What if Everyone had Known?
What if everyone had known everything right from the beginning? What if my dirty little secrets, that started as rare indiscretions or occasional overindulgences, were on display for all to see? What if the progression of my drinking, and the progression of my moodiness, anxiety, irrationality and depression, were plastered on the outside, instead of insidiously roiling on the inside?
What if there were no secrets? Only increasingly despicable truths. Truths everyone knew. What then?
I would have gotten sober a lot sooner, that’s what. I never would have crossed that invisible line into addiction. It would not have been easy, but the truth sure would have made the decision simple.
I don’t much care what most people think of me now. Our concern for the opinions of others exists on a spectrum. Time is a factor. At age 50, I know who I am – what I am capable of and what my limitations are. Our concern for the opinions of others naturally diminishes over time. But time isn’t the only factor. Self-esteem plays a big role, and I feel pretty good about myself. I have nothing to hide. I mean, I had a rash six months ago that I never did identify, but I eventually found the right cream to rub on it, and it went away. I guess I hid that. But that’s about it for secrets for me.
I don’t care who knows that my favorite music is harmonized folk rock and female power ballads sung by (mostly) lesbian vocalists. I don’t care who knows that I top off the (mostly) whole foods I eat all day with a sizable bowl of ice cream in bed, that processed carbs make me bloated (so if I look puffy, you’ll know I have been stress-eating Doritos), and that I still fantasize about Taco Bell soft tacos even though I haven’t eaten one in a couple of decades. I don’t care who knows that my favorite movie and favorite musical are both love stories about French prostitutes. Hell, I don’t even care who knows I have a favorite musical. I am painfully aware that my list of secrets that aren’t really secrets is so boring that you might be questioning your decision to read about my experiences and epiphanies (you are only five paragraphs in, so you can bail now without too much regret about wasted time investment).
I don’t care.
I don’t chase likes or reader counts or other forms of social media and web-based popularity metrics. I write the truth. I speak the truth. I do both for me and my sanity because processing in the open is less noisy than confining my incessant thoughts to bang into each other inside my cranial cage.
And the truth is that I don’t care who knows my secrets because I have nothing to hide (except maybe the aforementioned rash). Now. Now I have nothing to hide. But that’s not always been the case…
I don’t remember when the alcohol-induced blackouts began. It would be an oxymoron if I did. They definitely grew more frequent and more concerning over time. I would wake up with gaps in my memory about the night before. I would have the sense that my wife wasn’t happy, but I would not be sure why. Maybe I had said something crass. Maybe my temper had been short and I had called her names. Maybe I had raised my voice. Maybe I had demanded sex, and felt neglected or rejected because she had refused. Maybe I had told her she was a bad wife – or worse – a bad mother. Maybe she had fired back, so I had escalated the gaslighting and vile language. Maybe I had laid it all on her – laid it on thick through slurred insults.
Maybe this woman to whom I had pledged mutual trust and protection had been hurt by me, her safe person, more than anyone on the outside had ever hurt her.
And maybe such incidents progressed with my disease of addiction. Progressed in frequency, and progressed in severity.
Even in a blackout, I was almost always careful to keep the hidden evil hidden, visible only to the person I was attacking, the person I loved the most.
But what if my boss witnessed the scene? What if my parents had a hidden camera to see into our house in the middle of the night? What if my friends, my neighbors, my colleagues and acquaintances were all privy to the truth? What then?
There would not have been much progression, that is for sure. I was a high-functioning alcoholic. That is not a judgment on my superiority over those who had succumbed to late-stage addiction and were no longer functioning. I was headed to join them. I was blessed to have further to fall, and I got off the slide before I hit the bottom. As a high-functioning alcoholic, what others thought of me meant a great deal. I was younger then, so the confidence of age was not the factor it is now. More importantly, my self-esteem was very low. I had secrets. The outsiders didn’t know them, but I did. Even as I hid the truth from the rest of the world, the shame ate at me from the inside. I cared a great deal what others thought, because external approval was all I had. Only when I downplayed my alcoholism, and lied to myself, did I excuse away the truth.
I needed the respect of others because I did not respect myself.
So if others knew the truth, the inevitable would have become an immediate reality. I would have found sobriety to save my job, my reputation, my friendships, and all the external factors that drove my ability to tolerate my own existence.
Revealing the secrets would have necessitated a change that I wasn’t strong enough to embrace as long as the truths stayed hidden.
We value privacy in our society as a fundamental right. I get it. The concern about the threat of technology to our privacy is real, and I understand. Truly I do.
But maybe we overvalue privacy. Maybe truth revealed would lead us down healthier paths with better outcomes for individuals, marriages and families. Maybe privacy is the cloak that keeps 15 million Americans actively suffering from alcoholism.
For most of my ten years of active addiction, my wife, Sheri, and I thought we were alone. Alcoholics lived in gutters. We had routine marital problems. I drank to relax and relieve stress, and Sheri thought I drank too much. That felt like minor collateral damage to the American dream. Nothing to see here. And we kept it that way. We protected the secret of my alcoholism so well that for most of that decade, not even we could see it.
But those incidents existed. The ones we instinctively knew we needed to hide. The ones that were so unacceptable that anyone who knew the truth would be forced into reaction. Appalling. Repulsive. Private. Secret.
I wish my parents had known when I passed out at my fraternity and had a penis drawn on my forehead in permanent marker. I wish my boss had known that after the company-sponsored happy hour where I pushed the unspoken boundary and indulged in a third beer, I went home and drank vodka on the rocks until I passed out in my chair. I wish my neighbors had known that the reason I was mowing the lawn at 9am on a Saturday morning was to hide the truth that my display of drunken buffoonery at the block party on Friday night was not a one-off after a long work week. I wish everyone had known the truth and that privacy had not been a thing, at least not related to my drinking.
Because back then I cared. I cared what anyone and everyone thought of me, because despite my arrogant demeanor, I thought so little of myself that I needed the external validation. Had I turned the outsiders against me, my destruction would have been complete.
So I never would have let that happen. I would have sobered up. It wasn’t enough that Sheri knew the truth. I could compartmentalize and gaslight and convince both of us that our eyes deceived us – that what we were seeing and experiencing wasn’t really happening. But I could never have snowed them all. So the truth would have, in fact, set me free.
Free from the gradual descent of privacy. Free from the protection of secrecy. Free from the bonds of addiction.
Look at the picture associated with these words. Look at my beautiful wife’s tolerant face. Do you think we went to the live stage production of Moulin Rouge so that she could sing along to all of the songs?
I had a great time. She was proud to give me a present I so enjoyed. She posed for the picture so I could have two of my favorite things in the same frame.
And that’s the truth.
If you are a drinker ready for the healing that only the truth behind the secrets can provide, we hope you’ll consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.
“female power ballads sung by (mostly) lesbian vocalists”
Sounds like “The Story” by Brandi Carlile.
I love your writing and rarely miss a post
That’s probably my favorite, Wayne. Thanks for consistently reading!
As ever Matt powerful writing. Love what you say about needing the respect of others because you had no self-respect. That resonates with me too about my own drinking.
Thank you for reading and relating, Anne!
So relatable Matt! Our stories are alike so much with the anxiety, self-esteem, depression. I tried so very hard to hide my truths for so long. Ugh… if I could only go back? If I would have only known… you can’t properly love, care, and respect others if you have none of that for yourself! Great writing Matt!
It is so counterintuitive. We drink to feel better, when feeling naturally better would eliminate the need to drink. I know you get it, Mike. Thanks for your feedback!