Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A loud hurrah for a sober Stew

Of all the suffering connected with alcoholism, the secrecy and the loneliness have to be the most painful. There are many people, I'm sure, for whom drinking is a harmless way to celebrate friendship and family, to mark life's landmarks, to share a joy. Not for an alcoholic, whose life becomes ever more circumscribed and isolated with every round of wine, beer, liquor or whatever his poison of choice.

Treatment professionals have assiduously labored to destigmatize alcoholism by labeling it a psychological or physiological disorder, perhaps lurking in a family's genes, rather than a moral flaw. But even recast as a disease rather than a sin, it's not one you want to talk about with friends over coffee. People may complain about rheumatism and migraines but not about incontinence or not being able to stop drinking once alcohol touches their lips. It's shameful. Normal people should be able hold their bowels as well as their booze.

The anniversary boy. 
You might mention how long ago your cancer went into remission or disappeared altogether but the length of your sobriety, measured in the number of years—or months or days—is not something that's easily shared except to others similarly affected or at an AA meeting. For one thing you're never really cured of alcoholism or drug addiction but merely learn to control it, to keep it at arm's length more or less easily depending on your own history.

Indeed "falling off the wagon" is an apt metaphor: One day you're riding along carefree and the next you're back on your ass in the mud again. Look at a megastar like Philip Seymour Hoffman who quit drinkin' and druggin' at age 22 only to relapse and die from his multiple addictions twenty-four years later. But the fragility of one's recovery has nothing to do with fame. Through my own travels through AA—I stopped drinking seven months after Stew—I've met many Joe Nobodies who have proudly announced their years or decades of sobriety only to run into them staggering down the street a few days later. If there's one thing you learn in AA is not to brag.

That mixture of shame and fear of relapse keeps recovering alcoholics from making too much of their anniversaries to non-alcoholic friends or strangers. To announce your years of sobriety at a table full of people probably will bring polite applause and congratulations but also some uncomfortable fidgeting—do we need to hear this?—particularly if one of your friends is secretly grappling with his own problem.

In this posting I'm violating all those taboos and perhaps even Stew's privacy. I want to congratulate him on thirty years of sobriety, almost half his life. He quit drinking on February 1, 1984. Well done, love.

Typically, he didn't mention his anniversary until two weeks afterward and then only casually.

Like most recovering substance abusers, Stew's sobriety was no epiphany but a series of fumbles and stumbles. He was in a thirty-day treatment program in 1983 but walked out after a week and resumed drinking. Back into treatment the following year, he made it through the entire thirty days after which he never drank again. I'm sorry to admit that my own continued drinking, even as Stew was trying to quit, may have contributed or prolonged his struggles.

Whatever. He quit drinking and eventually so did I. And if there's any one key to our staying together for forty-two years it's our continued sobriety.

So again congratulations Stew. To celebrate I will brew two hair-curling cups of espresso macchiato in our new coffee machine, right after you fix lunch.

Sorry, pal. Sober or not, I'm afraid you're still stuck with the cooking.

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