Recovery & Stigma​

I am a recovering alcoholic living with depression, generalized anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is not news, but it has been a long time since I have written directly on the topic so I thought I would refresh your memory. My sobriety date is February 11, 2014, and I am without relapse, slip, or any other reference to the use of mind-altering drugs. I lead a fulfilling life with a loving family and a fellowship of people I would do most anything for. I am honest, dependable, thoughtful, compassionate, and spend most of my time of service to others in psychiatric wards, detox centers, an Alzheimer clinic, and as a mentor to a freshman in high school. I am proud of myself and my life, and I wonder how many people can get past the first sentence of this paragraph…

I am not here to defend addicts, and I own my alcoholism well. I do not shift blame to others, I do not play the victim, and my actions in the past are mine alone. I am also not looking for leniency or any other special treatment; I am here to give clarity concerning myself and people like me.

When I finally decided to get sober, I was somewhat shocked at how many people had no idea that I was in need of such a drastic overhaul. Granted people like myself often specialize in secrecy and at times work tirelessly to cover up the extent of our addiction, but to be genuinely shocked that I am an alcoholic took me by total surprise. I hear the same from other men and women every day; their spouse, boss, friends, none had any idea they had gotten so bad. And now we are all together admitting our past and hoping to recover, hoping to earn the trust of those we love and trying to cope with this world without any form of escape.

In many ways I got along pretty well in the world during my life; I was a miserable, dishonest character playing myself but all in all, I looked pretty good on paper. I was hired by well-run companies and organizations and had long-term relationships with women. My life on the outside never seemed as bad as it felt on the inside and of course that was by design; I didn’t want you to see me for who I was because I hated myself and further if you saw me as I really was I would have to admit the truth, I would have to agree this was all real. To admit my mistakes and character flaws were out of the question. I had built up so many defenses throughout my life, and though I had no idea who I was protecting, I was going to protect it to the gates of hell. To the gates I went, and all of my defenses shattered around me, leaving a confused, hurt, ashamed man; my true self as it was at that moment.

My past life is not littered with prison stays, violent behavior, dramatic meltdowns, or any other behavior often mistakenly associated with addicts and people suffering from mental illness. My past is a mixture of insecurity, dishonesty, selfishness, self-centeredness, ego, self-pity, pride, etcetera. My story isn’t fascinating either, at least not to someone who is eager to hear about wild nights, cops, violence, or the like. My point is that my life is not unique, neither astonishing nor deplorable, it is a life. But my life comes with an asterisk at times; I am a walking warning sign, and I entirely understand and accept this. But I am a warning sign because of things I have admitted openly and honestly – my character has been poured over to reach a level of comfort in life I never thought possible. I go through old wounds to find new answers, to find my way to a new life. My life is a work in progress; everyone is either a work in progress or stagnant – nobody is finished. I could have continued fooling some people, continued living a lie and gotten away with almost all of my behavior. I could have continued to live a life that wasn’t mine, but I no longer wanted to, the misery had grown too great, the hurt to others had become too clear, and my distance from humanity was too much to bear.  It was time to admit the truth. It was finally time to do the work, and the work is extensive, and at times it is painful, but it is authentic.

I wonder how rare this type of work is; I wonder how many walking warning signs I pass each day who do not have a problem with alcohol but have problems they still do not dare look at. I see so much jealousy, judgment, violence, dishonesty, and selfishness each day – I wonder if these people have faced their inner demons; I have faced my devil and I know him well – do you know your devil?

I wonder how many of them would sit with another and admit that they are angry, that they feel inadequate, that they hate their job. How many people have to put on a strong face before walking out the door? How many masks does a “normal” person have stowed away in their closet? My secret is out of the bag because I let it out; I wonder if anyone else has one or if it is just us addicts who should be so ashamed.

A therapist once told me that anyone can be in recovery, everyone has things they do not wish to admit about themselves and issues which are holding their life back. Anyone can sit and acknowledge that they are too greedy, angry, impatient, judgmental, overbearing, co-dependent, full of lust, high-tempered, quick-fused, insecure, pretentious, and on the list of flaws can go. But at what price does the admission of these faults come? How embarrassing is it to tell someone that you aren’t perfect? How low does a person have to go until they are able to admit they can improve themselves? For me I have paid hardly anything, and I have received a life without shame, regret, or fear.

