure and emotional finality would threaten me with an alcoholic relapse. No way. Not even close. In this final week with our customers, there was simply too much connection.
I expected big things to happen when I got sober two years ago. I expected weight loss and financial gain. I thought my marriage would improve and shame from over-drinking would diminish. I expected major, life-altering transition.
What I didn’t anticipate were the subtle, seemingly unimportant ways my life would transform in recovery. I spend a lot of time screaming about the dangers of anonymity and the death count from alcoholism. But when I’m quiet – when I take a break from screaming – when I lift my head up from my determination to battle the stigma – when I shut-up and listen, that’s when I am surprised by the unexpected.
I had long believed I should never talk about the perils of drinking with drinkers while they are drinking. I was wrong.
If you love to drink alcohol like me, there is no time of year quite like the holiday season. There are holiday-themed work happy hours, neighborhood Christmas potlucks complete with BYOB, booze flowing secret Santas, wine-centric cookie exchanges, appetizer and cocktail parties with church friends and lots of family gatherings with spiked eggnog and warm cider. You eat and drink your way through the busiest, often most stress-filled, time of the year. And it’s great…until it isn’t.
When people live through trauma, they often talk of how the experience shows them who their true friends are. I have always thought of that as quite sad. I’m not sure why, but my mind has always focused on the many friends who deserted the afflicted in his time of need. I have always looked at it all wrong.
My alcoholism and my decision to discuss it openly has led me to find out who my true friends are. And it has been among the best experiences of my life.
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.
Loving and protecting my wife, Sheri, and our four kids, is the most critical component of my life. I think about the safety and development of my children constantly, and struggle to balance being present with letting them explore their worlds on their own. I don’t really care about money, power, status or control. I have made a mess of much of my life, and I just want to help them avoid the same pitfalls. This top priority of mine is both pretty simple and overwhelmingly complex. I pray daily for the strength and wisdom to get it right.
So when my oldest child, Cathryn, asked me if I would be OK with her writing her first essay of her junior year in high school about my alcoholism, I was excited that she was taking an interest in the topic that consumes much of my life. I expected her to write a story about our family overcoming this deadly disease. I was eager to read about the closeness of our father-daughter relationship. I anticipated reading of her trepidation about addiction and her plan to tread cautiously into the waters of alcohol consumption in her adult life.
What she wrote was not what I expected. Her essay was the most painful collection of words I have ever read.
As I awoke from my very brief slumber alone on my neighbors’ front porch swing, the party raged on in the house behind me. What happened? Did I pass out? Only minutes earlier I was engaged in conversation with the smokers in attendance who were indulging their habit outside. I was indulging my habit, too. I was probably five or six beers into the evening when I ventured outside to join their conversation. Sometime while trading stories and laughing effortlessly as drinkers do while drinking, I passed out mid-conversation. It seemed the long work week and soothing motion of the swing combined with the alcohol to lull me to sleep. Now awake, I slithered back across the street to my house and joined my family who had left the party and gone to bed in the previous couple of hours.
I was not drunk. I was not slurring my words and I had not said anything rude or insulting. I had not gotten sick or danced on a table or spilled food or drink on the carpet – nothing like that. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed about my undignified nap.
For the longest time, I thought I hated social media. I was wrong. I don’t hate social media. I don’t understand it and I can’t figure out how to use it effectively. PLEASE HELP ME!!!!
I readily admit I have a personal defect. When I have a few minutes of free time, I am eager to tune into CNN (aka “Impeachment Porn” – Saturday Night Live) and hear what our Narcissist in Chief has tweeted for the day. I like politics. That’s why I watch Stephen Colbert’s monologue almost every night (I actually watch it on a 22 hour delay because I can’t keep my eyeballs open that late). I like to read, and I’m excited when I find a window of time to turn a few pages. I have a wife and four kids. I have actually locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the throne with my pants up “pretending” just so I can get some uninterrupted reading done for seven minutes.
But I never, ever, think, Oooh, I’ve got some time to check facebook! Let’s see what’s new on Instagram! Twitter is calling my name! I’m super busy, but so is literally everyone I know. They all have time to post, comment and “like.” Social media seems important and enjoyable to everyone but me. What’s wrong with me? That’s not a rhetorical question. I need your help.
The only difference between me and the homeless drunk who dies in a gutter is our starting point. All alcoholics fall toward death. It can be a slow, gradual decline or a crashing, tumbling, free-fall descent. Some of us stop drinking before we reach the ultimate lethal bottom, and some of us don’t. My starting point saved my life. I’m talking about my socio-economic place in this world. I’m talking about how much I had to lose – how many loving relationships and how much tangible stuff I possessed. But most of all, I’m talking about morals. Morals matter. For an alcoholic, morals can be the difference between life and death.