The Sober Person’s Perspective in a Drinking World

The Sober Person’s Perspective in a Drinking World

[This post is a continuation of this post: Drinking Is Not the Problem: It’s the Emotional Exit that Wrecks Relationships.]

I was going to Al-Anon as part of my healthy living strategy. Al-Anon’s do not have a substance addiction problem, we have an emotional addiction problem. As a drinker is addicted to drinking. An Al-anon is addicted to feeling the feelings. And sometimes, those feelings are unhealthy, unproductive, and can be, outright destructive. But we’re somehow led to believe that “feeling the feelings” is the height of mental health. That idea is old. That idea is wrong. And I’m going to show you that your feelings are not always real, and they are not always worth paying attention to.  Continues now…

Fuck the Feelings

As the sober person in a relationship with a drinker, you go through a lot of mental gymnastics trying to make sense of what is happening. Rationalizations. “If I do this, they will slow down their drinking,” you think. For me, it was all the damn time. I was happy, optimistic, and hopeful. Every night, the person came home and announced “Cocktail time!” I would join in for a beer or a hard cider. And our rejoining would begin. “How was your day? Tell me about it. Here’s what happened to me.”

As an Al-Anon, I was always a great listener. I was listening for the solution. I was listening for how to fix the drinker. Of course, I’ve learned, it’s not about them. It’s not even really about the drinking. The problem is about me. Yep, that’s the first lesson of Al-Anon.

The problem is not the drinker. The problem is my reaction to the drinker.

Okay, so as I sobered up from the emotional aftermath of losing a most-beautiful partner, who happened to drink, I began to hear the wisdom of the 12-step program. As an Al-Anon, we apply the same 12-steps, but they are not about staying sober, they are about remaining focused on our own shit, and keeping our judgment to ourselves. The drinker is not the problem. Our reaction to the drinker is the only thing we can control. It wasn’t that my partner had a drinking problem, it was that I had a problem with my partner’s drinking. Simple. Elegant. And hard as hell to believe, and harder still to practice in my own life.

She was not the problem. I was the problem.

How Feelings Are My Drug of Choice

I don’t think you can abuse feelings like you can abuse a substance. But I don’t think I’m any more sober than an actively-drinking alcoholic. I’m just addicted to something else. I feel the feels. Sometimes I get depressed and feel the feels to the point that I can’t function properly. When I’m actively seeking my own recovery I get help. I talk to a counselor. And when, if, things get really bad, I seek out medications that can help with the chemistry mix in my mind.

But it’s not the chemistry. And it’s not the drinker. It’s me. My focus on the feelings is the problem. I’m addicted to feelings. I’m addicted to drama, depression, manic-highs, and a whole range of other “heightened” emotional states. It’s what I learned. It’s how I escaped as a kid. I had several defense mechanisms as a child. As my dad drank and raged and yelled, I had a few ways to deal with the feelings of terror that welled up inside my 7-year-old body.

  • I could run outside and hide
  • I could detach my mind from my body and escape into some inner-world of blackness, silence, death, depression
  • I could drink/drug/run wildly into the night (of course, this option was not open until I was 15 or so)
  • I could try and address the screaming parent
  • I could die

This is the formula for depression in a child. As my dad had all the money in the world, my little family life was a living hell from the time I was about 3 or 4. As my dad drank and got violent, I got more detached. Or I got more hyper-focused on being the entertainer of the family. They call it the hero-child.

I did good in school from elementary grades on. I played sports. I courted the girls from 1st-grade on. And I tried everything I could to escape my life in the house or rage and whiskey. And I learned 2,000 ways to escape myself, escape my feelings, escape my depression. And some of that looked like a hyper-expressive kid with lots of energy and lots of ideas. A “flight of ideas” they call it in psychiatric terms. Or “delusions of grandeur.” I was certain that my behavior, in some magic way, was going to save my father from his alcoholism. That my magic tricks (I was a professional magician by 4th-grade.) or my touchdowns (I was a star Pop-Warner running back, from 2nd-grade on.)

But of course, none of my tricks and disappearing acts worked to diffuse or rescue my home life. The rest of my youth I spent trying in some way to rescue my father from his spiraling death dance with the bottle. He was not a pretty drunk. And he made it very hard to even contemplate a relationship between us. I remember being in 7th and 8th grade, and my dad would call me on the phone, drunk, and yell horrible things at me about how I didn’t love him.