And perhaps this is the answer; Perhaps the fastest way to improvement is the complete annihilation of self, something few people have to experience. My addiction has brought out qualities that others see as admirable, others are drawn to me almost magnetically, and this goes for the others I sit with as well. I sit in church basements along some of the warmest, intelligent, charming, and thoughtful people I have ever met. I know many of their faults, and none of these are embarrassing to hear, though for a time they are difficult to admit. I wonder how different people would feel if they could sit and talk to others about their fears, regrets, and flaws and do it all without fear of judgment.

If the non-addict who is riddled with anxiety and insecurity could tell someone how they felt instead of pretending it wasn’t there wouldn’t they feel a sense of freedom? Yet this freedom is in part denied to many for fear of judgment, criticism, and condescension. Where are all of the “listeners?” Being vulnerable enough to share your struggle is a sign of strength; however, others have used it to admonish those as weak-willed and unreliable. What motivates us to demean those who seek help yet reward those who pretend they have no struggle? There is a struggle behind each person’s front door, and still, we see strength in those who sit in judgment and disgust for others! We watch a lie unfold, an act of undeserved superiority, and we accept it because most of us are hiding too.

But I am not here to try and convince others. I cannot will someone to change, to want to rid themselves of their character flaws, to risk a little embarrassment for a wealth of freedom. I have learned that one does not need to go to the gates of hell to work on their flaws and become a better person; it is something I do each day without the pressure of anyone pushing me to change. The feeling that others have that their life is not working, that they aren’t happy, successful, or worthy – this feeling does not need to persist if they would only be honest. I had the fortune of being cornered, and for most it takes that kind of pressure to want to change, to want to become a better person.

Today, however, I can at least give the advice that life does not need to be lived in secrecy. That living a life that is not fulfilling only for appearances is never worth it. That changing your outlook each day does not always mean a radical overhaul of your beliefs. You do not need to identify as anything, you are in recovery from whatever it is that ails you. We recover from pain by facing the challenge, admitting our part and taking action to improve the situation. The more we avoid and deny our shortcomings the more we fall into unhappiness; it is the very thing we set out to avoid which causes the most pain and is the reason for our insecurity and lack of confidence. Avoiding our flaws is a hopeless and meaningless gesture – sooner or later the lock will break, and these secrets will come out. When our hidden life busts down the door it is never worth the years we kept up appearances; these things can be dealt with today and freedom of self would follow.

But I am not a preacher or a mind-reader. Perhaps most people are happy, joyous, and free. Maybe I am one of the very few in this world who needed to improve; perhaps I am the only warning sign on the block. Maybe people go to bed happy and wake up happy – perhaps the use of alcohol by “normal” people is really just for fun and never to cope with the struggle of daily life. Maybe I am wrong on all accounts, and I should admit that us addicts are so different from everyone else and that I am only now understanding what the rest of you already knew. But I wonder why so many are drawn to us, why our candor and compassion seem to take others by surprise. I wonder why people come to me for help and advice when there is a long list of others without my warning sign available.

In all of my questioning, the only thing I actually wonder is if people realize that at any moment they can improve themselves, find broader and stronger happiness, and do it all without embarrassment or shame. I share with you my flaws so that you feel comfortable in feeling your own. It is none of my business how clean your side of the street is, but it doesn’t mean I cannot look across and see the piles of wreckage and pain. It also doesn’t mean that I am judging you, I only want to give you proof that life is never beyond redemption; I am your proof and it is never done without help and never in silence.

Experience has taught me that to make an impact on this world I must truthful in my actions. I must lead by example and show that my actions are the reason for my freedom. When you get to know me, when you see my work with others, the words recovering alcoholic and mental illness begin to drift further from the mind, meaning less and less over time. I will be open with you so that you may be open to yourself; we all have to start somewhere.