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They aren’t really lies if we believe them.
They aren’t lies, but they antagonize the truth.
“I work hard and take care of my family. I deserve to drink,” I told my wife on countless occasions.
“Your father was an alcoholic. I don’t have a drinking problem, you just think anyone who drinks has a problem,” I said to her, thereby making my disease her mis-perception. “It’s the stress from work that makes me angry. It has nothing to do with my drinking,” I mumbled through gritted teeth.
And I believed it.
When the problem is someone else’s problem, you can’t fix it.
When the source of the problem is outside your control, you can’t fix it.
When the problem isn’t even a problem, there’s nothing to fix.
When the truth is elusive, the solution is impossible.
I have a good friend who provides group sessions and one-on-one therapy for people who are charged with alcohol-related crimes. He also has clients who he counsels about their drinking as part of child custody battles in divorce proceedings. He is an alcoholic in recovery who feels passionately about helping people, and he is reasonably well-compensated for the therapy he provides.
But he hates every minute of it. When providing alcohol abuse therapy that is court ordered, the drinker almost never takes ownership of the problem. It is the fault of an intolerant or angry spouse, the drinker’s employer is unreasonable, or the incident was isolated.
When the drinker doesn’t own the abusive nature of the drinking, my friend’s suggested solutions are a waste of time. He is just a box to be checked so the drinker can get back to drinking.
Getting sober was the hardest thing I will likely ever do. Fighting cravings and overcoming mountains of shame were torturous and unimaginably daunting tasks. And I couldn’t even start the process of recovering until I owned my disease to begin with.
Taking ownership of my addiction was the most time-consuming thing I will likely ever do. As a high-functioning alcoholic with no outward calamity like a DUI or divorce or financial collapse resulting from my drinking, I had no reason to believe I had a problem. I had an intolerant wife and a stressful occupation.
Drinking was just a coping mechanism. Drinking was as common as breathing. How could a rite of passage, an enjoyable weekend pastime, and an adult pressure reliever possibly be a problem.
Even when I’d catch a glimpse of the truth and question my drinking, the pull to drink again would wash away my concerns and convince me to keep going.
Sometimes I would commit to trying harder to exert control. Sometimes I would make rules about quantity and frequency. Sometimes I would change my beverage of choice as though ethanol cared about the color of the vessel or the existence of carbonation. I never really lied. I just could never grasp the truth.
I’ve never participated in Alcoholics Anonymous, so I’m far from an expert on their dogma. But when they say, “Let go and let God,” I think I understand what they are trying to accomplish. They are trying to end the mental fistfight that takes place in the brain of every alcoholic as we try to decide if we are really addicted to alcohol. “Do I really need to quit? I’m not really that bad.”
Let go of the argument and own the problem.
Let go of the dream of controlling the uncontrollable.
Let go of the deflection and absorb the truth.
My parents even asked my minister to lead an intervention before I had taken ownership of my alcoholism. My minister refused. Not because he didn’t love me, and not because he wasn’t willing to try to help me. As he told my parents, he refused because interventions don’t work, because the very first step to addiction recovery is for the addict to own the addiction.
When it comes to alcoholism, an intervention, by definition, is premature.
When it comes to interventions, the role of the loved ones is to show the drinker how much trouble he is in. I often hear people who have lost loved ones to addiction feeling guilty because they didn’t get the addict the help he needed. Trying to get help for an addict in denial is like trying to eat a cake you haven’t baked. If it’s not ready, it’s just not ready.
If a tree falls on my house, I can own the problem and take care of it because it is my tree and my house and my hole in the roof. I can see it and touch it and feel the draft. But if my car exhaust is contributing to climate change or I stare at a woman’s breasts making her uncomfortable or I spike my blood sugar by eating ice cream for dinner, the problems my actions cause are a lot less tangible and easier to deny.
Plausible deniability doesn’t mean I’m not a hypoglycemic a**hole. It just means I can pretend I’m not.
So, when our society thinks of alcoholics only as wife-beating gutter bums, or when our society makes drinking our national pastime—then our society also provides plausible deniability to us hypoglycemic a**holes (over 80 percent of alcoholics are hypoglycemic…less scientifically, over 80 percent of alcoholics are a**holes, too). When the truth is elusive, the solution is impossible.
What can be done to prevent alcoholics from denying their alcoholism? We can stop denying the pervasiveness of the disease. We can stop assuming high-function (you know, job promotions and financial success) precludes our neighbors from falling victim to addiction. We can stop glamorizing alcohol consumption and stop dismissing teen binge-drinking as an adolescent phase. We can stop nodding along when new moms say they need wine to get through the day, and we can stop calling midday drunk-fests “book clubs” or “power lunches.”
The first step to addressing a problem is to own said problem.
Alcoholism is an epidemic, and the 15 million afflicted Americans won’t all fit in the gutter. Most of us are in the office down the hall, sitting in the church pew next to you, or thumping cantaloupe for ripeness in your very own grocery store. I’ll bet anything that one of us lives on your block and not a day goes by that you don’t talk to an alcoholic, whether you know it or not.
If you believe me, then tell someone else. If you know what I’m talking about, share the message, because ignorance abounds.
Don’t provide an intervention, promote an education.
Most people don’t know what they don’t know. But you know, and truth is a powerful weapon to defeat the stigma.
Alcoholics need to own the truth before they can even dream of curing their disease.
No one wants to take ownership of a hideous, stigmatized albatross, so let’s end the stigma. Let’s worry less about getting alcoholics the help they need, and make the disease from which they suffer easier to own.
For more, check out my free ebook: Guide to Early Sobriety