As we were wrapping up our first ever Sober and Unashamed Couples Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado, on Sunday, one of the the attendees told me that he and his wife wanted to go to Estes Park before their flight home Sunday night. He showed me the route that Google suggested to him, and we discussed his options.
The summer drive from Grand Lake to Estes Park takes you right through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, and is among the most beautiful 47 miles of scenic roadway in the world. You crest the majestic Rocky Mountains, are likely to see moose or elk, look across clear mountain lakes and experience views that are unmistakably Colorado. It is a winding road full of switchbacks and steep ascents that will take well over an hour to traverse, but the drive is the experience, and you won’t mind if it takes all day.
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.
I had my annual physical last week, and received the results of my blood tests on Monday. I misread one the numbers and thought I had cancer. I have been feeling great physically, and was really excited to see what a life free from alcohol with a reasonably consistent nutrition and exercise routine would mean for my blood work. When my eyes moved a decimal point over one digit, I was absolutely stunned.
I immediately started sweating out of every pour in my body, and I screamed, “Firetruck!” really loudly four or five times (minus the, “iretr”). I looked at that number over and over, and went straight were we all go for medical advice, to Google, to confirm what I thought the result meant to me. The interwebs agreed – I was in trouble.
I’m going to a holiday party with my people tomorrow night, and you’re invited to join us! There will be appetizers and festive non-alcoholic beverages, and lots of people to talk to who are also on a sober journey. I am on a panel at this event to lead a discussion geared toward people on all parts of the spectrum of alcohol use and abuse. If you are sober, this party is for you. If you are considering sobriety, we want you to be there. If you know something is not quite right, but you’re not sure what to do about it, you’ll be in good company at a party like this.
If you’re in the Denver metro, I so very much hope you’ll come to the party so I can meet you in person. If you live somewhere else, I hope you’ll look for an event to attend in your area. That’s really the point here. It has less to do with this specific party on this exact night in this particular town, and everything to do with engaging in your sobriety. If you don’t, you’ll drink. It’s as simple as that.
When my grandmother died in the summer of 2013, my family gathered in Nashua, New Hampshire, to celebrate her life and lay her to rest. On the first evening we all arrived in town, I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table late that night with my dad. The lights were out in the house, including the kitchen, and we discussed the importance of spirituality. My dad shook his head, and remarked that he didn’t know how non-believers managed life when tragedy struck. His mom had just died, and he was leaning hard on his faith that she was with God in Heaven, and that the rest of us would mourn and remember and love and keep moving forward.
I was moved by how well encapsulated the power of spirituality was at that moment. It was clearly a potent experience, just me, my dad and God sitting there in the dark, because I’ve written about it multiple times in the past. Here’s the part of that story that I’ve never before shared.
“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.
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.