I took Sadie to a playdate this afternoon that ran through the dinner hour. While the host and I were prepping food for the kids, we had the following conversation:
Host: Don’t judge me, but I’m going to have a glass of wine. Do you want one?
Me: No judgment from me! No thanks.
Host: Yeah…I’m not going to drink alone. I’m pouring you a glass.
Me: If you do, you’ll be in charge of drinking both of them. I’m sober.
Host: Omg are you doing Whole 30?
Me: No, I’m an alcoholic.
Y’all. I wish I could accurately describe her facial expression using English words. It was part incredulity, part anxiety, and a lot of embarrassment, for which I felt terrible. Bless her heart, she went immediately into damage control-mode, first proclaiming that she wasn’t going to drink after all because she didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable, and then telling me about how she really loved Adderall in college and that for a few months, she was afraid it was really getting away from her.
People feel uncomfortable talking about things they have a hard time relating to, especially if the subject matter is taboo or stigmatized. Our culture's modus operandi is generally that anything having to do with vulnerability, struggle, and painful feelings is best relegated to the interior of a therapist’s office or self help book (read in secret, and then shoved behind an Elin Hildebrand novel on a high shelf). Here’s the thing though: it’s a painful and unfortunate truth that addiction is becoming an increasingly pervasive problem both in America and globally. The "Opiate Epidemic" isn't curing itself, and if you haven’t yet known or loved an addicted person, consider yourself either very lucky or brilliantly enshrouded in denial.
I’m just one person and can’t speak for all folks in recovery, but coming from my own experience, here’s what I’d like my social-drinker mommy friends to know about interacting with an alcoholic/addict:
- Scratch that slash-mark between the words “alcoholic” and “addict.” Carrie Fisher explained it so well when she said that saying you’re an alcoholic and an addict is like saying you’re from Los Angeles and from California. It’s all the same thing, y’all. Just because my primary drug-of-choice was not alcohol, that doesn’t mean that I can casually join you for a vodka soda while our kids eat dirt in the backyard. Telling you that I’m an alcoholic does not leave the window open to sharing pot brownies during our next book club meeting (holy shit though—what an awesome idea for a book club. Let’s totally start one. We can call it Lit for Literature! Oh, wait….crap).
- It is not your job to alter or limit your drinking simply because I’m in the room. It’s my responsibility to look after my own health and safety. If I tell you it’s no big deal if you have your intended glass of wine, please take me at my word. Have three! You do you, mama. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t okay.
- If I voice discomfort around your decision to drink, you’re still not required to abstain (unless you’re in my home, of course). If I’m struggling around drugs or alcohol, there are plenty of tools I can use and voices of support I can call upon to take care of myself without killing everyone else’s good time. If I’m struggling enough to feel entitled to ask you to change your behavior then the person who needs to be taking action to change is me.
- If I look at you one day and say, “Know what? Things are going pretty well lately. I think I’m okay. Pour me one too,” then first of all, I’m sorry for putting you in such an awkward position. Secondly, it’s completely appropriate to refuse to serve me, although chances are, if I’ve made the decision to leap from the proverbial Turnip Truck, you’ll likely be faced with anger, defensiveness, and over-explaining. Saying “no,” would be a respectful, boundaried, and loving action on your part; but if I make the decision to drink, that’s on me. No person, place, or situation can force an alcoholic into relapsing. If I manipulate you into passing the pinot, then the fault is mine, not yours.
- If you see me at the school fund raiser getting loaded, it’s ill-advised to confront or attempt to stop me. You cannot save me from myself, and if I’m already drinking then I’m already deep in a shame spiral you can bet I’m trying my damnedest to drown in cheap champagne. It is, however, perfectly appropriate to take my car keys, call security, or move your purse to a high table, as it’s entirely possible that I will vomit into it.
- No matter how long I’ve been sober, if you see me acting altered: slurring, stumbling, eyes-glazed, nodding off, talking a mile-a-minute, it’s always a possibility that I’m using. While my safety and sobriety are never your responsibility, if your gut tells you something’s off and you’re concerned, I give you permission to take action on that instinct. You can ask if I’m okay, you can contact my spouse, you can even call the police or CPS if I’m driving with my children in the car. Alcoholics are never cured of our alcoholism, and the fact that I’ve been sober for years does not ensure that I’ll remain sober tomorrow. It’s scary and sad that many of us relapse, but it doesn’t make that truth any less true.
- You have my permission to ask questions if you’re curious. It’s amazing how humans can connect to one another when we are brave enough to be vulnerable and open. When I meet someone who has walked through something that I have yet to experience, especially if it’s hard or painful, I tend to clam up, consumed by my fear of saying the wrong thing, of being intrusive, of sounding ignorant or insensitive. If your mother just died and mine just called me from the supermarket to inform me that Pampers are two-for-one, I freeze. I want to connect with you, to let you know that you are seen and loved, but I’ll likely stay silent, afraid of making your pain worse than it already is. I know that losing loved ones and abstaining from stealing Grandma’s Vicodin are different. My point is that if I knew I could ask questions about how best to support you through whatever you're going through, I’d ask them. You can ask them. We should ask them.
I got sober before I had kids and lived in a community filled with other recovering people. I had no qualms mentioning my sobriety in passing to the guy who made my smoothie, because he’d recently referred an employee to the treatment center in which I worked. Plus, I could bet his response would be along the lines of “right on, sister. I don’t consume any of that poison either. Except cannabis, of course. And mescalin once a year on my vision quest in Joshua Tree.”
We got pregnant, moved across the country, and now I stay home with two children and do things like work the preschool bake-sale and go on play dates. I find myself in social interactions these days like the one I just described, in which I hear my mother’s voice in my head pleading, “please don’t mention anything about going to rehab. It makes people so uncomfortable.” I could’ve said, “I’m not drinking because of my juice cleanse,” and that would’ve prevented a few moments of awkwardness. It also would’ve been a lie, and lying is not a good idea for alcoholics. Besides, y’all, we have to talk about this stuff if we’re going to work toward solving what is an undeniable national problem. I may not look like your idea of a ditch-dwelling junkie, but this disease does not discriminate. Just because I have kids and pay my taxes does not mean my alcoholism is any less real for me today than it was the day I stopped drinking.
So, I will speak this stuff out loud. And on the rare occasion I inform a person who doesn’t already know that I’m sober and am met with broken eye-contact and a generic “good for youuuu. That’s soooo awesome,” followed by a confused, “Wait, so you don’t drink? Like, EVER? What did you do at your wedding?” I’ll ask for a big glass of ice water.
And then I’ll tell her.