In the Weeds: 6/24/2014

“You have a choice. You can’t do this alone. You need a sponsor. Only you can decide not to drink and/or abuse drugs. You have control of your life. Addiction is a disease. You must have a support group. You must have a sponsor. You must not tempt yourself with the presence of alcohol. You have to do the twelve steps to be sober. Give up all financial means to buy alcohol.”

During my first honest and sincere attempt at total sobriety, all this advice swirled in my head in melody of confusion. How could I be the only one to choose not to drink but not be able to do it by myself? If Jesus is the answer to all my addiction problems, then why on earth did he turn water into wine for his first miracle for people who had been drinking for days? Why twelve steps? Why not one? During my visits to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was dumfounded by the swirl of emotions in the people around me. Why did they all identify themselves as alcoholics?

My doctors called it a hereditary disease. My Reverend Father called it a trick of the devil. My Mom didn’t call it anything. My wife threatened, in no uncertain terms, to leave with our son. The people in AA chain smoked cigarettes, drank gallons of coffee and scarfed free doughnuts until I worried they would die from obesity, lung cancer, anxiety and nicotine overdose all at the same time.

A very good friend of mine, a recovered alcoholic, a term that is shunned by most circles of addicts, told me once that it was difficult to shed one addiction without adopting another. Which would I rather die from? Bourbon or doughnuts? Lung cancer or liver failure?

I grew up in coal country, in deep Appalachia, where coal mining was a way of life, along with church, picnics, pig roasts, sorghum squeezing, moonshine and food. Our lives revolved around food. We appreciated what we had. Saying grace before eating had real meaning during my early years, when every meal was shared as a family. We were not allowed to eat in our rooms, or in front of the television, which we didn’t have anyway. I learned to cook early, following my grandmothers, aunts and mom around the kitchen as soon as I could walk – placed strategically on a counter top nearby before I became mobile enough to move about on my own.

Poverty is all too often wrapped in a package that includes drug and alcohol abuse, particularly alcohol. Men would imbibe often in secret, or with one another in the background, outside of churches where preachers shouted hellfire and redemption and trials and tribulations from the pulpit in the stifling summer heat as people fanned themselves and jockeyed for a seat on the front row.

I’d seen more than my share of the effects of coal mining and alcoholism on families. I’d passed the men in Grundy, Virginia who had been crushed in mining accidents yet somehow lived, maimed and crippled, walking with short canes to support the remnants of a life lived too hard. I’d heard of the knife fights, shootings and seen the deadly toll that alcohol had on families, with children passed from family to family as their parents sorted out their inability to control their finances in the up and down cycles which are a way of life in mining.

I’d seen the men come around to collect their money for moonshine, not at my house, but at other places. Unexpected places. A country store that still took script for cash. A fueling station that doubled as a place to gamble, if you wanted. I always thought that drinking would be like making a deal with these men – give me my poison and I will give you my life.

Years later, I found that it was exactly like that, but alcoholism takes much more than that from you. First, you lose your freedom. You can’t travel, go on surprise vacations, or venture too far from your known sources. You begin to lose friends, as you isolate yourself to protect your addiction. You lose money: Cash, then credit cards, then savings, money for clothes, gifts, travel, retirement possessions to sell for more alcohol. Then the unthinkable – you begin to use your loved ones for money. You take all they will give under various pretenses. Then you lose your reputation, your ability to work, find and keep steady employment. You start to lose your family. Your parents distance you as you become more of a liability and embarrassment. You damage your credit with unpaid bills. You frequent different liquor stores in hopes that the clerks won’t recognize you. You lose the respect of your significant other, then their trust and slowly, their ability to love you as you are. You lose time. Days, weeks, months and even years can pass in a haze of half-forgotten events as you teeter on the edge of control, existing from hangover to hangover in a drunken stupor.

Finally, you lose your health. The one thing you take most for granted fails. Your body and brain can no longer take the poison that is now keeping you alive. At this point, if you are very, very lucky, like I was, you will have some family, friends and loved ones around that still feel you are worth saving. That there is hope. The advice pouring in from every source in the beginning of this journey into sobriety was true: You can’t stop alone. You need care, medical help and people to give you reason to endure the pain of the first months of sobriety. Conversely, you are also the only one that can help yourself. You have to first want to be sober. Then you have to do it.

There will be a day when a recovering addict can no longer be defined by their past, but by the present a future. That is my hope – what kept me going, what drove me to work in a professional kitchen, what made me care once again, not only about the big things, but about the moments. The first shift you can stand proud for what you’ve accomplished. The beginnings of real smiles and emotions on the faces of your loved ones. The freedom to reinvent yourself as a new person, someone not beholden to regular meetings or your drug of choice.

Is it Jesus, yourself, other people or a choice? I think it is a combination.

In the Weeds, indeed.

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