The Link between Alcohol and Survival, and My Costanza Moment of Truth
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.
My mind immediately went to these two specific places: First, I thought about my kids. There was so much more I had to tell them. I wasn’t ready for them to be without a father. I was extremely angry at the thought of leaving my parental job unfinished. Looking back, I find this thought interesting because the blood test results didn’t say I was dead, they said I probably had a treatable form of cancer* (see the epilogue for details). Yet, my first instinctual reaction was that I needed more time with my children.
Second, I thought of all the work I want to do in this space – alcoholism and recovery. I want to make an impact on the stigma associated with this disease, and I’m nowhere close to achieving any of my goals. Again, anger was the go to feeling. I’ve too much to do to be burdened with another deadly disease.
The whole incident probably lasted about two minutes. That’s how long it took my eyes to move that decimal point into proper position and report to me that I was in great health with no reason to fear cancer. At the risk of sounding cranially unbalanced, I swear that decimal point moved on me. I did not take a casual first glance. I stared that thing down. I am without explanation for how I could have misread the result for such an extended period.
Except for this: Maybe I am supposed to know the first two thoughts that would explode into my head when faced with death. I didn’t go to typical bucket list items like jumping out of a plane or having sex with a supermodel. My regrets for things unaccomplished weren’t greedy and selfish like amassing a sizeable fortune or reaching some level of fame and celebrity. I wanted to teach my kids and share what I’ve learned. At the risk of sounding braggadocious, I’m kind of excited about what my near-death decimal point encounter revealed.
Do you remember the Seinfeld episode when George plows over the old lady and the man using a walker to get out of a burning building? I love that episode (who am I kidding, I love them all). I love George Costanza, but I’m glad to not be George Costanza. I’ll bet that’s a sentiment to which we can all relate.
Hours later – like five hours after misreading the result, I had another equally profound thought. At no time when I was considering my pending death did I even think for a nanosecond about drinking alcohol. If you’ve never used alcohol to self-medicate, that might not seem like a big deal. It was 9:30 in the morning, after all. Who thinks about drinking then? But if you are like me, and alcohol is or once was your unrivaled and undisputed go to in the face of any adversity, you know what I mean when I say this: Back when I was a drinker, I would have poured vodka into a glass with ice before giving that decimal point a second look. When I was a drinker, and even a year or 18 months into sobriety, my involuntary system equated alcohol with survival. The instant sweat production would have been joined by an instinctual beverage pour. Just like a frog doesn’t probably employ a lot of conscious thought to snap his tongue out to catch a fly, I would have had vodka down my throat without a single consideration for necessity or appropriateness.
I’m devoted to my kids! I want to fulfill my mission! And most importantly, my subconscious no longer equates alcohol to survival!
This is huge news for me. It has taken a long time and a lot of effort to get here, and I want it for everyone who is recovering from addiction. It really is quite a good feeling. About a year into my sobriety, I wrote about the things that I knew would make me drink. The death of my wife or one of my kids, nuclear war, our house burning down, etc., would surely send me over the edge and back to the whiskey bottle. I wrote about it, and I sincerely meant it. There was not a question in my mind that a dozen or more situations could potentially occur that would make me drink.
Now I feel with the same confidence and sincerity that no condition exists that will cause me to instinctively reach for the bottle. How cool is that?
I know what some of my friends in recovery are thinking as they read this. That sure sounds arrogant. When we let our ego do the talking, our feet go walking (to the liquor store). This isn’t about ego or arrogance. I know I could still drink if I get too full of myself or start to feel invincible. I’m not saying I am free and clear of that threat. I’m saying that I no longer have a thoughtless reflex to drink to survive catastrophe. When the doc hits my knee with the rubber hammer, my elbow no longer swings up delivering a cocktail to my lips.
Yes! I don’t have cancer! Yes! I don’t drink when faced with serious adversity!
While Sheri and I were on our honeymoon in San Francisco in 1997, we were walking down the street when a snarling, barking dog jumped from the bed of a pickup truck and threatened us. I instinctively jumped in front of my new bride to protect her. Then we went to the first neighborhood bar we could find to have a drink to calm our nerves. Until this week, that was my George Costanza moment. That was a reaction in which I took a lot of pride, followed by an alcoholic reaction that I usually left out of the story. My new story is pure. Sure, it speaks poorly of my ability to process numbers typed in arial 12 point font in clear black ink on white matte finished paper, but there is no alcoholic reaction. I’m just blind or stupid, but I’m not a drunk. Not anymore. Wow! I never thought my life flashing before my eyes could be such a cool experience.
If you are trudging painfully through early sobriety, battling constant cravings and searching for some good news, keep going. If you have months of sobriety under your belt, and you still don’t feel good, keep going. If you’ve cut out the one thing that brought you temporary relief and joy to your life, and you don’t understand why your alcohol-induced depression isn’t receding, keep going. If this joy can come to me, it can come to you, too.
Just keep going.
How long does it take for the cravings for alcohol to subside? How long does it take for the fog to lift and joy to return? How long does it take for your brain to detach alcohol from survival? My answer is very scientific and precise: It takes longer than it takes to master the Rubik’s Cube, and not as long as it will take for us to see peace in the Middle East. Somewhere between those two theoretical unknowns. Precisely between those two.
If you aren’t there yet, please, please, please cut yourself some slack. It will happen for you if you just keep going. I know how hard it is. Guess what – if you keep doing it, eventually it won’t be hard anymore. Commitment and repetition isn’t all it takes to find permanent sobriety, but they sure are necessary foundations.
If you would like help with the rest of it – help putting together all the pieces required to make it through the gauntlet of early sobriety, I want to help. Please consider my SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery. My alternative recovery method relies on brain science, bibliotherapy, nutrition, community and connection to made it over the seemingly elusive hump to freedom. SHOUT Sobriety also relies on donations of our supporters and participants to survive and be here for the next person who needs us. We ask all participants for a $25 per month recurring donation to our nonprofit committed to defeating the stigma of alcoholism. To learn more, to donate or to enroll in SHOUT Sobriety, please click the button below.
*Epilogue – I’m totally open about everything else, so why not share my blood test results, too. I had a reading of 0.61 ng/ml PSA (prostate specific antigen). I read it as 6.1 (over and over again), which would put me in a danger zone. My 0.61 is not a concern. Whew!
Good post Matt! Thanks for sharing it.
You are neither blind nor stupid. I think that decimal point moved or your eyes were made to see it that way, so you could have the realizations that you experienced and apply them.
Man, I think you might be right, Eddie. Once I got over the initial terror, it was a really cool feeling.
Heart stopping moment Matt. I was right there with you. Great story telling. Powerful message.
Thank you, Anne!
Beautiful! What a gift that mis-read was. I suspect you have some powerful cheerleaders on the other side that made that all happen so you could receive the real message. You are inspiring and real. Thank you for what you are sharing and how you are helping positive change happen. My 23 year old son is 20 months sober. We have all been through a very dark period but it has led us to some brilliant light and honesty. I love how you are targeting a very specific group – those in early sobriety/recovery. Such a delicate spot. Good job Matt!! KEEP GOING AND DON’T STOP!
Congratulations to your son and your whole family on 20 months. That is fantastic! Thanks so much for reading and your encouragement, Suzanne!