I get this feedback all the time. Sometimes it is polite but dismissive, like this: “I have trouble paying attention to the opinion of someone with just four years of sobriety. Talk to me in a decade or so.” Other times, it is downright mean: “Shut up and get to a meeting, asshole!” Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but some people really should consider a little less caffeine or maybe doing something about the constipation that’s putting built up pressure on the old kindness gland.
I’m sober. I’m fully and completely sober. I feel like I need the coroner of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz to declare about my active alcoholism, “She’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” (Now you’ve got that voice and that song stuck in your head, don’t you. Go ahead and Google that scene and watch it on YouTube – I did.)
When it comes to alcoholism, we seem fixated on discussing the underlying causes. Some people have childhood trauma as a factor. Others face tremendous stress or financial issues. Still others struggle to grieve the loss of close friends or family members. The underlying issues vary making predicting occurrences of alcoholism challenging. But all of these underlying issues have one thing in common.
It’s the alcohol.
Why isn’t alcohol consumption the leading indicator of the disease of alcoholism?
Last week, we took our daughter to college to start her freshman year, but that’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about something much bigger than our sadness swirled with excitement. But for context, here’s what happened when we dropped her off.
The drive from Denver to Minnesota was uneventful. I don’t think my daughter noticed how much I stared at her sitting behind me through my sunglasses using the rearview mirror. I don’t think she understood why I got so upset with our son, who was loud, waking her when she fell asleep on one of her other brother’s shoulders. With the exception of my wife, Sheri, I don’t think any of them understood how hard it was for me to keep pushing forward knowing every mile we covered increased the distance that would ultimately reside between me and my beloved first-born child.
“I’ll just have soda water with a lime, please,” I remember sheepishly ordering from the bartender when I was in early sobriety. “…just soda water…” I was apologizing for being so lame. Apologizing to someone I didn’t know and who didn’t care what I drank, or more importantly, didn’t care how cool I was or was not.
I had ordered a beer hundreds, maybe thousands of times, from a bartender. I had ordered more than my fair share of whiskeys or vodkas on the rocks. Not once did I use the word just when ordering liquid poison. But when I ordered a drink that wouldn’t make me obnoxious or loud, that’s when I chose to apologize? It’s as if I thought the bartender was into people who were annoying and slurred while demanding another drink.
I used to think my innocent insertion of the word, “just,” was a sign of discomfort in my new sober skin – a lack of confidence and an acknowledgement that as a non-drinker, I was the odd man out, and I knew it. But I don’t think it is simple or innocent anymore. I think it’s tragic and insidious. A grown man with a career and a family apologizing for not toxifying his brain function? That is a cultural disaster. The degree to which we feel alcohol is required or expected, well, we humans have failed the test.
A double negative is not nearly as effective as a positive. I’m an eternal optimist, so as someone who is perpetually fixated on the positives, I should know the difference. Less (negative) of a bad thing (negative) is not nearly as awesome as a good thing. And this, my friends, is why our traditional addiction recovery system doesn’t work. I should probably do some explaining.
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.
My wife and I were watching 30 Rock reruns on Saturday night. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about our lack of fancy plans because Tina Fey is the bomb, and I have a deep and abiding love for her sense of humor. I’m not even going to blame quarantine or make any other excuse. I was in bed with my wife and laughed until I cried – all of my favorite things.
Tracy Morgan’s character ended a ranting tirade by declaring his intention to, “Treat every week like shark week!” I laughed so long and hard that one of our kids came into our room to make sure everything was OK, which is dangerous, because we want to discourage our kids from busting into our bedroom at night uninvited, for their sakes even more than ours. My cousin has a very traumatic story about looking for a band-aid in his parents’ room in the middle of the night that I’d like my kids to not recreate. We keep the bandages prominently accessible in the hall closet for this very reason. But I digress.
Sobriety is not as simple as making a decision to no longer drink beverages containing alcohol. For me, for most people who have drank hard enough, long enough, alcohol has twisted and tangled into every aspect of our lives from drunken antics, to our sober, warped brain dysfunction. Sobriety, therefore, is not a simple choice of beverage. Sobriety, if successfully accomplished, changes everything.
It took me ten years to quit drinking. Ten! Almost no matter how long this little earthly jaunt lasts for me, that’s a double-digit percentage of my life spent trying to quit drinking. I know I make abstinence look effortless and marvelous now in my fourth year of permanent sobriety, but I know how gruelling it is early on (and by early sobriety, I mean that whole first year – don’t get cocky early on me now, unless you want it to take you a decade to get over that hump).
I wanted sobriety to change nothing for me. I wanted to go through my normal life, just without a beer in my hand. It doesn’t work that way – not for me, nor for any of the thousands of sober badasses with whom I’m familiar. Sobriety changes everything, but in a good way (which I never believed possible until a couple of years ago).
Sober people are losers! Look, I’d like to tell you that my opinion wasn’t this superficial, jaded, prejudiced, narrow, misinformed, misguided, misintellectualized, bigoted, arrogant, and just plain asinine, but it was. I thought people who didn’t drink alcohol, for any reason, were losers.
This included my own mother for quite a while. God, how shallow and despicable was I?
And I’d like to tell you that my opinion changed when I started exploring sobriety, or at least once I was sober myself. Nope! I continued to consider people who didn’t drink alcohol to be losers, I just tucked my tail between my legs and joined their pathetic ranks.