Alcoholism is a disease of shame. When I first admitted to myself that I was drinking too much and I needed to do something about it, I was ashamed of my behavior and lack of control. When I woke in a panic because I could not remember huge chunks of the night before, I was filled with shame. When I argued with my wife, drove when I should not have or was loud and obnoxious – shame, shame and shame. At the end of my drinking life, every beer…every single sip…was like another brick in my wall of embarrassed self-loathing.
And when I tried to quit drinking – after a brief feeling of pride because I was finally addressing my addiction – I was filled with shame because I could not drink like everyone else. That is the truly insidious part of alcoholism – what sets it apart from other addictions and other diseases. The shame I felt because I was not drinking was equal to, and maybe even greater than, the shame I felt as an active alcoholic. Beating the physical addiction was easy. Defeating the shame monster that grew almost insurmountably strong nurtured by twenty-five years of heavy drinking was the hardest thing I will ever do.
The First Time I Quit Drinking Alcohol
My oldest child, Cathryn, was turning five-years-old. That is the magic age, according to my wife, Sheri, when little ears are developed enough and wiggly fannies are calm enough for the five hours of roaring engines and aluminum grandstands that is the Indianapolis 500. Cathryn and I joined my parents and a dozen of our best friends and their families on our traditional Memorial Day race weekend. It was ten years before I would ultimately quit drinking for good, and I was so naïve about what permanent sobriety entailed.
As my father and friends drank and laughed and drank some more, I tried to muster enough arrogant I-don’t-need-alcohol-to-have-fun superiority to get through the night-before-the-race festivities. Later, when I was alone in bed and the house was quiet, my relief that the party was over swirled in my chaotic mind with the shame that I could not drink like everyone else. I was filled with doubt. Did I really need to quit? Did I really have a drinking problem, or did I just need a little more willpower?
This attempt to quit drinking was doomed to fail precisely because I thought I had a drinking problem. A splinter in your finger is a problem. A speeding ticket is a problem. What I had was a debilitating brain disease that society astonishingly misdiagnoses as a lack of willpower. Would you battle cancer with willpower? I can say without hesitation after grappling with a mind warping poison for over a decade that beating alcoholism takes more than willpower. Much more. Willpower was no match for the shame monster because the beast was two-headed – I was ashamed of my behavior when I drank and too embarrassed to abstain.
The next day we attended the race. I tried to convince myself I was the best father there because I drank water and attended to the needs of my daughter while most of the 300,000 fans screamed and cheered and drank many, many beers. I wanted a can of suds because I liked the taste and how it made me feel. More than that, I wanted a beer because I wanted to be normal – to fit in. I was damned with shame if I did drink and damned with shame if I didn’t. I did not yet have an understanding of – a fearful respect for – the powerful demon I faced.
A week or two later, I was back to the drink.