It bothered me daily for weeks because I know the mind of an alcoholic. I HAVE the mind of an alcoholic. I SAW an alcoholic at a gas station when I stopped in to grab a bag of chips. I saw him buy at least two and possibly three forty ounce bottles of malt liquor. Normal drinkers might drink malt liquor, if by normal we include stereotypes like race, age, and a bunch of other discriminating factors that I don’t think is fair to include. But what those stereotypes told me was that I knew a normal social drinker would not buy forty ounce bottles of malt liquor when that normal drinker was a fortysomething middle class white dude.
You’re free to call me out for pointing all of that out and encouraging / proving a stereotype. I don’t really care. I’m not at all being discriminatory. I’m simply pointing out that I was an active alcoholic for twenty years and I had never met another white man – young or old – who chose forty ounce malt liquors as a social drink. If there is some white dude out there who loves it and buys just enough to get their social drank on, then by God I admire the hell out of them. I tried it one time in college and I would personally rather drink skunk spray. It wasn’t tasty.
So for about three weeks it ate away at me. I knew my old friend was an alcoholic and I knew it wasn’t my place to say a word to him. You can’t make an alcoholic quit. You can’t guilt them into it. You can’t make them feel worse than they already do. Depending on the level of dependency and self-loathing, you could even push them over the edge. Even wives and children and parents and poor credit and no money and liver pains and near death experiences can’t make them stop. Only the alcoholic – with conscious, cognitive thought – can make that decision.
I knew all of this, and yet I took a chance. I took a chance because I thought my words might have a better chance of helping to save a life than becoming the pressure that forced the trigger finger to contract. I didn’t love my chances (I didn’t even LIKE my chances) at getting him to simply say, “You know, you’re right. I do have a problem and I’ll seek help right this very minute.” But I wanted to at least plant a seed. These were my exact words when I messaged him on Facebook:
“Not sure if you’ll ever see this, but I’ve had you on my mind since I saw you at the gas station a couple of weeks ago. And please, please forgive me in advance if I offend you with this message, but something has just been eating at me to reach out to you. Please know that I am NOT presuming to know ANYTHING about you anymore, whether good, bad, or indifferent, and I am only reaching out because some power bigger than myself is telling me to.
I don’t know if King Cobra malt liquor or Olde E or whatever it was you bought that day is just your favorite beer to kick back and relax, and if it is, kudos to you. I envy the hell out of people that can handle their alcohol responsibly. As an alcoholic for two decades, I simply couldn’t, and I am NOT calling you an alcoholic. I am simply saying that in my experience, most 40-something middle class white men don’t choose that as their drink of choice unless they are struggling with a dependency to alcohol. So what I’m saying is that I found times over the years that I was one bad night away from shooting myself in the fucking head, and if this message finds you struggling, I’m simply saying I’ve been there and you will never get judgment from me if you ever need help.
If I’m a complete asshole in your mind for even suggesting it, I’m okay with that, too. But IF, and please know that I sincerely mean IF, you are struggling with addiction or depression or anything else and ever need an ear from somebody that’s been there, I will ALWAYS be here. My hope and feeling is that I’m dead wrong about this assumption, but if I’m not, then you know I was right to reach out. God bless, dude. “
The code of Alcoholics Anonymous is always going to be anonymity, and nothing I say here will break that code, but there are some elements to what happened next that I don’t feel comfortable saying on my blog. I want to write things that might help people, not expose them. So rather than tell the rest of the story, I think the more important information I can write about is seeing my old life through the lens of another person’s current struggles and how those two sides – when seen in the glorious light of hindsight – can affect a LOT of lives. Because I don’t just see my old life, I see how much that old life – and a lot of struggling addicts’ current lives – can absolutely ruin the lives of the people who care most about them.
So on that note, here’s some random thoughts I have had the past few weeks when talking to him and people who love him.
It Must Be Demoralizing to be Less Important Than a Bottle
Truly, it must. I’ve thought back to the early days of dating my wife and how she was like a forgotten prayer that God found between the couch cushions and said, “Well, I see he’s made his life a complete living hell, I guess I can give him something he loves so much that maybe he’ll start loving himself.” That second part wasn’t possible while still actively drinking, of course. And then the love for her and the hate for myself were at such odds that my love could only be complete if she left the alcohol alone and just let me keep it. I had to have both.
