How Do You Know When You’re Done?
When I am troubled, one of the best things for me to do is to throw myself into my sobriety. And one of the most important aspects of my sobriety is to carry the message to other alcoholics. I have been given something unbelievably precious, and unfathomably rare. I have been given a reprieve from the psychic, physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation that is active alcoholism. Active addiction. Being free from addiction is a state perhaps impossible to communicate to non-addicts. I sometimes envy normal people, and their privilege not to know the things I know.
Since starting this blog, and coming out of the addiction closet on twitter, it is really kind of amazing the number of people who have reached out to me to say that they or their loved ones have a problem with alcohol, addiction, or more recently, depression. These are pernicious and ubiquitous diseases. And the nature of addiction is to compel us to suffer in shameful silence, cowering from the world. We do not want the world to know we have a compulsion to drink. We can’t bear the idea of the world knowing we married an alcoholic.
This is in part due to the stigma associated with alcoholism and other addictions: that sufferers are simply weak-willed, indulgent, lazy. But it is also due to the very real consequences and presentations of the disease. Alcoholics do bad things. We lie, we steal, we drive drunk. We externalize all our agonies and try to blame others for them. Addiction is more than just a compulsion to consume. It is a compulsion to avoid the consequences of consumption, and to gaslight others into feeling responsible for our failure, malfeasance, and inability to remain sober.
And our loved ones buy into it, all too often. They enable us, or they persist in denial, or they choose not to see the things we so clumsily attempt to conceal from them. Silence becomes a default in the face of overwhelming shame and pain and fear. We worry what others will think, what they will say, if they know we have a problem. And stopping drinking becomes the big reveal: if we stop, then people will know we had a problem! If we recover, then people will know we were sick! It’s as if we refuse chemotherapy lest anyone discover we have cancer.
So how do we come to a point where we can recover? How do we know when we’re done? The tragic answer, of course, is most of us don’t. The great majority of addicts die of complications of addiction. Addiction is terminal. Make no mistake about it. And before we die, we contract into tiny, miserable lives punctuated only by spasms of violence directed at our families, communities. This is a family disease. A social disease. Our reasons not to seek treatment, and the presentation of the illness itself, are all too often based in seemingly social, but deeply anti-social, interactions with others.
I talk regularly with people who want to quit but don’t know how. Who say that they drink in social environments and don’t know how to extricate themselves from that. They don’t want to be the only person at the party not drinking. They don’t want people to talk about them. They don’t think they can afford to take the time they’d need in the acute phase of withdrawal to be away from work, or simply to be a bit out of their minds.
Sadly, many people persist in this state until it’s far too late. They don’t want to take time off work to recover. So they continue drinking until work doesn’t want them. They don’t want their friends or family to know they have a problem, or to have to deal with the transient difficulty of early recovery. So they continue drinking until they no longer have friends or family. Then, alone, there is no reason to stop. And the isolation of the alcoholic claims another promising life.
We’re done when the consequences of sobriety are equal to the consequences of continuing to drink. When we cannot fathom spending another day pouring what has become poison too us into our bodies simply to try to maintain the illusion that it isn’t killing us. When the fear of being labeled an alcoholic in recovery is less than the agony of being an alcoholic in reality.
It starts with reaching out to someone. It starts with deciding that how you feel – how you live – matters more than how you think you look to others. Alcoholics looking to recover get to be selfish. We get to take care of ourselves. Because we will die if we don’t. As our recovery progresses, we turn outward. We start to look to help people. We start to earn what was given to us, when we walked through the fires of withdrawal and shame. We start to be grateful to carry the message.
That’s where I am. I am here. I can help. I stand on firm ground now. Reach for me.