Thursday, June 9, 2016


Today, I turn fourteen. Yay and cake!

Huh? you say. I get it - my "calendar birthday" has me as being multiples of fourteen. This isn't that birthday. However, for a very long time, this has not been a "birthday" that I told many people about - such is the stigma in our society of addiction, although it's estimated that 1 out of every 10 Americans over the age of 12 suffer from addiction. (For those of you keeping score at home, that's over 24 million people.) Even though it's dirt-common and we'll watch Dr. Phil quiz people about it and go tsk, tsk a lot, addiction is not something "nice people" talk about. Well, I'm a nice person (most days, anyway) and silence kept me sick for a long time. So - deep breath and here goes.

When people meet me today, they tend to think that I'm confident and friendly, and I hope that I have those traits. Such was not always the case - ever since I was very little, I remember feeling insecure, worried, and downright fearful. My skin never quite seemed to fit and I constantly had this low-level hum of apprehension that I just didn't understand things correctly. Other people seemed to know how to do things; I hung back, tried to find the prevailing wind and set my personal sail to catch it, all the while hoping no one would notice that I was just bobbing along.

If it sounds miserable, well, it wasn't entirely. I was a bookish child and I had parents who supported that. I grew up out in the country and there was nothing especially unusual about spending time alone in the woods or in a stable with horses, dogs, and barn cats. Horses and cats are upfront about the fact that they judge you (or at least are quick to take your measure) and that sort of unvarnished honesty I could deal with easily. And dogs, of course, are just compassion in fur. On the other hand, people are just weird sometimes and I lacked the confidence necessary to not need nigh-constant affirmation and approval. (Still do, sometimes.)

Then I discovered alcohol and it was as if a bright light shone warmly upon me. I was funny, I could talk to people, and there were all these rituals that I could learn and feel confident about knowing! Wine was my specialty, although I had flirtations (and a few brief flings) with beer and liquor. But wine! Heck, the red stuff even has health benefits! (It really does, you know. Just not for me.) I moved from wine coolers to Boone's Farm (ah, Strawberry Hill - I daresay many a young 'un has memories of you), went on tasting tours with friends and learned about wine-making. I could talk intelligently about grapes, growing conditions, microclimes, sugar content and the various qualities of aging the wine in barrels of American vs. European oak. I learned how blush wine is made and I learned a trick or two about how bars turn cheap Chablis and a dash of grenadine into "blush" for the unsuspecting when they run low on the real stuff. I thought that meant I couldn't be an alcoholic. It didn't. And eventually I didn't care about that high-falutin' stuff.

I'm not going to bore you with a "drunk-a-log." Suffice it to say that at some point, my body didn't metabolize CH3 CH2 OH like a normal drinker. Most people have a "switch" in their head that tells them "Whoa! Starting to feel that - time to quit for tonight." I don't have that and when I drink, I'll drink until. (By the way, this has nothing - underscore and bold, please - nothing to do with willpower, so if that's your take on things, just shut it. I've got willpower in droves. Addiction is biochemical in nature. To put it crassly, the next time you've got the stomach bug and you're moaning on the floor of the bathroom, just try using willpower to stop what the bug is doing to you. Doesn't work so well.) As I continued to ignore the fact that drinking was no longer fun, but flat-out necessary, consequences began to pile up. I now view these as missed opportunities to take the exit ramp from Addiction-Land. It took me quite literally years to accept what I was told early on in recovery, which is, "It takes what  it takes." I drank myself out of jobs. I lied, cheated, and stole to get what I wanted, which was to drink the way I wanted. I ruined relationships - in a few cases, I didn't even have "relationships" with people as much as I took hostages. In short, I was selfish - as long as I got what I wanted; fine. I could even be generous and kind. But if I couldn't get what I wanted from you or you got in my way, the hell with you.

It'd be nice to say that one day, I woke up and realized that I was crazy and needed to stop, and I'm sure that happens for some people, but that's not my story. I consider myself wildly fortunate in two areas - first, I was arrested before I hurt anybody (remember me saying I was selfish? That extended to me using the public roads when I had a blood alcohol level in the "embalmed" range). I didn't even hit a mailbox and the cop couldn't have been nicer. (Personally, I think he was a little shocked by me. While it's not on my  résumé, I have been told, "Ma'am, I have to tell you - you're the politest intoxicated person I've ever arrested.") Second, I had insurance that covered in-patient treatment when it became obvious that I needed to be removed from society for a little while to really dig into figuring out how to get better. I completed treatment and somewhere up in the attic, I even have an official paper from the state asserting that I am, in fact, sane. Despite that, I relapsed a week after leaving treatment. Let me be clear that in no way means treatment was a failure - that scary-as-the-hinges-on-the-gates-of-hell realization was the "what the hell?" experience that changed everything for me.

Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung once wrote that the only thing he'd ever seen work for hard-core alcoholics was a fundamental shift in thinking brought about by a spiritual experience. And many addicts express the idea that their drinking is a low-level search for -- something -- that is ineffable and seemingly out of reach. Jung was struck by the fact that we also call alcohol "spirits" and he thought that alcoholics were intensely spiritual people who had this hole in themselves that they tried to fill with substances. In other words, the effective solution was spiritum contra spiritus, or (roughly) "spirituality against spirits." (Jung also understood a good bit about the dark shadows that are part of us and encouraged people to face them, not fear them. As someone who spent so much of her life so afraid, I take great comfort in much of Jung's work.)

All well and good. I'm not a saint, but as of June 9, 2016, I'm fourteen. I'm an alcoholic and I always will be - but I'm a recovering alcoholic, and that makes all the difference. I'm a bit more cautious than most folks about the alcohol level in mouthwash, in cough syrup, and in delicious dinners cooked with wine sauces. (Yeah, a lot of it burns off in the cooking. Not all.) Even Communion posed a dilemma for me for a while - probably all in my head and there's intinction, so problem solved. For me, there is no "safe level" of beverage alcohol to consume. Most people are fine with that, although I've had a few (very few) people try to apply some social pressure, at which point I think it's fine for me to be blunt to the point of rudeness. I've got a great life these days, and I'm not throwing that away to make some yahoo feel okay about putting the screws to me because I don't have a glass in my hand.

Turquoise is the color of the awareness ribbon associated with addiction. In the past, I've been downright secretive about the fact that I'm in recovery, telling only very, very close friends and a few people at work who needed to know. I think that's fine - this is not a "one size fits all" situation. It's a very personal decision to talk about my experience to this wide an audience and I don't plan to address the subject here on the blog again.  I'm not ashamed of my past (not proud of it either, mind you) and, while I'm quite a bit nervous about posting this, it's my choice, and - just maybe - something good will come from me saying, "Yep. That's me and I'm okay now." So, in honor of - well, me - I had my hair dyed turquoise (and teal and pink and purple and, and, and . . .). Maybe someone will ask me see my hair and ask me why I did that and we'll start a conversation. Addicts are all around us and, if you're one, you don't have to live like that.

I'm a recovering alcoholic, not an axe murderer. And I'm fourteen years clean today.

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