But I kid you not, if I had been put on a polygraph machine and forced to answer questions while still an active alcoholic, it would not have ended well. If they had asked, “If you can only keep one and the other is gone forever, which one do you give up?,” there were many, many days that I would have never seen my wife again. Alcohol (and tobacco) were that important and necessary in my life. I’ve said it many times before, but that is just insanity.
Can you imagine how that must feel to the people who love alcoholics? They are important to alcoholics not because the addict values and appreciates their love but because those people are the only bridge addicts have to real life, to normalcy, to social interaction. But they can never be fully loved because too much of an alcoholic’s identity, comfort, contentment, and survival is found in a bottle. It simply HAS to be demoralizing.
What Must it be Like to Love Somebody Who is Suicidal?
This is deeper than just living with an alcoholic, but I can promise you this much, if an addict has some years under his or her belt, suicide is an option. I was too chicken to do it because I always had this weird semblance of hope that held on for two decades that convinced me that one day I would look back at alcoholism from a distance. And I actually am. It’s amazing. But I absolutely had moments that I wanted to die. Quitting would have been easier, life would have been easier, facing the world would have been easier, literally every aspect of my life would have been easier if I had just killed myself and not had to face any of it.
And I can absolutely guarantee you that every active alcoholic in the world can attest to their own desire to end their own lives at some point throughout their journey, even if it’s as insincere as mine was.
I told my old friend the story of watching two people struggle with recovery in AA and wind up dead. I was pretty new into AA when the first one happened. To me, this guy was no alcoholic. He was fit and had biceps he worked VERY hard to build and had a chiseled jawline and a flat belly and all the stuff they say about grown men who decide that a sexy dad bod is not for them. When he spoke at AA, he was profound with his thoughts and contrite with his words. And then one day, I showed up on a Tuesday night and learned that he’d put a gun in his mouth two nights earlier. He and his wife got in a fight (because of alcohol, most likely,) and a human being allowed a beverage to steal a father, a husband, and god only knows how many other precious titles away from a family that loved him.
The second one still doesn’t seem very real either. This person was also in their early forties, but she was tiny and cute and was about as scary as a cotton ball. She could NOT stay sober, though. We actually had the exact same sober date for about a month. May 28, 2017. Mine has been the same for two and a half years. Her sobriety date changed monthly.
Every time she showed up, she came in with these sweet little salutations and greetings, but I knew every single time that there was a storm of embarrassment and self-loathing going on behind that sweetness. And a few minutes later, when everybody went around the room and introduced themselves and told their sobriety date, hers was always brand new.
And then, I came in one night and found out she had shot herself, too. You wouldn’t know it, but that is significant. If you look at the statistics, women don’t usually shoot themselves. They are 73% less likely to die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound than a man. They find some other way to do it. Somebody told me that night in AA that women don’t shoot themselves because they care so much about their appearance, even in death. For some reason, that made sense.
Before I leave this topic, let me address that completely justifiable, unknowingly guilt ridden question a spouse or loved one will inevitably ask an addict who is struggling with suicidal thoughts: Why do you want to leave me so badly? The correct answer to that is also the answer that no spouse will ever believe, but it is correct nonetheless. The correct answer is that they honestly think they’ll be doing their spouse a favor to put a gun to their head and pull the trigger. And they FULLY believe that.
I Think Parents Just Know
I think there is something about parents that they just know when their child is struggling with something like depression or addiction. My parents said they knew I was an alcoholic for years. I’ll never forget when my dad hugged me and said, “I’ve known for a long time, son.” He said it with an underlying exhaustion mixed with a long-prayed-for relief that I knew his claim wasn’t the type of thing you lie about. They had known for a LONG time that their son was an alcoholic.
