Sobriety and shame

Author revisits what made him drink—and stop drinking—almost a quarter century on

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This is my 24th year of sobriety. I don’t mention this as a boast, though I am proud to claim all those years without booze in my life. I bring up this subject because some people think that having had and then overcome a personal challenge is somehow a matter for shame. A few people with contrary political views, for instance, have tried to shame me with my alcoholism in response to things I’ve written. Those attempts to make a personal problem a matter of shame are, in and of themselves, shameful.

Because some people would use our failings or weaknesses to try to shame us, they perpetuate a culture of shame that can deter people from getting help, or from honestly addressing challenges that afflict them. The shame can prevent people from taking steps to get better and, in such instances, shame can be lethal.

It is difficult for me to fully remember how I was in those last days as a man enslaved by his self-destructive addiction to alcohol, a guy who only drank once a week, usually on Friday nights, that started as a wholly ineffectual way of treating depression and generally ended with time spent in the bleakest imaginable emotional landscapes. The hangovers and the shame had become unendurable, but like so many people who reach such a place, I didn’t want to admit I had a problem, didn’t want to apply the word “alcoholic” to myself. I only drank once a week, after all. Weren’t alcoholics people who drank their way through every waking moment? Weren’t they so dysfunctional that they couldn’t hold jobs? I wasn’t even remotely like them. I never missed a day’s work because of booze, so clearly I didn’t need to worry.

But the causes for concern were piling up, and I awoke to one particularly painful Saturday morning with the recognition that I had reached a crossroads. If I continued on the path I was on, I was assured of more miseries, more shame, and an increasing pattern of self-destructive behavior that would, most likely, cap itself off with my early death.

So, I sought help. A couple of tentative earlier visits to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous had failed to take hold, but the shame I felt on that bleak Saturday was so fierce that I took my problem to a rehab facility all the way over in Sonoma County. I didn’t want to show up and find myself in the company of people I knew here in Butte County, former students or teaching colleagues who would think badly of me for being less than the image I presented at work.

Just think about that for a moment. I was afraid fellow alcoholics would judge me harshly if it turned out I had the same problem they had. Such is the irrationality of shame.

I spent 19 days in that rehab facility. My insurance didn’t cover it, but I’d had some personal property stolen and the insurance payment on those stolen goods covered the cost of those days. That money was, without question, the best money I ever spent. One thing I learned, however, is that though rehab can make a critical difference for some people, providing discipline and structure to those who require that additional help, AA meetings cost whatever donation one can afford. Alcoholics Anonymous was critical in helping me maintain my commitment to sobriety once my rehab experience had set me on the road to recovery.

Those first few weeks of the rehab regimen revealed to me what a sorry state I was in. In addition to booze, I was addicted to tobacco. Each day in rehab began with an arduous hike in the hills above the Sonoma County vineyards. There were about two dozen people in my group, and in those early weeks, I was always lagging behind most of the others who were making valiant attempts to free themselves of their addictions. I, for one, surely didn’t feel valiant in those days. I felt pathetic.

During that period, I met a guy who was then the age I am now, an old veteran of World War II who had been newly sober for a week. He had previously been sober for 25 years, and he’d foolishly permitted himself to have a celebratory drink on the occasion of that significant milestone. Big mistake. Such is the disease of alcoholism that the progression of his addiction took up right where it had left off a quarter of a century earlier. As a consequence, he spent the following six months either drunk or hung over, in misery and shame. When he spoke to me, he said his only remaining ambition was to die sober.

I don’t know if he fulfilled that ambition, but I know the gift that guy gave me back when I couldn’t imagine being his age. Nor could I have imagined nearly a quarter of a century of sobriety. He taught me a great lesson about how “cunning, baffling and powerful” the disease of alcoholism can be. Thanks in part to him, I now can’t imagine the horror my life would have become had I tried to drink my way through the years since then.

Or the shame I would know had I tried and, against the odds, survived.