I didn’t even have to open the email. The subject line conveyed the devastating news. “Project Terminated.” Those two words delivered a massive blow to our plans for the next couple of years. We had an agreement to sell our business – an agreement complete with payment amounts and transition dates – and the buyer was trying to back out. There had been signs of his wavering commitment to the deal he had made, but my naturally optimistic outlook kept me pushing forward without consideration for what it would mean if he tried to turn and run. Now the reality stared me in the eyes from the subject line on my computer screen.
The pressure in my head began to build as the multitude of negative consequences raced through my mind. There would be practical, business matters to which I would have to attend. My lawyer would have to be consulted and litigation would have to be considered. I might have to go back to square one and try to find another buyer with barely two months left on our lease and, thus, not nearly enough time to make a deal in a new location with a new person.
But the work involved was secondary. The pressure in my head was because I knew the tidal wave of disappointment, stress and failure that had just crashed down on me would have no immediate relief. I had to live this nightmare with my eyes open and weaknesses exposed. I am an alcoholic almost two years sober. A lot of good has come from my work in recovery. For the next few days, however, sobriety meant only one thing. I was defenseless against the tremendous pain. I would have to wallow in the dire truth of my situation, and suffer through the disappointment, anger and fear without relief. I would not sleep – at least not much – and the other things that deserved my attention, like my wife and kids, would be all but ignored while I tried to figure out how to manage this disaster.
It was like standing naked in an ice storm with no hope for protection from the relentless pummelling. My 80 proof shelter was no more.
It was not about the money. At least not mostly. Once the business transition to new ownership is complete, I am determined to spend the next year writing and speaking and learning and sharing about alcoholism. It is my purpose in life to end the stigma associated with addiction, and I am eager to get started. The money from the sale of the business will give me breathing room while I try to turn my passion into a career. But really, it’s not that much money. Our business with a five year lease is worth $250,000. But our lease is expiring and our landlord refuses to renew. With no lease, the thing we spent fifteen years building is reduced to the value of the equipment and a few bucks for intangibles like our loyal customer list. If we move the business and sign another lease, the value is recaptured, but finding a buyer in that new location could take years.
I have work to do. It is time for me to get on with my mission.
What it was really about was my failure. With the message, “Project Terminated,” my chance of keeping my baby alive and transitioned into new loving hands was evaporating. My business would go down as one of millions of small business failures, and my beloved customers would be deserted by the man and woman with whom they had formed an allegiance. Maybe that’s dramatic and overly emotional, but I’m dramatic and overly emotional. Many, many alcoholics are. It’s why we find such relief in our drug of choice. Booze soothes the drama and hurt like nothing else.
The first 60 hours were as horrendous as anticipated. I might have slept four restless hours combined in those two nights. We alcoholics often talk of learning to sit with our emotions rather than drinking them away. I wasn’t just sitting with this pending doom, I was wallowing in my failure and drowning in the inescapability of my business’ fate.
My wife was as devastated as I was. We had pushed all of our chips to the middle of the table and bet on the deal we made with our buyer. The hand we played was a loser, and we had no one to blame but each other. We tried not to. We both knew how hard we had worked to build the business and secure its future. But our landlord wasn’t there in our house to blame. The buyer didn’t live with us. It was just Sheri and me and overwhelming pain and disappointment. And eventually, as predictably as the sun rising in the morning, in the dark and desperate hours of that first night of defeat, we blamed each other. Maybe not directly, but we found something unrelated to blow into a huge argument.
We didn’t scream and lob insults as we had back when I was drinking, but we spoke unkindly and refused to consider the feelings of the person lying in bed next to us. Just like the steam from boiling water makes a kettle whistle, our anger had to find an outlet. If I wasn’t going to drink away my fury, Sheri was going to feel my wrath and deliver one of her own. That argument a few hours after reading the email subject line was as unfortunate as it was inevitable.
Do you know what didn’t happen as a result of the crushing news? I didn’t crave alcohol. Not even once. I was persistently aware that my pain had no chance for relief as a result of my sobriety, but that knowledge never made me want to drink. It has taken two long years to fully convince myself that alcohol is without redeeming qualities. Two long years to choose pain over chaos, discomfort over debilitating alcohol-induced depression.
It took about 60 hours to lick my wounds and get back to the business of salvaging what’s left of my business. Had my alcoholism still have been active, the drama would have lasted significantly longer than two-and-a-half days. I would have consumed reckless amounts of whiskey or vodka on the day and night I read the email subject line. The fight with my wife would have been vile and vicious. The next day, I would have been filled with remorse and a hopeless depression that only the booze that caused it could have relieved. So, I would have drank heavily for a second night. Maybe by day four or five I would have begun the process of picking up the pieces and dealing with reality. By then, I would have made the situation so much worse driving a wedge deep into my marriage.
I know it because I lived this cycle called alcoholism for a torturous decade. Sixty hours of pain would have been a week or so of misery and guilt with permanent collateral damage.
Instead, now sober and unashamed, my family made a video on the second evening of the first 60 hours. My wife and I had reconciled from our anger-fueled disagreement and turned to each other for comfort and support. Our kids had all spent varying amounts of time learning the same Christmas song on their instruments of choice, and we had promised to record a family concert and upload it to YouTube to share with our Christmas card recipients.
It was the purest form of family fun. It was a goof meant to display our familial bond far more than any musical talent. It was parents spending time with their children. It was love. And it happened while Sheri and I were still suffering the height of our disappointment. It would not have been possible had I still been drinking. Our concert is short and silly. The video and sound quality is as questionable as the playing and singing. But we did it together, and I am very proud of that. See for yourself:
And that’s why I don’t drink alcohol anymore. I’m not sober because I enjoy wallowing in pain, and I’m not sober for the sleepless nights and uncontrollable racing thoughts that occupy my brain.
I’m sober because if I wasn’t, just look at the love I would have missed. For me – for millions and millions like me – pure love and alcohol can’t coexist.
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