The last time I saw Martha she was wasted from several bottles of wine, and screaming at me from her Seattle apartment. I left in the middle of the night and drove back to Portland. That was years ago and now she’s an English teacher, and an avid cross-stitcher. With the help of a dramatic lifestyle change and AA, she doesn’t drink EVER.
This was my best college friend. We went to 80’s night together, got stoned together, met guys together, studied in Spain together, crashed house parties together, took Bollywood film together, acted like insane idiots together, and always got drunk together.
The drinking was out of control but we were in college and we made good grades so it didn’t matter. I would put a six pack under the car seat and we would drive around Eugene. We’d visit our nerdy friends playing magic cards and chess, and alternate between a spliff and a pawn and a pabst.
Then we got older, graduated, moved, worked and changed. Martha was annoying. I was too serious. Martha was binge drinking. I was more controlled. And Seattle happened and we didn’t speak for years, until I was writing an article about alcoholism but had also met Charley and needed some advice.
First Martha apologizes for being so crazy. She apologizes for putting alcohol first- over herself, her friends, her family, her life. Then she tells me that she doesn’t have the answers but can say a few things.
“You want to support and love him but the horrible reality of alcohol is that it’s the most important thing,” she says. “All I wanted to do with my friends was drink. If it didn’t involve alcohol I wouldn’t even go to something. … So, for someone living with an alcoholic? You have to put yourself first. Remember to take care of yourself.”
She first got sober in Seattle. At the end of her drinking she’d get so drunk she’d black out almost every day. Drinking was her reward for getting through the day. She was drinking through her anxiety and disappointment with herself because she “hadn’t fulfilled my dreams for a great job or life.”
When she was laid off from her job in Seattle, things got worse. “That gave me the green light to drink all day, every day. I’d wake up, work out and go buy a box of wine,” she said. “It was so bad my mom flew out to get me.”
Martha moved home and lived with her parents. She got a teaching degree and began teaching in the public school system.
“Getting sober where you used to drink a lot is really difficult,” she said. “I had to physically remove myself from the environment I was drinking in and the people I was drinking with.”
She drank again twice, and both times proved failures. She couldn’t live and drink at same time. There was no balancing act.
So she quit. “It was horrible. I had an anxiety attack. I took a shower and was with my boyfriend all day. I went to an AA meeting. It’s so difficult. Even now I want to drink every day. … I can’t do that. It’s hollow and a hollow life.”
Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery. On the other hand—and strange as this may seem to those who do not understand—once a psychic change has occurred, the very same person who seemed doomed, who had so many problems he despaired of ever solving them, suddenly finds himself easily able to control his desire for alcohol, the only effort necessary being that required to follow a few simple rules.
Just in my year with Charley, alcohol had been the primary reason behind losing four jobs. They weren’t jobs he loved, and it wasn’t just alcohol- it was responsibilities and staying in one place along with the alcohol- but it illustrated just how impossible it was for him to consistently hold onto anything that wasn’t novel or comfortable. By sticking around he would have had to be known, to be responsible and to be depended upon. And authority and dependency scares him unless it’s straight from the bottle.
Another friend of mine- let’s call him Josh- has been sober for nine months now. It’s the only time it’s worked for him to maintain sobriety and that’s because, with the help of AA, he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol. He can’t. He’s an alcoholic and having a drop always led to two drops, a bottle, a six-pack, and everything else. So not one drop. And he learned how to cross-stitch.
You can’t be an alcoholic and just drink casually. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something or an alcoholic in denial. Josh says, “There’s nothing wrong with believing someone can change, and there’s nothing wrong deciding that maybe they won’t change unless something changes.” Maybe that’s my daughter or maybe that ends up being that I have to walk away. “I hope it’s the former.”
My tolerance for Charley’s drinking and the associated moods has dropped a lot. I think the more I love him the less I’m willing to take any disrespect or abuse. I wish he could gain and hold onto his clarity and self-awareness, which comes and goes.
