Where did that come from? In my life that features so many memories lost to blackout drinking, that’s a pondering I’ll never forget. That question dominated my brain on several occasions in my late teenage years when I was experimenting with alcohol.
It happened once the morning after a huge drunken fight I had with my high school girlfriend at a party on full display in front of probably a hundred friends. It happened another time after I took a swing at my best friend after drinking together for many hours. Thankfully, I was drunk enough to miss, but I’ve never been in a fist-fight in my life, so it was beyond surprising when I was putting the pieces of the puzzle back together the next day.
In fact, had I woken up after either of those instances having grown a third butt cheek I would have been less surprised than I was to learn of my aggressive and abhorrent drunken behavior.
That was the first stage of my alcoholism. I had not yet crossed the invisible line that separates eager drinkers from those of us with addictions, but I sure was working hard to learn the part of an alcoholic. I’ve said it a million times – alcoholism is a progressive disease. So, let’s review my progress through the various stages over the years.
Once I got to college, it was like releasing an angry wolverine on a pack of unsuspecting prairie dogs. I attacked drinking like it was my job. With no supervision for the first time in my life, I unleashed my unquenchable thirst on a campus that was eager to oblige. Luckily, I had tens of thousands of thirsty classmates who were just as eager as me to soak our brains for the next four years.
The camaraderie of it all – that’s what made questions like – Where did that come from? – disappear. My behavior deteriorated, but I was in such good company that it was hardly noticeable. I didn’t just wait for the weekends to party. If I read three pages in a textbook, that was cause for celebration. I gained the “freshman 40” (you might remember it as being the “freshman 15,” so maybe I’m an overachiever – in fact, I gained all that weight before Thanksgiving). If I ate breakfast, it was because I was still up, not because I got up. But here’s the thing, I was surrounded by people who were on the same schedule. It’s hard to notice troubling behavior when it’s the norm, and even the expectation. It was the guy who stayed in shape, had a 4.0 and didn’t drink his face off in celebration of Arbor Day – that’s the guy you had to look out for. He was the one with the problems.
My progress continued after graduation. I took my marketing degree and got myself a sales job like everyone else in my business-school concentration. I convinced my girlfriend to move to Minnesota with me, and we got ourselves an apartment and pretended we were adults. I would pour my first drink before I even took off my tie upon return from what I decided was my stressful job. We had no kids, no mortgage, no debt and no discernable responsibilities. We kept a cat alive, but I’m not sure a dog would have made it when I was 22. I had not yet learned the meaning of the word stress (I’m sorry but the all-nighters we pulled studying in college are the self-inflicted result of our fearlessness and our mastery of procrastination). Still, I was a grown-ass man, and I was mixing a drink after work every single night. And drinking just one seemed like a waste of time. I say that it seemed that way, because I’ve never in my life consumed just one alcoholic beverage.
I could spot absolutely no signs of trouble at this stage. My girlfriend, and eventual wife, Sheri – well, she had her concerns. Daily drinking seemed excessive to her, but luckily, I was arrogant and obnoxious enough to gaslight her concerns into being her own prudish problems.
As my career advanced, I was entertaining clients with regular frequency. This was great, because it provided me with a tremendous opportunity to drink too much and embarrass myself occasionally in front of customers and co-workers. Luckily, I worked in an industry with a reputation for hard drinking, so my associates hardly noticed my random buffoonery. Now, after years in the alcoholism and recovery field, and after hearing thousands of stories of drinkers like me from such vastly varied lines of work, I’ve come to realize that the only employment fields without a culture of hard drinking are butterfly reproduction management and salt-shaker-hole drillers. All the rest of us are screwed.
Still, my drinking had not yet begun to concern me. Even when I left an incoherent voicemail for a customer at 2am, even when I couldn’t find my car in the morning after driving home from client dinners smelling like I had lit cigars in my pockets after showering in scotch – even then, I was oblivious to any warning signs. My wife was growing increasingly repulsed by my very existence (you can imagine how eager she was for me to crawl into bed with her with whiskey oozing from my pores), but I was convinced enough about my own awesomeness for the both of us.
