It Bears Repeating

I have been accused of not being a real alcoholic.

Real alcoholics pass out in bathrooms. Real alcoholics lose their jobs. Real alcoholics destroy their marriages. Real alcoholics drink all day long every day without ceasing. Real alcoholics drink at work. Real alcoholics can't freely make the choice to quit. Real alcoholics have rock bottoms that sit next door to death.

The intimation is that my alcoholism doesn't look like chronic severe alcoholism, which actually constitutes, by some measures, only 9% of those considered to be alcoholics. There are those who consider anything less to be hardly of any note. The hardcore alcoholic has it worse, so I have no right to talk about what I know.

This all reminds me of when I had a breakdown about three years ago after suffering through an abusive job for a few years and going through a hysterectomy due to cervical cancer and watching the Palinode suffer with severe pain and a broken back. Something in me fractured after all of that, and I could barely leave the house. When the Palinode came home from work, he would often walk all over the apartment calling my name because he was unable to see me under all the blankets I used to conceal myself. I was certain that my heart would simply stop in my chest one day soon and allow me to die. I felt like an ailing plant sick from diseased soil.

I made it out to drink, of course. I would bathe and plaster on a smile, knowing that I only had to work at it for about an hour before I was drunk enough to numb out the pain and soldier on. On a couple of those occasions, a particular friend leaned over and said "You're not doing that bad, you know. I've seen worse. You're not in the hospital. You're okay."

Having had friends who did things like drive their cars off overpasses without having ever once been hospitalized, I knew full well that his measuring stick didn't work, and his words immediately made me feel sick. I felt erased. When was I going to be ill enough to get better?

Something switched over in my head, though, when that friend told me that the breakdown that had me unable to eat or sleep or think or breathe or work properly was really nothing. Something changed, because I knew for once that he was wrong, and that the only person who could know my heart and mind and was ME. I knew that I was ill no matter what he thought it looked like from the outside.

My general view of humanity was a little more worse for wear, but faith in myself began to put down roots.

I took and adapted two lessons from my friend's comment about my breakdown which later became invaluable in getting me to acknowledge and deal with my alcoholism:
  1. Don't leave it up to anyone else, not even a professional, to tell you whether your breakdown or addiction or heartbreak is a mountain or a molehill. No one lives in your heart and mind with you. It's a mountain, because it's YOUR mountain.

  2. Don't fall into the trap of comparing your breakdown or addiction or heartbreak to the worst case scenarios you've seen in life or on television. It is never true that everyone is doing just fine right up until the second that they find themselves sleeping behind a dumpster. They were ill well before that scenario.

At my worst, I've been the drunk driver. I've hidden liquor under my bed just to find the will to wake up again. I've crapped my own pants at work after a long night out. I've plotted my suicide with the belief that life could only ever be what it was at the time. I've forced myself to throw up my last drinks in a vain effort to hide my lack of control. I've cried and fought with myself and burned with shame and truly believed that the Palinode would be better off without my malignant existence.

Even at my worst, though, measuring myself against worst case scenarios and trying to believe the people who told me I was really doing alright kept me from admitting to my alcoholism for over a decade. I didn't want to know the truth of the matter, and it was easier to believe that, as long as I wasn't one of those people, I wasn't that bad off. At least I wasn't that guy grubbing through cigarette butts in the planter, right?

Last August, though, I put aside what other people said and worst case scenarios, I grabbed a hold of what clarity and courage I could muster, and I saw a long-time alcoholic. I saw someone who ordered most of her life around getting drunk and ordered what was left over around hiding that fact. I saw someone who had been very sick and very sad for a long time who was becoming increasingly suicidal. I didn't have to look like that guy passed out in a pool of his own urine to be that person, either.

When people tell you that your breakdown or addiction or heartbreak is not what you know it to be, that you are not suffering in the way the you know you are, they don't usually mean to be dismissive or enabling. They are often in denial of their own suffering, and if they admit to yours, then they just might have to admit to their own. That's tough to ask of anyone.

This is why it is up to you to believe in what you know. Believe yourself. Believe your own voice. If your heart and your mind tell you that you are sick, you are sick, whether you are hiding behind a dumpster in an alley or under a pile of blankets in a corner of the living room.

I have been accused of not being a real alcoholic, and there was a time when I would have believed that, but, thankfully, I no longer do, and this faith in my own voice is what has afforded me the ability to choose to save my own life.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: What does alcoholism look like? Sometimes it looks like me.

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Grace in Small Things: Sunday Edition #63