You hear people say it all the time: “Next to my spouse and kids, (fill in the blank) is my greatest blessing.”
No caveat here, even though I have a remarkable wife and four young children I love and adore. They are secondary. My alcoholism is the very best thing that ever happened to me.
Success always came easy for me, and I’ve led a smooth and pleasant life. Growing up, I wasn’t the best soccer player, but I made the team. I wasn’t the top of my class, but I got A’s and B’s with relatively little effort. I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school or college, but I had lots of friends. I didn’t land my dream job after graduation, but I was offered the opportunity I earned with a 3.0 GPA, an outgoing personality, and an aptitude for shaving, combing my hair, and tying a tie.
I wasn’t the life of the party, but I sure did maximize every opportunity to drink—even guzzle—it all in.
My alcoholism started innocently enough as experimentation in high school, which led to regularly-occurring binge drinking in college. I graduated to happy hours and daily cocktails in early adulthood. That’s where my relationship with booze turned from normal to heavy—but in our society very acceptable—to something else. It became something insidious and needy and entangled and evil.
I loved to drink. It brought me pseudo-orgasmic bliss. So much so, that it altered my brain chemistry and became the only thing in my full and blessed life that registered as pleasurable. That’s how addiction works. The intoxicant transforms from augmenting a comfortable life to devouring it. Alcohol hijacked my life and became the center of my universe.
On the outside, my success and apparent happiness continued unabated. My career plodded along. I was very active in the lives of my kids, and friends and most relatives saw me as a well-adjusted middle class husband and father who loved his family and contributed what he could in our community.
Behind closed doors, an alter ego gained strength and manipulated my life. I would leave a neighborhood gathering after sharing drinks with friends, and return home where I kept the one-man party rolling. My mood would sour as alcohol-induced depression tightened its grasp on my subconscious mind. I sulked around the house picking ridiculous arguments with my wife about finances or parenting decisions. The most trivial things would send me into an irrational blend of rage and paranoia.
I called it “The Pit.” It was the depths of despair where I spent several days after an episode of heavy drinking. The alcohol-induced depression made my expression droop and my limbs feel numb, almost paralyzed. It left me hopeless. Hopeless that I could enjoy my alcohol and equally hopeless that I could stop drinking. I wished for death as my only escape.
Alcoholism was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Then I found my permanent sobriety. How I was resurrected from the gates of hell is another story entirely. It involved many failed attempts to abstain, several lasting six months or more. The point is, I squirmed out of the grip of addiction, and it changed my life forever. It didn’t just save me some cash previously spent on booze or make me stop picking on my wife. Sobriety changed my thought patterns, my perspective on society, my acceptance of mediocrity masquerading as success, and my ambivalence toward others.
Sobriety changed who I am at my very core. I am now more careful about what I put in my body, how I spend my precious time, the level of engagement I seek with my children, and the reconnection I am fighting like hell to establish with my wife.
If sobriety was an award like an Oscar or a Grammy, and I was asked to give a speech upon being presented with a trophy, I would have to thank my despicable addiction and all the collateral damage that slithered along behind it for making it all possible. I now thank God for my alcoholism, the worst—and the very best—thing that has ever happened to me.
Overcoming alcoholism has given me access to a level of empathy I never imagined as an active drinker. I now think back on my young and arrogant self with disgust. I was cocky. I was also naïve. Alcoholism beat the cocky naivete right out of me. I tried to control my drinking and failed, over and over again. Failure after failure after failure destroyed my feeling of invincibility. Dealing with the shame of alcoholism and the shame of sobriety—being the only non-drinker in an alcohol-soaked society—has left me with a tremendous sense of compassion for others who face struggles.
I used to scoff at people battling their weight and wonder why the fatty couldn’t put down the doughnuts. I used to sneer at couples who divorced and wonder why they couldn’t find a way to hold their marriages together. I used to belittle people who weren’t smart enough to hold down a job or find affordable housing. Alcoholism changed all of that for me. I lost at my repeated attempts to control my drinking. I failed. Now I have compassion for others who fail, too.
Now I know overweight people have food addictions or a lack of nutrition education or a genetic predisposition to weight gain. Whatever the issue, they battle to control their weight. I understand difficult battles.
Now I know marriage is hard. I spent 20 years trying to drown mine in booze. I don’t pretend to know the specific reasons other couples struggle in relationships, but I can relate to the idea that their struggles are real. Sometimes marriages fail because sometimes people fail. I know about failure, and I empathize with couples who divorce.
Alcoholism changed me. The weakness and shame of addiction is replaced by the peacefulness of overcoming my demons. Arrogance is replaced by empathy. I used to talk. Now I listen. I used to know. Now I wonder. I spent many years immersed in struggle. Now I thank God for the strength to have survived.
I wouldn’t wish alcoholism on anyone. The pain and sadness and collateral damage is overwhelming and full of shame and remorse. Clawing my way from the gates of hell to peaceful sobriety was the hardest thing I will ever do. But as I cleanup the aftermath of so many years of alcoholism, I am without question a more humble, content, and loving person.
It is stunning how overcoming decades of catastrophe has transformed me into a peace-filled soul who is at long last, sober and unashamed. I guess that’s just how it works, and the lesson from my example is not limited to addiction. No matter your obstacle, and no matter how devastating the experience, life on the other side can be more rewarding than we ever dreamed.
Author: Matt Salis
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton