As I awoke from my very brief slumber alone on my neighbors’ front porch swing, the party raged on in the house behind me. What happened? Did I pass out? Only minutes earlier I was engaged in conversation with the smokers in attendance who were indulging their habit outside. I was indulging my habit, too. I was probably five or six beers into the evening when I ventured outside to join their conversation. Sometime while trading stories and laughing effortlessly as drinkers do while drinking, I passed out mid-conversation. It seemed the long work week and soothing motion of the swing combined with the alcohol to lull me to sleep. Now awake, I slithered back across the street to my house and joined my family who had left the party and gone to bed in the previous couple of hours.
I was not drunk. I was not slurring my words and I had not said anything rude or insulting. I had not gotten sick or danced on a table or spilled food or drink on the carpet – nothing like that. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed about my undignified nap.
I awoke the next day early, and began erecting a facade to counter the impression of gluttonous consumption I might have left on my neighbors the night before. I mowed the lawn with pep in my step and a smile on my face. Nothing to see here. I didn’t drink too much last night. I don’t have a problem. Look at me – your responsible, totally in control neighbor. I was fine. I wasn’t hungover. I was fulfilling all of my responsibilities as a husband, father and home owner.
Still, I was stuck. Stuck between the person I was expected to be – expected myself to be – and a man full of doubts about my relationship with alcohol. Look over here! Watch me mow the lawn and go to work ontime and support my family. Look over here! Don’t notice my nap on the front porch swing.
Sure, there were times when I got hammered and argued with my wife or drove when I should not have. Those things happened, and I am filled with shame about my drunken behavior, but those occasions were not the norm. My regular, nagging chagrin was not from over-the-top buffoonery, it was from constantly falling short of my own self-standards, and then overcompensating to cover the tracks of my questionable behavior. I was living a life of undignified duplicity.
This past weekend I heard a bug fluttering frantically on our sidewalk. It was flapping its wings desperately, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It was not like any bug I had seen before, and I didn’t know what to make of its strange behavior. Soon it flailed itself to death. On closer examination, I realized this flying creature (maybe a dragonfly) was halfway out of the cocoon from which it was emerging when the cocoon detached from the tree above the sidewalk sending the insect and its transformative home plummeting to the pavement below. Either because of trauma from the fall or because it needed the angle of the dangle from the tree, the bug couldn’t complete its emergence lying on the sidewalk. It was stuck. It was only half of what it wanted to be. The undignified duplicity killed it.
Since coming out alcoholic in January, I have had countless friends, family and readers tell me they are not alcoholic, but… The explanations that follow the protestation are both individually unique and all exactly the same. I’m uncomfortable with how urgently I feel the pull to have that glass or two of wine every night. -or- I suffer from and am medicated to treat depression, yet I drink occasionally and it must be contributing to my sadness. -or- Sometimes I overdo it. That was OK when I was younger, but I am in my mid-forties, and it is getting old. -or- I’m not sure I even enjoy drinking. I do it because I can’t remember when I didn’t.
The negative impact of alcohol is not limited to alcoholics like me. Moderate drinkers, social drinkers and occasional binge drinkers suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia, an erosion of self-confidence and a nagging dread that something just isn’t right, too. It results in a lack of dignity. It’s a feeling that we are doing everything that’s expected of us, but it just isn’t enough. We still feel bad. There’s still something missing. We are proud of our accomplishments and fulfilling our responsibilities, but there is still an underlying unidentified shame. All the things that make us feel good are at odds with the crutch alcohol has become, whether it is the nightly glass of wine or the monthly Saturday night blow-out.
It used to be good. It was fine for so long. But now something’s not right. That which worked before isn’t working anymore. It’s painful and empty and raw like a wound that won’t heal. It is the undignified duplicity.
That’s how it was for me. Most of the time, I didn’t drink like a maniac. But all of the time, I was self conscious and overcompensating. I wasn’t true to myself because the poison wouldn’t let me be.
Now everything’s different. I have nothing to hide and I don’t care what anyone thinks about the man I truly am. I’m no longer intimidated by successful or powerful people, I don’t long to be someone I’m not and I am comfortable with all of my many weaknesses.
I was overwhelmed with sadness at the passing of Senator John McCain a couple of weeks ago. I loved John McCain, and I believe he is the most important American of my lifetime. He is a war hero who suffered excruciating and unspeakable torture in Vietnam. He fought to pass legislation he believed in and also compromised and made concessions to keep our country moving forward. He put country and conviction way, way before party, and he suffered politically for staying true to his principles.
But John McCain also divorced his first wife after returning from captivity in Vietnam. He was wrong about the confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building, and let political advisors talk him out of following his gut when his gut was right. He had a temper he couldn’t always control. He was imperfect. And I loved him for it. When he made mistakes, he admitted them and tried to fix any messes he created.
John McCain is said to be a rare politician because of his honesty, candor, humility and dedication to something bigger than self. I think these characteristics make him not just a rare politician, but a rare human. We always knew where he stood and what he believed in. There was no duplicity. John McCain was often wrong, but he was never undignified.
I am overflowing with admiration for John McCain, and I am terrified of what his loss means for a government so devoid of character, honesty and reverence for the greater good. I am not in a position to have more than a nano-impact on the direction of our country through conversations and ballots cast. But it brings me comfort to know while I can’t do much, I can live my truth, and do so with dignity and without regret. I still make tons of mistakes and wish I was better in so many areas of my life.
But I don’t feel shame for my actions, and I no longer wonder if a part of me is missing. What you see is what you get. I no longer feel the need to hide any part of me, and my shortcomings are on full display.
At five o’clock in the evening, I no longer feel compelled to give in and give up a little part of me. And at six o’clock in the morning, I no longer regret my previous night’s decisions and wonder why I feel incomplete.
No more lack of dignity. No more duplicity. No more feeling stuck.