Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I’m an Alcoholic. Part One

“Hello, I’m Monte, and I’m an alcoholic. It has been 20 years since my last drink.”

On June 28, 2010 I celebrated 20 years of sobriety, one day at a time. I had forgotten the date until Sue came to me and put her arms around me and said, “Congratulations. Its your anniversary.” I dug into my billfold, and pulled out a faded old wallet card from Alcoholics Anonymous of St. Louis, signed by my beloved sponsor, Jim White. Sue was right. It has been 20 years.

Jim has since passed on and I have gotten old. Old and sober. Had I not gotten sober I have no doubt alcohol would have killed me long before now. I believe in miracles and my sobriety is a miracle.

Jim White was 70 years old and 26 years sober when he took me under his wing. So I figure that after 20 years of sobriety and at the age of 71 maybe it is time to tell my story to someone other than the friends gathered around the table at the AA meetings I have attended, and the many dear friends I have sponsored, mentored, counseled and loved who also share my addiction. It is time to share it with you.

And, with the grace of God, perhaps I might reach one or more drinkers who will find something in my story that will resonate with them, something that will tell them that their kind of drinking is far more than just an occasional social indulgence, and that will encourage them to find the strength to walk away from the closest friend they have ever known: alcohol.

I would like to set the stage for my story by talking about some of the fundamental habits of my alcoholism. There is nothing particularly unique about my alcoholism. These habits, along with a string of others I could mention, are generic and are exhibited by most alcoholics. They are the habits of addiction.

Without understanding some of the basic habits of the addictive personality it is not easy to see the "logic" that we who suffer from addiction see in our actions. That those actions are not "normal" does not occur to us until after we are "clean and sober."

I started drinking when I was 15. My home life was a mess. My mother had serious mental problems and was abusive. I was nine years older than the oldest of my four brothers and I was expected to help care for them, keep the house clean, go to school, and work a full time job, turning most of the money over to my mother. Beer took me away from all of that, if only for a few stolen hours late at night. Soon it was every night.

I never met a beer I didn’t like, and I never could have only one. In beginning I never drank anything but beer. My friends who were 18 could buy beer for me, but not liquor so it was the natural choice. In those early years I seldom had hangovers, even if I drank a couple of six packs.

Later, that would change. When I turned 21 and could buy liquor, beer stopped being the drink of choice and then came headaches, hangovers, and, toward the end, severe panic attacks and the fear of spending any time in public. It was stock up on booze, stay home and drink. Alcohol was closing in for the kill and I was an active party to my own destruction.

I didn’t notice it but very early on there were habits developing that I would carry with me for the entire time I would drink.

– Lying.

Lying is essential to the alcoholic. First you lie to yourself and tell yourself that you are not drinking too much, that you deserve to drink, and that you can stop any time you want to. Then you lie to everybody else. You say that you only had two drinks when the two drinks were six ounces of scotch each with a spritz of club soda, that you have not had a drink at all when you have been drinking vodka to cover the smell, that you are sick or tired or busy or sleepy or whatever other thing you can think of to cover your drinking.

The more and longer you drink the more you tell yourself that your lies are working, and the less they actually are. In the end you are the only one who thinks that nobody knows you are a drunk.

– Protecting the supply.

From the beginning you are hooked. It is my firm belief that no one slides into alcoholism. You are born with it. What can change is that you increase your drinking to the point where you finally realize that you have a problem, thus convincing yourself that you are “becoming” an alcoholic.

And one sure sign is that you notice how you protect the supply. If you are underage that comes naturally. It did for me because my mother would physically abuse me if she knew I drank. So I hid the supply with other boys who were older and allowed to drink. It was worth sharing a few beers with them to stash my booze with them. But mostly I needed them to buy the booze for me.

Later, as an adult I would squirrel away bottles of scotch, gin and vodka around the house, in the car, and, toward the end even at work. And if it looked like I would run out and could not get any more quickly I would literally have a panic attack. The solution to that was never to wonder whether it was normal to have a panic attack over not being able to buy liquor on Sunday. Rather it was to buy my scotch by the half gallon and stock several half gallons away from sight in the basement – my liquid savings account.

– Choosing the right friends

This is seldom at first a conscious thing. But the alcoholic will soon gravitate toward other drinkers. As time goes on you become aware how uncomfortable you are if you have to spend, say, an entire afternoon or evening with people who do not drink. You are nervous and feel trapped and you know that a couple of drinks would take the edge off. So you make excuses not to go back to their place or to functions where drinks are not served.

And, if you have to go to a place where there are no drinks served, you have three or four stiff drinks before you leave, preferably vodka, brush your teeth, use mouthwash, carry a breath spray and go. And be sure to leave early.

When I was in Washington, DC I made sure that I went to lunch with friends who had two or three drinks before eating, usually martinis, and I went to happy hour with those who had a few before going home. Those turned out to be the same people, and naturally became the ones that I spent time with on weekends, going to sporting events, parties, etc.

This, in turn, led to a justification for my own drinking: “Everybody in DC drinks. I don’t drink any more than they do.” Of course not. They were mirrors of me. So you choose the friends who share the same best friend you do: alcohol.

– Blaming your problem on something and/or someone else

When you come home at night you need a strong drink because your boss or your partner or someone with whom you interact with was a real jerk, had a stupid idea that involved you, did not like your brilliant idea, did not agree with your ideas or, in your mind, otherwise disrespected you.

And you needed a second one because your wife did not understand, or agree, or wanted you to do something you did not want to do. And two drinks were not enough to take off that edge so a third made sense, then a fourth.

When you went to a party or a reception you made sure you chose a party with an open bar. If you just went to a bar to drink with your buddies everybody was drinking and they kept telling you to have “just one more” before you leave.So how could you leave? You can’t disappoint them; after all they are your friends.

– Proving to yourself that you are not what you know you are

You don’t have to drink and you can prove it. You can stop any time you want to. And you can and you do – for a few days or a week. You can’t be an alcoholic because you have proven the old saying, “Sure, I can stop drinking. I’ve done it a hundred times.” To others it’s a joke. To you it’s proof.

If, through the fog that you don’t know you are in, you realize you are drinking too much you go through elaborate ruses to prove to yourself you don’t drink too much. “I won’t drink before I get off work.” Later, “I won’t drink before noon.” Or, I will only have three drinks.” But, you don’t say how much scotch you put in each drink. So you say, “I will only have 4 jiggers tonight”, and then you choose the biggest jigger you own. Or you say, “I will only drink beer, “ or “I will only drink wine.”

These tactics will work for a few days and you will “prove” you don’t drink too much. That lasts until some major stress comes along and you decide to have as much as you need to take the edge off, to avoid the stress, the pain, the disappointment. Then, when you finally mellow out you are drunk, and you are the last person on the planet to know that. The truth is there is always a good reason to have the next drink.

Most active alcoholics have never heard the old Japanese saying, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” And if they do hear it they won’t believe it has anything to do with them. They won’t understand that until they hit bottom. And that can take 35 years. I know.

To be continued.