Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Big Lie

I had an interesting conversation with an old friend this morning about alcoholics in denial. There's someone she knows who exhibits all the tell-tale signs of alcohol abuse: hiding bottles from his wife, sneaking drinks, drinking way more than a normal person drinks, is in a foul mood when he isn't able to drink, and so on. He refuses to believe he has a problem and thinks his wife is just being controlling.

In AA, it's a blessed event when an alcoholic is able to figure out they have a problem before something bad happens that forces them to admit they have a problem (such as a lost job, a spouse who walks away, or a drunk driving accident.) Unfortunately, it's all too often that there has to be some bad consequence before someone with a problem can objectively look at themselves and confess there is one. We call that "hitting bottom."

If someone is a high functioning alcoholic (meaning, they can still do their job acceptably and are good at controlling negative outcomes--for example, they drink at home so they never get a DUI), often that person never really does admit they have a problem, until they develop cirrhosis or esophageal varices or wetbrain or whatnot. In a way, an early stage alcoholic who gets in a bar fight, lands in jail for assault and battery, and has the kind of low bottom that gets him to sober up early in life, is a lucky person.

I was one of those high functioning alcoholics because--for a long, long time--I was good at managing negative consequences. It took two things to get me to see I was rapidly plunging towards bottom. One, I was having an affair outside my relationship (it was more emotional than physical since she lived in another state), and that relationship was reaching a head; and two, I began to be hungover so often that I was calling in sick to work a lot. It's a fuzzy time period in my own head for the obvious reason, but here's what I was thinking at the time (with the caveat that my perceptions may have been way, way off): the other woman was pushing me to end my relationship with Chelle. They were gentle pushes, but pushes nonetheless. She had nothing good to say about Chelle and whenever I tried to defend Chelle, she would get frustrated with me. It's true I went back and forth a lot because I was drunk and confused. I blamed Chelle for a lot of things that were "wrong" with our relationship (because I sure as hell didn't want to blame the booze!) I think I had this other woman fooled largely because I had myself pretty fooled. But then push came to shove, and I was bleating drunkenly one night about leaving Chelle and maybe moving out there to be with her, and I can't say I can recall her saying no to that.

Work was a problem too. Even though I consistently got good evaluations from my Dean and peers and good reviews from my students, I was sick a good part of the time. Then fall semester started two years ago, and within the first three weeks, I'd already called in sick twice. Chelle was about to lay down the law when she called in sick for me the third time because I was too nauseated to sit up and make a phone call.

Rehab was the solution. I was too fucked up to make any decisions about anything; I'd blathered on in tears with the other woman about rehab the night before; the rest is a blackout. All I knew was that it would be stupid to make any decisions about anything without first being sober when I decided. What remained was for me to pull the trigger... to make the call, to do it.

Chelle talked to the folks at Mountain Vista Farm; then I talked to the folks at Mountain Vista Farm; I could still back out. So I pulled the trigger. Honestly, I felt like there was nothing to lose. I contacted my Dean and told her I would be going into rehab for alcohol addiction. There was no going back once I pressed "send" on that email.

It was the best decision I've ever made in my life, but at the time it felt like I was throwing myself over a cliff.

The next few weeks were a blur. I got sober without that bad of a detox. Chelle wrote me every day and visited me every Sunday. The other woman had been looking into rehabs in her state, but I'd already picked MVF, so I sobered up in California. The other woman also sent me mail almost every day and at one point sent me a picture of a ring she wanted to buy me. I felt like shit looking at it but never responded to whether I liked it or not; deep down inside I knew I needed to extricate myself from that relationship because it wasn't healthy, nor grounded in anything real on my part (as my counselor got me to see), and I knew there was no way I would be leaving Chelle. At least not now. I honestly didn't know what the future would bring. Rehab made it really clear that I was unable to trust anything that I'd been doing the past few years. My alcoholic brain had distorted all sorts of perceptions and feelings, and the truth about everything was muddied.

And, of course, I was appalled by my own behaviors: acting out, lying, doing things completely opposite of my own values, or values I'd thought I'd had. I had some really dark nights of the soul.

Recovery is a long, slow process. First, you bring everything to a screeching halt. You figure out who you are, who you want to be. You then start bringing your words and your behaviors into alignment with your values. That's not too easy for someone who is used to rationalizing, blaming, and feeling victimized. There's also a lot of damage that needs to be repaired, and some of it isn't fixable. Sometimes apologies aren't enough; there's too much anger and hurt. Then you have to learn to live with the consequences of the crappy shit you did while you were using.

But it's worth it. The payoff is a return to sanity, a return to a place in which you're painstakingly honest with everyone, your slate is wiped clean, and serenity enters your life. Impulses become a thing of the past. You learn that feelings aren't FACTS and just because you have feeling, it isn't anything more than that unless you make it so. The friendships that you keep become richer and deeper. My marriage with Chelle has never been better. All those "problems" we had were phantoms of my own sick mind. In truth, she is one of the kindest, most loving, most upstanding individuals I know. And certainly the most forgiving.

The moral to the story is this: I don't think high functioning alcoholics know what they're missing. They think alcohol brings them pleasure--at least pleasure that outweighs any bad stuff. They think if it weren't for alcohol, their lives would totally suck. That's the big lie.

Without alcohol, their lives would totally blossom and bloom.


Eileen Pennington said...

just wanted to say....
you and Chelle ever fly out to Churchill Downs, A and I would love to invite you to dinner.


Joyce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joyce said...

My brain must be baked from the sun today; it took me a few minutes to realize who this was!

I certainly owe A amends and would like to offer that.

Churchill Downs is probably out of the question for some time (tough to afford nowadays), but perhaps we can talk some other way?

C's mom read this post. That was frightening at first. I'm sure you can imagine. :)

Her response was to basically hug me in writing. I felt truly blessed.

Thanks for stopping by. This is a pleasant surprise.

Joyce said...

I hate it when I double post, lol