My dad did not willingly sober up.

When I was 19 my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. The drugs they begin injecting into him made it impossible for him to continue drinking. It simply made him vomit. There was no escape for him, at least not through the bottle. His escape would only be provided by death. And he rushed, terrified, towards that fate, over the last 18 months of his life as he rose and fell between periods of remission and utter blackout sickness. The cancer was a bitch. And it took his life at the very young age of 55. But my dad was gone a lot earlier than that.

From the sober side of that relationship, it was my understanding that my father was not himself from the time I was about 10 (when the Cutty Sark flowed with a vengeance) to the moment when chemo sobered him up. It was a car crash of an abstinence program. And I’m sure the withdrawals were mixing with his chemo as he stumbled through his own personal darkness. He was dying and he knew it. He clung to life. But at the same time, he was madder than hell. He cursed his fate. He cursed his bad luck. He cursed the fact that he couldn’t drink, and his young wife could.

Over the course of my dad’s battle with cancer, we repaired our father/son relationship as best we could. There simply was not enough time. We missed each other. We longed for a better connection. We strived to understand one another. But he was facing the great wide maw of death. And his emotions were all over the map. He was still rageful, but at God. He was loving and gentle, perhaps, like he had been when I was a child. And for a good part of it, he was a dad who just wanted more time with his kids.

My two sisters moved back to Austin, Texas as my dad went into treatment for his cancer. We all rallied. He died anyway. And we were all devastated. But none as devastated as my father, who sat in his hospital bed and cursed and cried at god who was robbing him of the rest of his life.

In the end, my father, the most important man in my life, curled up in that hospital bed and became child-like and tiny. His body, when he died, weighed less than 80 pounds. As a fully-functional alcoholic, my dad weighed 250 pounds and had a huge potbelly. The little bird-of-a-man in the hospital bed still had the paunch, but he looked a lot like the starving Indians we see on the charitable-donation porn that’s on television just before Christmas.

I cried at his bedside every afternoon after my college classes let out. I stayed in the hospital, beside my dying bird-dad, until he finally flew away and escaped his tortured body and tortured life. But I’ve never forgotten the alcoholic trajectory that got us there. I’ll never forgive my dad for choosing the bottle over me. He did. He regretted it as he was dying and grasping to find his love for me, for us. And I’ll never forget the fear and anger in his eyes as the cancer finally took his ability to speak. He eyes in that hospital room with a breath-taking view of the University of Texas, where I was a drowning student, said everything.

  • God don’t let me die like this.
  • God, why have you forsaken me?
  • God, I love my kids, I love my life, I love my newly found Jesus Christ, why are you still killing me?
  • God, I’m not ready to die yet. Can you give me more time? Can you give me back my “good years” for a few more years?

I wasn’t there when my dad passed. His sister said it was peaceful. I cried that entire summer. I almost failed out of the university. And I hit a depressing low that could’ve killed me too.

I didn’t kill myself. I didn’t turn to alcohol, or cocaine, or fast cars. I struggled. But I struggled stone-cold-sober. And I’ve pretty much lived my life in a sober manner ever since. Sure, I did a stint with drinking and drugging in high school and early college. But as I continued to get healthier. As I climbed out of a debilitating depression back into the land of the living, I learned to manage my own recovery. I got involved with Al-Anon. And I sobered up from my emotional addiction. I’ve been in recovery ever since.

That’s my Father’s Day memory. A dying dad, a striving son, and our inability to form a healthy relationship. By the time we reconnected, I was 19 and he was dying. We did our best. I spent as much time with him as I could. And we cried together. And I rode in his golf cart as he golfed.

I forgive my father for his alcoholism. I don’t forgive alcoholism. And in my adult life, I can’t maintain a relationship (romantic or professional) with someone who drinks heavily. It’s not good for me. And I certainly can’t be in a relationship with a “drinker.” It won’t work out. I’ll just get depressed again trying to get them to stop drinking. It’s between me and my higher power. And I’m choosing sobriety in all my relationships. Even with god, I’m going to maintain a clarity that comes from drinking bubbly water rather than bubbly.

May you find your own path with or without alcohol. But be aware, alcoholism is a baffling and cunning disease.

[I love you, dad. And I miss you every day.]

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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