“At the end of the day, it’s not your responsibility to get him on track”, Josh says. “I’ve seen some people come and go and come and go and come and go from AA, and sometimes they get it and it sticks.”
With an alcoholic (functioning) dad and an alcoholic and coke-addicted (functioning) brother and a lot of Peter Pan, bachelor friends who are (many of them) also alcoholics and drug users, I don’t know if he has the capability of getting out of his comfort zone enough to change. He needs a wake up call. A daughter there to look him in the eye everyday? A break up? A disaster I can’t fathom? I refuse to be his enabler but I also have to be patient and not expect much right now.
There’s no such thing as will power. Not for an alcoholic. Drinking cuts short that part of your brain that wants to make things right. It makes you dream and brag and rant and sensationalize but it doesn’t bring you back down to reality, to change yourself or see yourself clearly.
“I’m sure he’s stressed about the baby,” Josh says to me, “and being able to provide for your growing family and I’m sure that’s contributing to his insecurities and fears and doubts, but if he doesn’t stop drinking, he’s never going to break the cycle.
“I know you love him, but at the end of the day, it’s not your responsibility to get him well. You can only give so much without getting anything back. I don’t know if you feel guilty about any of that, but you shouldn’t.”
Sometimes I do feel guilty. Sometimes I feel like I’m the reason he hasn’t hit rock bottom enough. Sometimes I feel like I saved him. Honestly, most of the time I know for certain I can’t save him and I didn’t save him and when he gets sober, if that ever happens, then he will be the husband and father I want. I expect more than he can give. The hospital has been a blessing- cutting our codependency like mitosis.
The first step of recovery is not using. The second is changing old habits, behaviors and thought patterns that cause substance abuse. “Working around” addiction is practically impossible. Giving up what’s familiar is difficult, but keeping it is a death sentence.
Think about how many New Year’s resolutions are made. People stick with them for one week, maybe one month. Multiply that by 100 and you’re dealing with an addiction. Instead of changing one or two daily habits, cutting out an addiction requires a full change in your brain chemistry. “It’s battling with your brain to change your lifestyle,” says Trudy Funk, executive director of an outpatient program in Jackson. “It’s something you can’t do on your own.”
I don’t know what I can do on my own either. Be the strong one? Be the only one?
“I will support you however I can. I will go to Al-Anon with you,” my mother-in-law Tracy says. Al-Anon is a worldwide fellowship that offers a program of recovery for the families and friends of alcoholics, whether or not the alcoholic recognizes the existence of a drinking problem or seeks help. It is the sister to AA.
AA was initiated by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in 1935 in Akron, Ohio. Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as they are known today, were alcoholics. They helped each other quit, and then they decided to help other problem drinkers. “The Big Book,” spelled out their philosophy, principles and methods, including 12-steps to sobriety. “Alcoholics Anonymous” was the book’s official title and the name of the now worldwide organization.
If we were to live, we had to be free of anger.
People who get truly sober for the first time and who really, truly have a problem: they often get bitter. AA discourages that. “HALT – don’t allow yourself to get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired” –
“But I always operated better with a chip on my shoulder,” Josh says. He used a break-up to motivate him. Eventually it was just himself and his own mental and emotional hang-ups.
Definition of an alcoholic is an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.
It’s always your own psychological problems that inspire you to drink, or smoke, or take drugs, or eat too much. I went from running to smoking. And then I reinforced smoking with drinking. They made socializing easier. Something to do with my hands and mouth. Some place to be (the back porch, a bedroom). They made me feel less insecure. And then they didn’t.
It was a constant cycle of false confidence and residual guilt and self-loathing. So I understood where my friend was coming from, and where my friend of a friend and husband were coming from, and I couldn’t do more than listen and understand.
When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the answer, the problem went away.