Next step – kids, of course. The cat was still alive, so we had proven ourselves ready. My wife was in labor for something like 36 hours with our first born, our daughter. I mowed the lawn on Saturday morning when the hospital sent us home until the contractions moved closer together. I did that so I could drink beer. That way, when we returned to the maternity ward, if they smelled the beer on me, I could just tell them about the grass cutting. Who cuts grass without drinking beer? I wasn’t a Quaker. They would understand.
Our daughter turned 18 last month. She was five-years-old the first time I tried to quit drinking. That was the first time I could hear the whispers that had been screaming in my wife’s ears for years. I was unsuccessful in my quest for sobriety back then, but even my failure was progress. You can’t unknow a realization about alcoholism. Denial can be powerful, and I was quite adept in my return to alcoholic ignorance, but the truth would live just out of reach of my acknowledgement for ten years more.
It’s a good thing I didn’t quit drinking back then, because I would have missed out on a decade of alcohol-fueled arguments, broken promises, failed attempts at moderation and the blooming of an impressive crop of depression and anxiety. Sobriety would have been so much less eventful. What would my wife have had on which to base such deep resentment and loathing? Nothing. That would have made her as crazy as my drunken brain often mis-accused her of being.
I hit my bottom. I had enough. My attempts to drink my way out of my alcoholism had proven unsuccessful, so I sobered-up. That sentence makes it sound so delightfully accessible – like plucking a wayward eyebrow hair or unsticking a jacket zipper. I was a drunk, so I got sober. There. Now, can I borrow your tweezers?
The stages of alcoholism don’t end with sobriety. The progression continues through the pain and agony of early recovery.
I remember how good it felt, early on in sobriety, to be holding a 64 ounce red plastic cup with a Coca-Cola logo and straws sticking out of the top amongst my dozens of co-workers with pints of craft brewed Colorado beers in their hands. I’m less than all of you, and I want to make sure all of you know it, so I thank our server for bringing me this symbol of my alcoholic weakness that is so grand that I have to hold it with two hands. I remember the hot, sour, red-wine breath on my neck from my good friend as she slur-whispered a dirty joke in my ear. I remember feeling like I fit in like a pogo stick at a motorcycle rally. I remember that stage in the alcoholism process like it was yesterday.
Then I remember my sobriety muscles growing stronger. I remember thinking I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. I made it over the recovery hump. The drinking of others no longer tempted me. The opinions of others no longer concerned me. I was sober, and I was impervious to criticism and ridicule, real or perceived. It was a glorious feeling. It was the first healthy stage of my human development since I’d learned how to floss around my braces. I was making progress in my alcoholic progression. Imagine that.
That brings me to present day. I have come to understand that I was wrong when I didn’t think I cared what others thought of me. I cared then, and I care now. But here’s the thing: now that I don’t make an alcoholic ass of myself, I am no longer adding to my gargantuan pile of regret. Without new regrets, there is no shame. And without any new shame generation, the people with whom I associate myself don’t have much of my embarrassment to stand on when attempting to look down upon me.
It’s not that I don’t care what people think, I just have a nice long lucky streak of making people think I’m a decent guy. Even my wife is beginning to believe I might have washed off most of the asshole.
As far as progress goes, this stage of my alcoholism feels like I just invented an eyebrow-taming salve or a medical procedure for removal of an excess butt cheek. It feels pretty good. I think I’ve even grown-up enough that I could keep a dog alive. But I don’t really like slobber, so I guess we’ll never know.
Where did that come from? I’m asking it again. But this time, I’m not confused about some disgusting behavior that I’m trying to bring into focus through an alcoholic haze. I’m wondering about the origin of the peace and contentment that plagues me wherever I go. I’m glad no one told me about the enlightenment of long-term sobriety before. I would hate to have missed all those Monday mornings when I didn’t want to be alive. Besides, learning to vilify alcohol is not for everyone. Misery seems to really suit some people.
If your misery doesn’t suit you anymore, we invite you to join us in the sober evolution. Please check out our SHOUT Sobriety program. You are welcome to enroll, no matter how stuck your alcoholic zipper might be.