I think back on that now and wonder why they never attempted a good old fashioned intervention, and I’ve never asked them why they never did, but I like to think it’s because the wisdom that comes with decades of parenthood simply prepares you for bits and pieces of heartbreak that you simply learn to live with. It would have actually been worse had they tried to intervene. I would have resented them, I would have therefore avoided them, and all the while I would have still been drinking. So they would have been dealing with much more than a dull feeling of heartbreak that their son was an alcoholic. I have no doubt they knew for a long time, and I have no doubt that they made the right decision in not confronting me about it.
There is a part of me now that wants to reach out to my old friend’s mom, but I know I can’t do that. It’s most certainly not my place. But I just have a feeling she knows. It’s more than a feeling. It’s like a parental instinct. She knows. But I still wish I could use my words and my experience to help her heartbreak just a little. But I know I can’t do that. It’s most certainly not my place.
I’ll Do This Again
I’ll still reach out to someone struggling with addiction if that opportunity presents itself, because there is always a chance that I reach out to somebody who hasn’t felt important or valued in years. There is always a chance – because I’ve seen far too much of it – that I reach out on a day that he or she is sitting alone with a bottle and a gun and begging for one sign from God that they shouldn’t drink both of them.
There is also a chance that I lose a friend. There’s a chance that I embarrass somebody so thoroughly that I send them further into depression and reclusion. There is a chance that I screw up in my delivery and expose their secrets to family and/or friends. But I’m good with words. I have unbelievable tact pertaining to what is truly a life or death situation. I like my chances that a good outcome can come from me reaching out. And if I go about it with the compassion and discretion that I did with this one, I can’t be disappointed or surprised by their reaction. Because it won’t be a real person responding, it’ll be a shell of what was once a person who cared about their place in the world.
I Will Never Give Up on an Addict
I’ll root for them through 100 failures, 100 AA white chips, and countless bouts of depression, and because of that, I will never give up on them. They might burn me so much that I stop going out of my way to help a great deal, but I will root them on until death or sobriety finally wins. There is another way of looking at this, too. If an addict hasn’t fully given up on themselves, it’s most certainly not my place to do it for them.
With that being said, I will also not enable anyone. I’m not going to help them get drunk or bail them out if they get a DUI or loan them money because they need one more night and sobriety starts tomorrow. These all fall under the excuses that I will respond to with the same simple sentence: “That’s your problem.”
Besides, addicts know the answer to sobriety. There is only one answer to one question. The question is, “Are you ready to quit and get help?” The answer is complete and total surrender. They are the only one who can answer it. Once addiction has been admitted, I will not endorse or enable anybody to get drunk again. But I completely understand that they will. Because they will only quit when they are ready, and that will forever be the bottom line of addiction and alcoholism. I know my old friend is getting drunk every single night, but there is nothing I can do to stop him.
It’s Okay to Show You Care and Then Walk Away
This seems counter-productive, but I think it’s a completely acceptable practice. Think about it. What does an active alcoholic want more than anything on a daily basis? Alcohol, right? They want to get drunk to drown out the real reason they’re depressed. With alcohol secured, what then does an alcoholic want more than anything? To be left alone and not questioned about their drinking. Those are the only correct answers to those two questions.
People who are trying to “fix” an alcoholic or guilt them into sobriety are going to be really disappointed by their results, and that’s why it’s okay to plant a seed of love, compassion, or support, and then walk away. Once the addict knows how much you love them and that you’d walk over hot coals to help them, it’s okay to tell them that it’s just too difficult for you to be in their lives and that you need to step away until true recovery has been instigated and truly attempted by the addict themselves.
Think about it this way. Over twenty years of alcoholism – over seven THOUSAND nights of drinking at least enough to feel a buzz – my best guess is that I swore sobriety started tomorrow at least a third of those nights. So that means, if you decide to hang around and “wait” for them to quit drinking and get help, you could suffer through 2,400 claims of “today is the last day.” You can’t live like that. Nobody should expect ANYBODY to live with that kind of chronic, inevitable disappointment.
So I think it’s important to simply show you care, and perhaps check in from time to time to let them know they are not forgotten, and then walk away and live your life. Besides, they think you’re better off without them anyway, right?
I just hope I don’t get a phone call or message one day saying that after last night, we have no choice but to figure out if we’re better off without him. If that happens, I guess I’ll ask his mama at the funeral if he was right.