Saturday, June 5, 2010

"It's Not My Fault...I Have a Disease"

To begin recovery, alcoholics must first admit and then accept that in their relationship with alcohol, alcohol has become the master. This small victory over denial allows them to become sober for more than a few days for the first time in months, years, or decades.

In my case, as I've already mentioned, my drinking binge started shortly after I separated from the Air Force in 2007. I spent almost every day of the ensuing two and one-half years or so with some level of alcohol in my system, and was probably legally intoxicated almost every day for the past year and a half, at times attempting to function with alcohol levels that, in my younger years, would have left me passed out in a pool of vomit on the bathroom floor (if I was lucky enough to make it that far). Despite all of the evidence, and despite the fact that I would openly admit that I needed to reduce my alcohol consumption, I had to be sober for three days before I was able to admit that I couldn’t stop drinking on my own and decided to seek help. It took me more than two weeks after that admission to accept that to remain sober, I would have to make substantial changes and avoid alcohol for the rest of my life.

The first three of the Twelve Steps of Alcholics Anonymous help the alcoholic accept that they have a disease, and provide the foundation for long-term recovery. They help the alcoholic become sober; by themselves, they cannot keep the alcoholic sober for long. The alcoholic may accept that they are unable to drink normally, but sobriety presents myriad challenges beyond simply staying away from alcohol. Failing to take continual action to confront these challenges will eventually drive the alcoholic back to the bottle to renew his descent into madness. As it says in the AA Big Book, "For us, to drink is to die."

Of the many killers residing in the alcoholic mind, guilt (along with the inevitable shame) is one of the most dangerous. Like denial, guilt plays an integral role in the destructive cycle of alcoholism. Unlike denial, which is solely a product of the alcoholic mind, our guilt has existential roots. As the cloud of alcohol lifts, we must face the consequences of our selfish behavior. The feelings of guilt that we had, in part, used alcohol to suppress comes acutely into focus.

My treatment program includes narcotic addicts, as well as "potheads" and alcoholics in various stages of alcoholism. Many of the narcotic addicts started their drug use after a major injury or surgery, becoming hooked on legally prescribed, and necessary, pain killers. Even though it seems from my layman's perspective that a narcotics addict bears less blame for their addiction than an alcoholic, who usually require several years of abuse to develop a dependency, these recovering addicts seem to carry more guilt and shame than those of us who abused alcohol or marijuana.

In one of my early sessions with my psychiatrist, as I expressed the shame I felt for my behavior while drinking, she responded, "It's not your fault. You have a disease." It's a nice, even a true, sentiment for an addict or alcoholic in early recovery. It is true, however, only in it's totality, and it is not an excuse. I remain accountable for my behavior, recognizing that I have a disease allows me to move past it. If anything, it is a charge to recognize the selfishness of my past behavior, and to carefully navigate every day I have remaining to live up to the expectations I set for myself.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


One of the exercises alcoholics and addicts are required to complete early in the treatment program I'm working my way through is to plot our alcohol or drug use during our lives.

A general outline of my drinking timeline:

I didn't start drinking regularly until after my 21st birthday (although I attended some parties when I was underage, the frequency was much less than once a week). In college, after I turned 21, I would generally drink two to three times per week, and prided myself (after a few painful experiences) in monitoring my consumption to avoid losing control and suffering through the inevitable consequences. After going on active duty, I was generally limiting my alcohol consumption to Friday and Saturday nights to avoid interfering with work. When I did a remote tour for a year up at Thule, Greenland, I started drinking about four nights a week, but reduced my consumption to 2 - 3 times a week after I returned and was stationed in England. My consumption dropped off for a while after my daughter was born, and after I was stationed at Offutt, I would drink only on the weekends I wasn't on alert. After I separated from the Air Force I took about a nine month sabbatical before starting work again. It was during this period that my drinking expanded to a nearly daily occurrence, although I only drank beer (and occasionally wine), and paced my drinking to avoid getting "drunk" (At least as I defined "drunk". I didn't buy into those ads that say "Buzzed driving is drunk driving.") About a year and half ago, I started drinking martinis and gin & tonics, primarily because my wife was starting to question the amount of beer I was drinking, and I felt like it would be easier to hide my alcohol consumption with hard licquor. After I lost my job last May, and during my unemployment, my consumption increased. Eventually, I switched to Jagermeister because I could drink it straight, started hiding bottles in the garage and in my truck, and would "sneak" out to take a drink.

