Saturday 16 October 2010

Alcoholism: I'll drink to that!

On February 8, 2011, I will mark 23 years of sobriety. Yes, I am an alcoholic. Certainly the word must evoke all sorts of images from the drunken lout at the office Christmas party to the lost soul out on the street sleeping on a grate to keep warm during the winter. Reflecting on my own acquaintance with various parts of the spectrum of extremist behaviour, I can say, "Been there, done that" and I can add that I have a great deal of both compassion and respect for those who fight the good fight.

If you are not an alcoholic, if you have never had an addiction, I don't congratulate you per se, I tell you that you are lucky and have good fortune. In the same way I don't congratulate somebody for not having a disease; I will not congratulate you for not being sick. Not being sick is good; not being sick is good luck. Yes, we could have that age old debate about will power, fortitude and what not but I would tell you that nobody, absolutely nobody ends up in trouble because they started out with the idea of going over the line. I will leave it up to the experts to dissect the brain, point out the anomalies in the cerebral cortex and map out exactly which neurons have misfired causing the unbridled desire for whatever the addiction is based on. All I know is that it's there; it's real and it needs to be dealt with.

Now that I've spoken about compassion; let me tell you about reality. When I started dating my future wife, I told her about my alcoholism. She accepted it as I had been sober for quite some time. That was a stable part of my life. But I also gave her some advice: if I ever started to drink, she should throw me out immediately. Take no B.S.; waste no time. Do not hesitate; escape and save yourself immediately. People ofttimes say in A.A. that they know they have another drunk in them but they are not sure they have another chance to get sober. The danger is that if anybody goes out the door; they may never come back in. That is a realistic testimony of just how big a problem this really is.

I add to that my own particular sense of harshness which may be construed as cruelty and a lack of understanding for my fellow alcoholic. I will not put up with a drunk in any shape or form. Get pissed; I'm kicking your butt to the curb. I have no patience for the rambling, disconnected, nonsensical wanderings of a mind under the influence. While I must admit to thoroughly taking pleasure in those who tipple and become enjoyably pixilated, enjoyable for me in the sense they lose some of their inhibitions, there is a line one crosses where it is no longer any fun for the audience. I'm walking out on the show. By the way, some people are pleasant drunks. I wasn't one of them.

Why drink?
Here's an old joke:

Man: Why do you drink?
Drunk: I drink to forget.
Man: What are you trying to forget?
Drunk: I can't remember.

There is no valid reason on God's green Earth which can justify drinking... well, the type of drinking I'm discussing here. I'm not talking about a glass of wine with dinner or sharing a bottle during an evening of good conversation. I'm talking about the drinking one does when one is alone and alone doesn't necessarily mean just being in a room all by yourself. It is more a question of you drinking your own way, your own quantity regardless of what others around you are doing.

Am I a teetotaller advocate?
Not in the least bit. My wife drinks, members of the family drink; our friends drink. I serve alcohol; I go to the liquor store to purchase alcohol; I'm pretty handy with a corkscrew and knowledgeably decant a wine to let it breathe. I just don't imbibe. That's it, end of story.

When I grew up, my father, a professional man, and my mother would host neighbourhood parties where other professionals would come for an evening of socializing. (see my blog Being an adult: When do I become one?) The purpose of the party was to socialize not necessarily drink. Oh yes, alcohol was served but that wasn't the point. Once I was a teenager, I began to bartend at these soirées and I know from experience that when somebody showed up to ask for a drink, the word drink did not always mean something alcoholic. People would drink pop, fruit juices and sometimes even just plain water. The point was that nobody ever raised an eyebrow and looked askance at anybody who was not drinking something alcoholic.

Of course, as a teenager I did go to parties, teenage parties where the point of the evening was pretty much to get so smashed you couldn't walk straight. There the point wasn't necessarily socializing; it was more one of those male rite of passage binge fests. In comparing the two types of evenings, I learned that an evening of socializing did not necessarily involve alcohol: conversation mandatory, alcohol optional.

I mention this for 2 reasons or should I say for 2 people. The point of an evening is to socialize. To the person who wants everybody else to drink with them: bugger off. Everybody has the right to drink whatever they want, alcoholic or non alcoholic. To the person deciding what to drink: you have the right to choose what you want and should be totally comfortable with your choice without any pressure. I am only forcing a good time on you, not a double shot of rye laced with Grand Marnier.

