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.
On my way back from the men’s room a few minutes later, a book editor and prospective author in my group pulled me aside to tell me about her alcoholic husband. They were divorced some time ago, but the trauma was still fresh and painful for my literary associate. She shared her story, asked me a question or two and thanked me for being so open about it.
As the presentation started up again, the children’s book author sitting next to me leaned over and whispered that she was 40 days sober. She told me how great she felt, and how she wished she had removed alcohol from her life years ago. Her eyes darted around the room nervously as we whisper-talked. She was excited about her decision and her sobriety, but she was careful to keep our conversation quite private.
At the end of the seminar, I heard a voice calling out to me from behind as I walked to my Jeep. “Wait Matt! I have something to tell you,” said a man twenty years my senior who writes dramatic fiction. As he caught up to me, he extended his hand. “I’m a friend of Bill’s. I have been for over 25 years,” he said with a wide grin on his face. He sat across the table from me for the entire seven hour meeting. We had probably a dozen side conversations about various topics throughout the day, but his alcoholism never came up. It didn’t come up, that is, until we were alone together walking to the parking lot.
Four of the eight attendees at a conference about book publishing that included authors from all genres were recovering from alcoholism. For the mathematically impaired, that’s 50% of the people. It was not a meeting of self-help writers or memoirists. I didn’t spend the day in a session about the power of vulnerability in writing. We discussed romance novels and fantasy/science fiction during the seminar. This wasn’t a conference that would typically attract an alcoholic crowd, yet half of us were getting over our alcohol-induced demons.
At least half of us were in recovery, I should say. There is no telling what other secrets lurked behind the other smiling faces and polite conversations.
The pervasiveness of the disease was not the only glaring notable from the group. The way the afflicted whispered and snuck around when sharing with me their experiences was remarkable. It was sad, but it wasn’t surprising.
Even as I made the point to the group that the stigma was a huge barrier to people seeking help, and that talking openly about alcoholism was the only way to defeat the stigma – even then – three people made a point to share with me only when their secret would be protected. I’m not drawing attention to this fact in order to call anyone out, nor am I trying to admonish my fellow writers and make myself feel superior. To the exact contrary, actually. I point out the privacy and secrecy because it is such a trademark characteristic of the disease of alcoholism.
And that makes me sad. In fact it’s much worse than that. The anonymity and secrecy is killing people.
My new friend with over 25 years of sobriety has surely sat in a circle of folding chairs in a private room and discussed his alcoholism literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times. He is decades past the physical cravings and temptations, and the smile he shared with me told me how proud he was of his accomplishment, but he wasn’t proud enough to let anyone else know. That’s fascinating. And also tragic.
How many people keep drinking alcohol because there is simply too much shame associated with the word, “alcoholic,” for them to ever adopt that label? A precise and accurate answer is impossible, but it’s in the millions. I remember how that felt because I was an alcoholic in denial for over ten years. How many people die because they never seek help because of the stigma associated with that word? Again, the truth is elusive, and also in the millions of people.
According to the World Health Organization, three million people die each year from alcohol related causes. Asking the question a different way, how many of those deaths are preventable if we’ll just learn to talk openly about this damned disease. I bet that number is in the millions, too.
But we don’t talk about it. Ever. Society teaches us to drink, beverage companies spend billions to keep us drinking, and then we turn away and pretend not to see the consequences. It isn’t hard to make the case for alcoholism being the most tragic human invention proliferated by our own ignorance in the history of the world.
We’ve got big problems in this world, no doubt. Maybe the biggest of the big is us.
I’ve been asked by friends and family members, “What are you going to write about next? Aren’t you sick of writing about alcoholism? There must be something else you are interested in, isn’t there?” They don’t get it. I’m going to keep writing and speaking and podcasting and screaming about this one specific topic for the rest of my life, and there is only a slim chance I’ll make a tiny dent in public perception.
I’m not going to stop talking once I’ve said my peace. I’ll never stop talking because so few are actually listening.
And that’s where you come in. As my readers, you have a passion about the destruction of alcoholism. Whether you love me and want to support me because you believe in me, or you know the pain of addiction to alcohol first hand, I need your help. Think about what you can do to spread this mission. What uncomfortable conversations can you initiate, or at least not shy away from? Who needs your help, but you have remained silent because you don’t know what to say? What action can you take to defeat the stigma? Do something – please – because standing idly by, or recovering quietly and privately, that doesn’t seem to be working.
We’ve tried, “Ignore it and hope it goes away,” for centuries now. Let’s try something else. Anything else.
And if you are one of the millions who needs help, I encourage you to join our SHOUT Sobriety program for drinkers and loved ones suffering through the very difficult process of early recovery. We are growing in number, and we are mighty in the love we show for each other. Our voice is building. We are a donation-based program, and we ask participants for a $25 per month recurring donation to keep our mission alive. For more information, to make a donation or to enroll, please click the button below.