So, when did I start behaving like an alcoholic? Certainly, during the past couple of years, an outside observer of my drinking habits would have been likely to think I had a drinking problem, and by the time I started hiding my "stash", I was exhibiting all of the behaviors of an alcoholic. Drinking, then driving...heck, drinking while driving. Stopping at a bar on the way home, having a couple of martinis, then downing half of a 750 mL bottle of Jagermeister. Withdrawing from everyone around me, and drinking in private at home. The list could go on and on...

Looking at my drinking patterns with the benefit of hindsight, it's very clear to me that I have behaved like an alcoholic from the time I had my first drink, even though a casual observer may not have considered me a heavy drinker. What I can see in my drinking timeline is that every time I didn't have a reason to not drink, I drank. Another thing that stands out in my self-evaluation is that I "managed" my drinking to make sure I got what I needed out of alcohol; no more, and no less. I would almost always drink a few drinks before going out to maintain the appearance that I was a "moderate" drinker. I went out to drink, not to hang out with friends. Spending time with friends was nice, but their companionship was a secondary benefit; their primary purpose was to serve as props and provide the illusion of normalcy.

Most of the people going through treatment with me are there because a judge has ordered them to go, usually after a DWI or an alcohol-related traffic accident. Others failed drug tests at work, and are required to complete treatment to avoid losing their jobs. Only three out of fifteen or so people are there voluntarily, and one of those "voluntary" patients is in treatment for the second time, relapsing after completing the first, involuntary treatment. As for myself, I am in treatment voluntarily, but I had to get smacked on the head pretty hard (figuratively, of course) to sober up enough to recognize that my problem was more than just a temporary stint of overdrinking (at some point, I'll tell that part of the story, but I'm not quite there, yet).

How nice it would have been if I could have recognized my disease before it gained so much control over my life and caused so much damage. How nice it would be if recovery was full of people eager to find treatment for this chronic, debilitating, progressive and often fatal disease while it is in its early stages. Unfortunately, alcoholism is such a successful killer because it turns the alcoholic against him or herself. "Denial becomes an integral part of the disease and a major obstacle to recovery." (Quoted from the link above.)

Even recently, with evidence of my lack of control mounting, I was unwilling to accept the "alcoholic" label. Showing up at the retirement home where I volunteer lit up like a Christmas tree...yeah, that demonstrated poor judgement. Passing out on the bathroom floor when I was home alone with my six-year old daughter...incredibly stupid and irresponsible, but I'd be more careful in the future. Drinking a 200 mL bottle of Jagermeister during the drive in to work...a bit reckless, I guess. Stumbling over to my neighbors and slurring something vague that I couldn't fully recollect in the morning...not a great way to make friends. Sure, I knew my drinking was getting out of control. But an alcoholic? Me? No way. All I needed to do was demonstrate a little will power and change my drinking habits. I wanted the easy fix. I was deeply in denial. How much had I had to drink? Only a couple...I was fine. I was lying to everyone, most significantly myself.

Admitting to yourself that you're an alcoholic is necessary to find treatment. I admitted to myself two weeks ago that I am an alcoholic.

Accepting that you are an alcoholic is something completely different, and is the necessary first step for recovery. Accepting that you are an alcoholic means that you fully acknowledge that even a single drink will restart the cycle of destruction; there are no loopholes. Many people who enter treatment because they have to (because of legal problems or to keep their jobs) may admit that they're an alcoholic or addict, but don't truly accept it. They will drink or use again. Maybe not for a month, or a year, or even longer...but, they will drink or use again. If they're lucky, maybe something will put them back into treatment before they kill somebody else or themselves.

Although I had admitted that I am an alcoholic, I was still looking for that loophole. Surely, at some point, after sobriety became my norm, I could have a glass of wine with Christmas dinner, or drink a single beer with my friends. Now that I understood I have a disease, I could find a way to manage it. Loopholes...the mind of the alcoholic is always trying to find them.

Friday, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist, who is helping me to navigate recovery. I was feeling good. I like being sober. I was optimistic, cheerful, talkative. After six months of stonewalling and excuses, I was ready to let her help me. Then, on the way home, I thought about stopping at the gas station on the corner to get a soda and bag of chips. This particular gas station is a gas station I have stopped at many times after my appointments to buy a bottle of Jagermeister, and they have those convenient little single-shot bottles of Jagermeister by the cash register. As soon as I thought of that, I knew that if I walked into that store, I would walk out with one (or two) of those little bottles. "After all, it's only one's not like you'll get drunk," the voice in my head said. I knew that if I listened to that voice, I would buy some mini-bottles again in a few days, and eventually move on to the larger bottles. My hands started to shake, and I drove right past. I could not trust myself to walk into a store!