The Stats
According to a 2002 survey conducted by the U. S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are 18 million American adults who abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent which works out to be approximately 6% of the population. In Canada, the 2002 Canadian Community Health Survey reported 2.6% of the population with an alcohol addiction.

I quote from the Century Council, an American non-profit organization funded by a group of alcohol manufacturers:

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  (NHTSA) 37,261 people died in traffic crashes in 2008 in the United States (latest figures available), including an estimated 11,773 people who died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. Drunk driving fatalities accounted for 32% of all traffic deaths last year, that is, on average someone is killed in an alcohol-impaired driving crash every 45 minutes in the U.S. (Source: NHTSA/FARS, 2009)

The following statistics, although U.S. statistics, show a "staggering" problem in our society.
  • Alcoholism statistics tell us that about 43% of US adults or 76 million people have been exposed to alcohol dependence in the family. They grew up with or married a compulsive drinker or had a blood relative who was a problem drinker.
  • More than nine million children live with a parent dependent on alcohol.
  • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is the leading known cause of mental retardation – and the most preventable of all birth defects.
  • Alcoholism statistics tell us that between 700,000 to two million Americans receive alcohol dependency treatment on any given day.
  • Alcohol contributes to 100,000 deaths annually, making it the third leading cause of preventable mortality in the US.
Personal Story
Alcoholism has an effect on everybody around the person suffering from it. This is especially true for a family. I have a member of my own family who, I suppose, could be classified as a "functional alcoholic"; he always seems to make it to work. Nevertheless, his wife has divorced him; his children are now estranged from him and he says that they don't respect him. Well, d'uh. Unfortunately, somebody who is a practising alcoholic - practising? Ah, will he ever get it right? - is incapable of recognizing who's at fault in these situations. Oh, somebody is upset with you? They can't see what a great guy you are? Gosh, could this have anything to do with you showing up from work last night for dinner pissed to the gills? Could this be because you drank too much at the party on the weekend and thoroughly embarrassed your entire family in front of the neighbourhood? Nah, it couldn't be that.

Miss Right
I heard this true but quite funny story from a gentleman who was talking about wanting to meet a woman and settle down. He never could seem to find Miss Right; it just never seemed to work out. Finally, in coming to grips with his alcoholism, he realized, "I never could find Miss Right until I discovered I was Mr. Wrong."

Alcoholic Thinking
Rationalization? Justification? Lying? Paranoid? People can be stone cold sober and still manifest all of these irrational behaviours. Just because somebody is sober at this particular moment doesn't necessarily mean they have managed to divest themselves of alcoholic thinking. Nevertheless, step number one was, is and shall always remain to stop drinking. If you haven't stopped drinking, you are not going anywhere; you are not going to get better; you are never going to climb out of the hole.

When I first started going to A.A., my sponsor always said to me, "Don't drink." I would want to talk about some problem and he would reply, "Don't drink." He said this so much I would get ticked off with him. What about school? What about my job? What about my girlfriend? He would patiently listen to me mouth off about gawd only knows what then say, "Don't drink." Go to hell.

I realize now that he was right. They talk about "getting it out of your system" whether it is alcohol or drugs. Physically getting it out of your system is one thing; getting it out of your thinking is another. That may take a long time however there is absolutely no way anybody and I mean anybody can start to get better if they continue to drink.

You have to want to do it
You don't force somebody to sober up. You don't drag somebody to A.A. They must go of their own volition; they have to want to go. They must recognize their problem and they must make the decision to do something about it.

I heard a man talk at a meeting and he explained that at that point, he had gone to an A. A. meeting twice a day for two years, twice a day 730 days in a row. I was stunned. That is unbelievable determination. I know anybody reading this who isn't an alcoholic is going to have a raised eyebrow but I assure you, when you get bitten the bug, when the obsession takes over you, you can't think about anything else. 24 by 7, your every waking moment can be taken up with obsessing about your obsession. I found this story incredible as it indicated just how determined this guy was to break the cycle, to wrestle his demon to the ground.

For any of you non alcoholics who can't quite grasp the idea of obsession, take a look out the window at work on a cold, rainy day. Yes, it's raining and it's that damp cold which gets right into your bones but there you are looking outside from a nice, warm, comfortable room. See those smokers standing huddled by the door, one hand holding their coats tightly around their necks, maybe holding an umbrella? [smiles] Do I need to say anything else?

You live with an alcoholic
I'm sorry. I truly am. The difficulties of living with this day after day can actually render the sane people around an alcoholic a little wacky too. Reality becomes altered and for you, what's crazy sort of becomes normal.