“I needed everyone to know that I don’t drink anymore, even if it lost me some friends [which it did],” Josh says. He had to start focusing on himself. He needed to find reasons to love himself and things that he was passionate about again.
Charley’s passionate about snowboarding but spent more time drinking than snowboarding- even when it was his favorite thing in the world.
…one of the primary differences between alcoholics and nonalcoholics is that nonalcoholics change their behavior to meet their goals and alcoholics change their goals to meet their behaviors.
“I guess part of me doesn’t want to get sober and get my life on track,” Charley once said. He feared the withdrawal and says he doesn’t want to go through two weeks of hell only to relapse again. “Alcohol doesn’t make me happy but it makes me care less about the situation.” He would say that he was an alcoholic and couldn’t do anything about it. He’d say life doesn’t have enough good in it and it was too hard. The next day he would change his mind. He’d say life was beautiful and he had to change. He wanted to and I needed it and he would do it.
“Not being able to simply be happy and in the moment is probably the dearest thing to me that addiction has taken away and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Charley said.
“He wants to live a sober life,” Tracy says. And the only answer I can think of is keeping that mindset every day even when he has doubts. I wish I could get him pregnant- force him to physically hold on to the awareness of what his choices signify.
I have come to believe that hard times are not just meaningless suffering and that something good might turn up at any moment.
It’s easy when you’re drunk or high to think, “All that positive thinking and self love crap is cheesy bullshit.” But then you get a moment of clarity and realize how far behind you are in believing in ourself at all. How much like a crazy math equation just the idea of getting somewhere with your life seems. And how complicated it is just to tell yourself to keep going. But it’s what you have to do.
“Will we make it?”he asks. “Can I do this.”
“I hope so.”
“What do you mean ‘hope’?”
Ben Folds sings “You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard. Hope is a liar, a cheat, and a tease. Hope comes near you, kick its backside – got no place in days like these.”
“I used to love that line because I agreed with it so strongly,” Josh says. “Sometimes hope is literally the only reason people make it.” If you listen to the whole song, it spins hope in a positive light. It’s a sad song, but it’s not negative. It’s what you are willing to hear: not yes everything will be perfect, or no nothing is good, but rather IT WILL BE OKAY ONLY IF YOU WORK HARD FOR IT BUT TOU HAVE TO WORK HARD. THIS IS NOT A VACATION. Hope is the only reason things ever change for the better- or one of the main things.
“Nothing will get better if you pretend everything is okay. He needs to know that he needs to change if things are ever going to get better. You can tell him that you believe in him and that you want more than anything for him get his life together, but that’s pretty much all you can do,” says Josh.
It makes sense that the more I love him, the less patience I have for his addiction. Just going to AA and sticking with it and building relationships with other recovering alcoholics will help him. He has to get out of his comfort zone. Maybe Charley has it harder, but I doubt it. He just hasn’t figured it out yet.”
Josh is in a lot of pain. He’s sad and he’s hurting, and it’s messing with his ability to think or talk straight, but he’s determined. And like he said- and other friends have said, and I have felt- it gets easier. It gets so much easier.
One day at a time.
It’s hard if you’re already hypersensitive. It’s a gift and a curse. Alcohol and drugs numb that sensitivity. So do anxiety drugs. What if that feeling of pain can be reconfigured in your mind to be a good feeling? It’s very much in your perspective.
Why are people so horrified by the idea of pain? Maybe they channel it through strenuous activities or anger or substance abuse, but what about just sitting and feeling it without running or fighting? Just as we avoid it we manufacture our own misery.
The pain of everything? It’s inevitable and multiplies when suppressed or denied. Accepting pain as a necessary, even worthwhile, sensation, can make it almost enjoyable. It’s an awareness that it exists everywhere- outside of us as well as in. The Universe is joy and pain, and they exist simultaneously. So why embrace one and deny the other?
I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation.
***illuatrated BW cartoons by Douglas Ferrin