Alcoholism has many faces. It’s the homeless man who reeks of sweat, urine and beer. It’s the woman standing outside the grocery store or at the stop light begging for money. It’s the 45 year old male suffering from cirrhosis that refuses treatment because he won’t be able to drink in the hospital. It’s the mom at the soccer game who is embarrassing her kids by yelling and screaming at the coaches and can’t walk without stumbling. It’s the guy down the hall who beats his wife and children at about 10:00 pm every night because vodka makes him mean and that’s all he drinks.
We’ve all seen the commercials, the movies, the TV shows. We know what an alcoholic looks like. There are shows that spend a great deal of time, money and effort educating the public on various forms of addiction, what it looks like and what treatment options are available. We can speak the lingo – AA, Rehab, 12 Step Program, Big Book – it’s become part of the vernacular. We all rage against drunk drivers and beg for the punishments to be heavy handed.
Because we all know what an alcoholic looks like.
Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics. Both had trouble holding jobs. Both were violent when drinking. One quit when I was born, the other did not. My father was an alcoholic. My sister is an alcoholic. I grew up knowing first-hand what an alcoholic looked like and how they behaved. They were selfish, caring only about where their next drink was coming from. They were mean, and mouthy, and ugly. When and if they quit drinking, they were morose. If they attended 12 step meetings it was done under the cloak of darkness and anonymity. We were told not to speak of either the active alcoholic OR the recovering one. That subject was taboo.
They were ashamed and I learned to be ashamed for them.
So when I finally, after many years, realized that I had to quit drinking, I resisted the label alcoholic. After all, I didn’t look like any alcoholic I’d ever seen. I had a successful, well-paid, complicated career. I was in a long term marriage with a man with whom I was still desperately in love. I had six kids who were very successful in either school or work and were, by all accounts, happy and well adjusted. I had no DUI’s, no DWI’s, and no instances of arrest or detainment. My health was good. My bills were current. If I went a few days without drinking (rare) I didn’t get sick, or shake, or see things that weren’t there. It was just that once I started drinking I couldn’t stop. I was drinking more and more often in more and more quantities and it was starting to take up more and more of my time and my thoughts.
But since I didn’t look like any alcoholic I’d ever seen then I couldn’t possibly be one…right? And even if I was, I was certainly not going into any smoky church basement to talk about it with a bunch of homeless, skid row people. I was better than that. I was…
I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. How could I have let myself become the one thing I hated most in the world? It couldn’t be true. I wasn’t like THEM. I had attached such an ugly stigma to the disease of alcoholism that for a very long time I let it get in the way of getting sober and getting well. I didn’t think there was anyone else out there like me because we, as a society, look upon alcoholism as a condition of choice rather than a genetic defect. Because I couldn’t control my drinking I was weak and damaged. I was broken. I was a mess and I felt as if I couldn’t tell a single soul.
As a matter of fact, that sounded exactly like how I felt when I was drinking. Ashamed, alone, isolated and depressed. I couldn’t tell anyone about my drinking, and now I couldn’t tell anyone about my sobriety. I thought back to how my father and grandfathers were treated. How people were disgusted by them. I couldn’t bear to have my children look at me that way.
It is believed that as many as 60% of those who feel they suffer from alcohol related issues are reluctant to seek treatment due to the perceived stigma associated with it. That means that less than half of us actually use the vast resources available to get sober, enter recovery and get our life back which begs the question; what do the rest of those who are suffering do? Where do they turn? Do they even get sober?
The American Medical Association recognizes alcoholism as not only a psychiatric disease but a medical one as well. Further, it is categorized as a treatable disease meaning that the AMA recognizes that treatment can be implemented to avoid further complications and death. This places alcoholism squarely in the same arena as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Even so, it is seldom that I tell someone I am an alcoholic that I’m met with the same concern as my husband receives when he tells someone he has heart disease. The irony is that while his heart disease was certainly genetic, lifestyle choices could have prevented the triple bypass surgery he had in his 50’s while nothing, besides completely abstaining, can prevent the inevitable destruction that lies in the path once an alcoholic takes their first drink.
So what can we do to remove this perception and find help for those of us suffering in the darkness? We have to remove the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with the terms addiction, alcoholism, rehab, detox and the rest. We have to encourage individuals to speak out about their bravery, their courage and the inexhaustible strength required to get and remain sober. We have to shine a light into all the dark places of this disease so that we uncover its true face. We have to use that light to look directly into the ugliness of the disease and the beauty of its treatment and recovery. We have to begin to applaud and embrace those who have beaten the illness the way we applaud and embrace a cancer survivor; not force them into the shadows to hide and be ashamed.
How society makes that happen is yet to be decided. However, we alcoholics have begun to take matters into our own hands. A trip out to Amazon or into any book store reveals a host of memoirs written by alcoholics chronicling their journey to a better life, very few of which were written anonymously. Google “sober blogs” and you’ll enter a community of people, like me, who have found a way to get sober and stay that way through the written word and the support of others in the same or similar circumstances. Rehabilitation centers and their websites are becoming more and more easily accessible and provide a wealth of information on how to beat this disease. It’s happening. I hope it continues to take on steam.
Or you can just look at my own right wrist where I once had my “sober date” tattooed to remind me not to drink and now have a beautiful bouquet of flowers and the words “Be Still” to remind me that I’m not in charge and that I should continue to move forward in my recovery out in the open, for all the world to see.
Because I know what an alcoholic looks like – she looks like me.