There are no loopholes.

Two weeks ago, I admitted I am an alcoholic, and sought help.

Friday, I accepted that I am an Alcoholic, and started my recovery.

"I will try to help others. I will not let a day pass without reaching out an arm of love to someone. Each day I will try to do something to lift another human being out of the sea of discouragements into which he or she has fallen. My helping hand is needed to raise the helpless to courage, to strength, to faith, to health. In my own gratitude, I will turn and help other alcoholics with the burden that is pressing too heavily upon them." - from Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Hazelden Meditations (Hazelden, 1992)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

God's Wings

Twelve days ago, I had what I pray will be my last drink of alcohol. Nine days ago, as I was getting dressed for church, I looked at myself in the mirror, realized that I had been sober for more than two days for the first time in a long while, and finally admitted to myself that I am an alcoholic. The admission was both devastating and liberating. Devastating in that I had to acknowledge how thoroughly I had failed at managing my own life, how I had failed my wife and daughter, and how I had manipulated friends and family to create both the excuse and the space to feed my thirst for alcohol. Liberating in that I know alcoholism is a disease, and that admitting my addiction to myself and those close to me makes treatment possible.

As I went to church that Sunday morning, my focus was on my failures and hypocrisy. How could I, who had failed myself and those around me so completely, teach the children in my Sunday school class? For the entire time I have been a member of our church, I have been living a lie, using religion as a poultice to meliorate my guilt while continuing to feed my cravings for alcohol. I'd convince myself that my participation in church activities demonstrated my desire to help others; instead, it was just another form of manipulation I used to justify continuing to feed my selfish, destructive addiction.

Before the sermon, those of us who helped with the Education Ministry received a mustard seed pin to acknowledge our role helping to plant the "seed" of faith in the hearts of the church's children and youth. I accepted my pin with my head bowed in shame, my hypocrisy clearly branded on my burning face. The only thought running through my head was, "I don't deserve to be acknowledged or acclaimed, I deserve to be ridiculed and rebuked."

After we returned home, I held the pin in my hand, trying to decide between throwing it away and hiding it at the back of my "junk" drawer. After all, I couldn't possibly wear what I viewed as a badge of my hypocrisy. As I looked at the seed, however, I realized that even though I had failed my responsibility in "sowing the seeds of faith", I had in fact been sowing other seeds through my irresponsible behavior, seeds that once sown grew outside of my awareness and control. Seeds that had caused my neighbors to avoid me and talk about me behind my back. Seeds that were slowly destroying my marriage, and teaching my daughter that Dad was unreliable. Who knows what other seeds of self-destruction I have planted?

I decided then to wear the pin, to remind me of my faith when I felt the urge to drink, to remind me of my responsibility as a Christian, a husband, and a father, and to remind me that everything I do, good or bad, sows a seed that will grow whether I nurture it or not.

As I started my recovery, my counselor suggested another way to view the seed, which is the symbolism I have adopted as the most significant. Right now, I feel shattered. All that I have accomplished and built during my life is overshadowed by the potential destructiveness of alcohol. Who I have been no longer matters. While no one forced me to take my first drink, I did not set out to become a drunk, and my problems with alcohol do not define me unless I allow them to. Alcoholism is an insidious disease that masks itself by distorting your perspective and filling your mind with deceit. I cannot change the past, but I can build a future.

I am the seed, and I place myself in God's hands.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Being "Born Again"

It seems to me that the term "born again" is often used scornfully to subtly question the mental state of those who embrace the designation by implying their religious beliefs lie outside of the mainstream. I've seen this intellectual disdain in atheists, agnostics, and even many Christians, and admit that I've shared this bias. As a result, I feel compelled to come to the defense of the "Born Agains".

While I don't believe a dramatic spiritual "rebirth" is a necessary precondition of Christianity or spirituality, I do believe that those who have come to recognize they can no longer control part or all of their lives, and surrender themselves to a higher power, experience something that can best be described as a new birth. Embracing this rebirth is not merely moralistic posturing; it is a necessary condition for them to better serve their God, their families, and their fellow man. Indeed, for many, it may be necessary for their very survival. In servitude to a higher power, they finally find freedom.