by Angeliska on August 18, 2012
My friend and intrepid traveling companion Brett Caraway wrote this piece about alcoholism during our journey up to Canada. It is the product of his path to understanding over the past year, and has also been the subject of many of our long talks over the past few months. Every bit of what Brett wrote here resonated deeply with me. These are the subjects I have been grappling with understanding every single day. If you want to truly understand where my heart and mind are at right now, please take a moment to read further.
My Thoughts on Alcoholism and Surrender
The drinks don’t taste the same anymore. I used to enjoy long island iced tea. Then it was whiskey. Later on, it was gin and tonic. More recently, it has been rum and coke. But try as I may I just don’t enjoy them like I used to. Although I have never had a problem with drinking myself, I have had my life shattered by alcoholics on two occasions now. Unsurprisingly, my patience for the monotonous, unremarkable, and morose conduct of those who drink excessively is in short supply. Still, part of me struggles to understand the disease of alcoholism which drives some individuals to drink uncontrollably, often hurting the ones they love, subverting their own potential, putting innocents in jeopardy, and destroying their own lives in the process. I drink very seldom these days. Yet I can’t help grappling with alcoholism every time I take a drink. Drinking will never be the same for me.
“If you want to understand a society, take a good look at the drugs it uses. And what can this tell you about American culture? Well, look at the drugs we use. Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”
― Bill Hicks
Not too long ago I was having a conversation with my good friend Ron. We were trying to figure out those traits in people which are deal-breakers for us. That is to say ― what characteristics are essentially unpardonable? We settled on just one ― unrestricted cowardice. I am no champion. Like most humans, I am full of fear and insecurity. However, one may be bold despite one’s fears. Bravery and fear coexist. As a part of my own healing process I have strived to confront and understand not only alcoholism but my own shortcomings, neuroses, and fears. With the help of a very astute therapist and a core group of healthy and spiritually perceptive friends I have faced the trauma in my life with conviction. Healing is a social process which requires community in one form or another. Curiously, alcoholism seems to transform the drinker into a gutless bag of bones incapable of confronting the reality of the disease. The alcoholic insists that the root of their unhappiness lies in circumstances and people having little to do with their own ruinous pattern of drinking. Nonetheless, cowardice is not the exclusive purview of the alcoholic. There is always a network of enablers surrounding the alcoholic who are all too willing to facilitate their destructive behavior.
“There’a a phrase, ‘the elephant in the living room’, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, ‘How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?’ ― And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; ‘I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.’ There comes an aha-moment for some folks ― the lucky ones ― when they suddenly recognize the difference.”
― Stephen King
What kind of person would enable an alcoholic? Well, me for one. I have bought and served drinks for the alcoholics in my life on a regular basis. So this commentary does not come from a condescending or judgmental place. This is introspection for me ― not proselytizing. So again, what kind of person would enable an alcoholic? As far as I can tell there are three types of enablers: other alcoholics, vultures, and the clueless. These are not mutually exclusive categories. Other alcoholics is pretty self-explanatory. Misery loves company and it’s best to surround yourself with those who are either in similar circumstances as you, or worse off than you. In doing so the alcoholic does not feel compelled to cast a critical gaze inward. As the individual drinker is subsumed by alcoholism surrounding themselves with other alcoholics is simply the path of least resistance for the disease. Vultures are those opportunistic and wretched cowards who, lacking all honor and strength of character, are willing to exploit the addiction of others to get what they want. Simply put, they are human trash and require no further elaboration here. Clueless enablers deserve special consideration because they often seem to surround the alcoholic in greater numbers and are not uniformly malicious in their intent. They are friends and family; they are spouses and life partners; they are bosses and co-workers; they are people who toast to your happiness and throw parties for you; they are people at the margins of your circle of friends and at the center. Sometimes these people lack sufficient information to understand the full extent of the drinking problem for the individual. Alcoholics are incredibly adept at subterfuge. They may never take a single drink in front of select groups of friends, family, and aquaintances. Still, sometimes the clueless are not really clueless at all and may be in denial. Like the alcoholic, they choose not to face reality because to do so would be terrifying. The idea that your own child or spouse could be an alcoholic is paralyzing. Therefore, many people join the alcoholic in denial. This was me for most of my adult life. Never again.
If someone you love has a drinking problem, first recognize that the drinker’s behavior has an impact on you. Get yourself to an Al-Anon meeting (distinct from AA, Al-Anon provides support for those affected by someone else’s alcoholism ― it’s free and there are meetings everywhere). Know that you are not alone. Know that you are not crazy. Those people who tell you that you are blowing things out of proportion are nothing more than enablers of one sort or another. If you are able, find yourself a counselor or therapist with a solid background in addiction. The important concept here is surrender. You can not and will not change the behavior of the alcoholic. It’s totally beyond your control. Circumstances will vary, but no matter what, you will have to learn the art of detaching with love. Moreover, it is imperative that you understand you will not achieve genuine healing by going it alone. Just like the alcoholic, you will need help. This is what surrender means in the context of dealing with another person’s alcoholism.
“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.”
― Alcoholics Anonymous, The Big Book
Surrender for the alcoholic is likewise crucial. The first step to recovery is to admit the problem and to annihilate all vestiges of denial. I’ll just cut through the bullshit for the sake of brevity:
If you feel like you need alcohol to unwind, relax, or have a good time; if you drink until you are “buzzed” on a nearly daily/nightly basis; if you hide your drinking from certain people; if you have blacked out or had your memory impaired from drinking on numerous occasions; if people in your life have expressed concern about your drinking; if a therapist or other professional has expressed concern about your drinking; or if drinking has caused problems in your relationships with others ― guess what? You have a drinking problem. I’m sorry, but tough shit. Life dealt you a shitty fucking hand. But no amount of denial is going to change that. All of your excuses are just attempts to mask your unwillingness to face up to the problem and your fears. It’s not that you are misunderstood or that other people are overreacting. Sorry, but you are not so nuanced and complex that you are misunderstood by those that love you. In fact, with every drink you take, you become increasingly and depressingly simple. Nor is your drinking simply a preferred way of socializing. For you, it’s not a choice at all. So dispense with the excuses. This is not fucking rocket surgery. Yes it sucks, but stand up dammit. Get yourself to an AA meeting. No matter how much you may wish it, you will never be a normal drinker. You will never solve your problem on your own. Let me repeat that. You will never be a normal drinker. You will never solve your problem on your own. Let that sink in. It’s a bitter pill but it’s better than running from the truth all your life.
“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”
― William Shakespeare, Othello
I write this with a stern yet loving heart because I know way too many alcoholics and people who have been devastated by other people’s drinking. In many respects, alcoholics can be some of the best people you’ll ever meet. Yet their cowardice condemns them to a life of banality at best and tragedy at worst. And to the consternation of those of us who care about them, alcoholics persist in a stubborn state of bootstrapping, insisting that they are in no need of help. In doing so, excellence is transformed into mediocrity, missteps into catastrophe. All that is extraordinary about the individual is betrayed. And the ensuing damage is seldom constrained to the individual drinker. Alcoholism affects everyone.
These thoughts pass through my mind every time I am in the presence of alcohol now.
Try as I may, the drinks just don’t taste the same.
― Brett Caraway