Lots of why will be spun up around this in the future I’m falling headlong into (it’s the alcohol, it’s the disease, it’s not him, it’s not real).
But none of you are here right now. None of you can see the way my partner, my husband, is looking at me. We’re two decades past and three thousand miles away from when and where we first fell in love, but there’s a longer time, a deeper distance: both immeasurable.
He hates me, and it doesn’t matter why.
Empathy, that putative ability to feel the emotions of others as if they were your own… well, you can see how that would be a dangerous prospect at this moment. A thing to guard against.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.
When you need help, really need help, you’ll take it wherever you can get it.
It had been almost two months since our initial visit with the transplant team, when they’d unexpectedly advised us that a liver transplant was not just the next step, but the only remaining step available. John had subsequently, spectacularly, failed tox screens for both alcohol and pot. And instead of being fast-tracked for the transplant list, so I could be reviewed for donation, the team told us they wouldn’t do anything until he was seeing a substance abuse counselor. Steps vital to survival were suddenly, maddeningly, on hold.
He didn’t want to do it, to go to a counselor. He told me, standing there in our kitchen, that it would be easier to just let him die. He’d prefer it.
I occasionally get lured into an argument about the disease designation of alcoholism. People like me believe addiction is a disease for two reasons. First, just like cancer negatively impacts our cellular makeup (biology) and can kill us if left untreated, alcoholism changes our neurotransmitter function (neurology) and can kill us if left untreated. Second, alcoholism prevention is woefully underfunded considering the three million alcohol-related deaths annually, and dropping the disease designation will do nothing to get this epidemic the attention it deserves.
Similarly, from time to time, I am baited into arguing about my personal conviction for owning the alcoholic label. Others argue that the word is so stigmatized that people avoid the label, and thus keep drinking and denying to their considerable peril. I don’t disagree, which is precisely why I own the label. By doing so, I take the power out of the stigma. What are you going to do, tease me by calling me an alcoholic? I just called myself an alcoholic, you slow-witted loser. If we want people to get help early, like at the first signs of dysfunction, we need to destigmatize the disease of alcoholism (just as cancer, which, by the way, afflicts slightly fewer Americans than alcoholism).
Is alcoholism a disease? Yes. Is crushing the stigma associated with alcoholism crucial to ending the epidemic. An emphatic yes!
But that’s not the point. If we want to reach our human potential, we must evolve past the arguments about this diabolical disease.
It was early in June the day our friend Tom got out of bed, long before the sunrise, without disturbing his wife. He got dressed, went to the basement, and fed lettuce to his Russian tortoise Nadenka, as he did every morning. While she munched away in her pen, he wiped the hard drive on his desktop. Looking over his significant gun collection, a point of pride, he selected one of the pair of pearl-handled revolvers, loaded it, and pocketed it. He then stole silently up the stairs, grabbed his cell phone, his wallet, and his car keys, and left a note for his wife telling her where he would be.
He drove for a while that morning, about an hour, to a nature reserve that was one of his favorite spots. He parked along the side of the road, conspicuous, not in any parking spot. But it was still early, quiet. He’d have some time. He got out, left his cell phone and wallet on the dashboard and the keys in the ignition. He took the revolver.
“How Aliens Confirmed Earth is Devoid of Intelligent Lifeforms”
Think about it for a minute – pretend you know nothing about the role alcohol plays in our culture, or in your personal life. With a completely open mind, read my fair and honest explanation of alcohol as I would describe it to an extraterrestrial being:
This stigma is strong. The stigma is the enemy. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is what keeps us drinking. I spent ten years in active alcoholism. Much of that time was spent trying to get out while being pulled back in by the shame and stigma. Sometimes – quite often, really – the stigma is perpetuated from within the walls intended for healing.
When I read Victoria’s story about shame and stigma, I asked if I could publish it here. She not only understands the incarceration of the stigma, she describes it as well as I’ve ever heard it described. I’m betting you’ll resonate with Victoria’s words, too.
“Hello, my name is Victoria, and I am an alcoholic.”
I call it the pit. It is the depth of alcoholic despair where I would go as I sobered-up after drinking too much. It was an ensnaring web of depression and anxiety that left me debilitated – unwilling and unable to function. I’ll never forget that feeling. The memory both haunts me, and lifts me up solidifying my permanent sobriety.
Alcoholism isn’t about excesses, financial problems or legal issues. Alcoholism is about pain.
Alcoholism is a disease. It is a mental-health crisis as both our subconscious mind and our neurotransmitter function are hijacked by the liquid poison. It isn’t about willpower or moderation. We alcoholics can heal, but we require – we deserve – treatment and understanding.
Kyle asked to enroll in our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism on June 13th. He was in the midst of a two month stint of sobriety and looking for something to help him make it stick. In early July, he was on day one and trying again.
Kyle is a few years younger than me, but he is living almost my exact story as alcoholism slowly destroys his life. His two kids are ages five and three, and his wife has run out of love and trust for him as he is losing his battle with the beast of addiction.
On October 13th, Kyle told me, “It seems like every relapse is harder and harder to explain. Explain to myself, my boss, family and kids. But most importantly it is harder and harder for me to have faith that I can stop for good and not lose everything.” On October 31st, Kyle drank a pint of vodka in the morning to nurse a hangover from the day before. He was passed out and vomiting by the evening, and he couldn’t even muster a smile for his children when they came home and wanted to show their candy to their daddy.
I sat crouched in the woods behind my house as the driving rain continued to lash my thoroughly drenched body. The temperature had dropped into the 40s, and I wasn’t wearing a jacket because I hadn’t planned to spend any time outside. I was drunk. Beyond drunk, really. I was in blackout territory as the lights of my teenage memory flickered in and out.