Seek help; Al-Anon. However, I am going to say something which will probably upset some people. Depending on just what your circumstances are and how bad they may be; my advice to you would be to get out and save yourself. We're all going through life once. We can go kicking and screaming but we're going through this once.

Save yourself. Live your life. You are not going to get gold star at the Pearly Gates for living in "hell". Febreeze can only mask so much bulls**t before you need to clean out the manure and get some fresh air. If somebody stumbles and falls, I will help them up and if necessary, I will assist them in walking. But if that person falls and refuses to get up, I can't carry them. I will have to leave them as I must, yes I must carry on for my own sake. This may be a little harsh, maybe even cruel in some people's eyes but at the end of the day, you can only do so much for somebody. At some point, they have to do something for themselves.

Hitting Bottom
I'm sure you've heard this expression. It is the event, however dramatic, tragic or just plain bad which opens the eyes of somebody and makes them see the light, makes them realize they have gone too far. They have gone over the line, drawn a new line then gone over it. In my blog entry The Extremist in All of Us I jokingly bring up my personal saying, All the way is not far enough.

For me, it was being fired from a job. Now I wasn't fired for drinking on the job or something, I was fired because I rebelled against my boss and he had no choice but to deal quickly with this revolt against his authority. I now realize that alcoholic thinking had muddled my brain and if I had been thinking clearly, I would have dealt with the situation in a less confrontational way which would have probably saved face for my boss and left me with a job.

Nevertheless, that was my hitting bottom moment. I have never taken a drink since and God willing, I never will again. Oh and by the way everything actually worked out for the best. Everybody in my department ended up getting a raise as my rebellion actually influenced my former boss to reassess what I had been rebelling against. So it turned out that me getting canned was a win-win situation: my colleagues got more money; I got sober.

Oh, a little word of warning here. That sponsor who kept telling me not to drink? Quitting drinking is the start to a new life, a normal life. However, any life has an assortment of problems with which we all have to deal and that is just "normal". Remember: not drinking will not pay your taxes; not drinking will not automatically make your spouse love you; not drinking will not cause your children to immediately stop hating you. Trust must be earned, love must be won and taxes must be paid. Not drinking though will make things a whole lot easier. For one thing, you are going to have a heck of lot more time to devote to solving these problems, time wasted while you were half in the bag!

To the alcoholic
Life is tough? Ya got it bad? Well, bulls**t; you are not getting any sympathy from me. It is time to put things in perspective.

I know a guy who at the age of 50 lost the functioning of both his kidneys, did dialysis for 3 years, ended up with peripheral neuropathy, finally got a kidney transplant from his wife but now has to deal with a more limited quality of life. (see my blog I met a man who had no feet).

Jacqueline Saburido, a 21 year old girl from Venezuela studying in the United States in 1999 was in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. The car caught on fire and she couldn't get out. She suffered burns over 60% of her body. She lost her ears, her nose, one eye, her fingers and was disfigured to the point where it is almost nauseating to see a picture of her. (see my blog Poor Me)

Hey, don't forget who you're talking to. I know all about rationalization, justification, the poor me syndrome to explain all my ills to the world. Stop and smell the coffee. You think it can't get any worse? Oh yes it can! Worried about your shoes? You could end up with no feet!

I have personally wasted years, yes years of my life. Guess what? You can never get that time back. Gone forever, out the window, lost in the wind. Don't make the biggest mistake of your life by actually losing your life. There's only one which comes with the model; don't waste it. (see my blog entry The Start of the 4th Quarter)

I met a man once who was going to be dead within 6 months. He had apparently drank a bottle of rye every day for 40 years. - Hmmm, it's always surprising to find out just what the human body can actually put up with. - He fell into the category of a functional alcoholic. Yes, it is possible to drink that much every day and still function.

At the moment I met him, he had advanced cirrhosis of the liver and his skin was actually yellow. Here he was at the last stage of his life attempting to quit drinking. I heard his story and realized he had blown it. He had carried on for years and had squandered the most precious of gifts, his own life. He had abused it; he had wasted it and now, he had nothing to show for it. Anybody would probably look down on him for his alcoholism, for his stupidity, etc. but in talking with him, I am convinced he knew all too well what he had done. After all, he was going to pay for it with his life.

Don't waste one minute. You may look forward and think you still have lots of time but there will come a time when you look back and you'll be asking yourself just where did the time go to?

One day at a time
I'm not asking you to stay sober for the rest of your life; I am only asking you to stay sober for today. Seem odd?

I was talking about this pithy saying with a non alcoholic the other week. I explained just what the saying actually meant; its meaning being so obvious that once you understand it, you have to laugh at its simplicity and how anything else is absurd.

Today is now; today is the moment we are currently living. Tomorrow is not yet here and yesterday is already gone. So, I set out a goal for myself to remain sober for today. I'm not going to worry about tomorrow; I'm not going to think about what I'm going to do next week, I am merely going to concentrate on today. When tomorrow comes, it will then be "today" so I can try doing the same thing one day at a time.

This seems so self-evident I am still somewhat surprised I could miss it. When I think about it, it is so simple, so easy to follow, how could I do otherwise?

Anybody in project management would recognize this as breaking down a large project into smaller more manageable tasks. Instead of being overwhelmed with the "huge" and possibly finding oneself not knowing where to begin, one breaks down the huge into smaller chunks. Now one can deal with an individual small chunk which is easier to handle.

This idea is certainly not just applicable to being sober. This idea can be applied to life right across the board. You don't have to do it for the rest of your life, for the rest of the year or even a week; you only have to do it one day at a time.

So, what do I get with sobriety?
At the age of 30, I parked cars at the Sutton Place Hotel in downtown Toronto. Think about that for a sec. I was parking cars for $4.00 an hour. At the age of 30, I should have been an accountant, a doctor, a dentist or a manager. Anybody want to make the sign? Okay, I'll go first [I hold my hand up to my forehead with the thumb horizontal and my index finger sticking up to form the letter L]. Loser.

"And they all moved away from me on the Group W bench." (Alice's Restaurant - Arlo Gutherie)

I quit drinking at the age of 36. I am now 58. I won't go into details, but I have worked very hard over the past 20 years. I have also been very lucky. The result of all this is I find myself in a favourable position in life despite... well, despite my mistakes... Ha! despite myself. Nevertheless, I will always have to look in the mirror and face up to the truth. Everyday will be a reminder of what was and what should have been. You don't have to tell me; nobody has to remind me. That mirror is there every single day.

Final Word
If you're not an alcoholic, good for you. If you are an alcoholic, contact somebody. But contact them before you drink. If you drink then call, I for one ain't picking up the phone!

I grew up in a family of smokers where smoking was considered the norm and a right. - My mother died of lung cancer. - I have managed to live to the day where smoking is now banned. I grew up in an era where drinking was very much the norm and have lived to a point where there is more attention than ever to addictions. The fight is not over as let's face it, the majority of people drink without becoming alcoholics. The majority gamble (periodically) without becoming addicted. And yes, some do experiment with drugs without becoming crack heads. - I am certainly NOT recommending anybody try drugs!!!

Do keep in mind though, addiction is subtle, it is insidious and when it takes hold of you, there ain't nuttin' which is going to stop that freight train. Why would Robert Downey Jr. risk everything including the possibility of losing his career? Imagine that right in the middle of starring in the television series Ally McBeal for which he was nominated for an Emmy in 2001, he gets fired and is written out of the show because he gets arrested for drugs not once but twice! That's just plain nuts.

Think about these famous people who have all spent time in rehab: Betty Ford, Mel Gibson, Johnny Cash, John Daly, Rush Limbaugh, George C. Scott, Elizabeth Taylor, Joe Namath, Nicole Richie, Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Elton John, and Dick Cheney. Having read recently Stephen King's memoir, I can add this famous author's name to the list. His own family and friends had to stage an intervention to convince him to get help!

You are not alone. We are not alone. Help is there; you just have to want it. Ask for it and any number of people will help you stand up and walk. Do it for yourself. And when you do it for yourself, you'll be doing it for everybody else: your spouse, your children, your family and your friends... one day at a time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must get ready for tonight's dinner with some acquaintances. Apparently there's a nicely chilled Chardonnay from Peller Estates paired with a pasta and shrimp dish. A white always goes well with fish. Oh yeah, I, of course, will be having Perrier.


Wikipedia: Alcoholism

Canadian Parliamentary Information: Substance Abuse in Canada

Alcoholism: Statistics
These statistics are staggering.

Health Canada: Drug and Alcohol Use Statistics

The Century Council: Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities

Wikipedia: Alcoholics Anonymous

Canada: Alcoholics Anonymous

A. A. World Services


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