05 December 2006

Smile like you mean it!

Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there. ~ Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Last week I got an e-mail from a reporter with The Wilmington Star. She was interested in doing an interview with me focusing on the circumstances from which I wrote "The 12 Click Program" for PC Magazine.

When I was invited to write the PC Magazine piece, I didn't have any huge reservations - well, I did, but they evaporated quickly because, though PC Magazine has a huge following, most of the people I encounter on an everyday basis, here in sleepy, southern Wilmington, North Carolina, don't tend to read PC Magazine. A few of them haven't even heard of it, so the chances of my running into people who had read the piece I wrote on how the Internet was a great source of support and information in my first days of sobriety, was low to basically non-existent. This town isn't exactly Silicon Valley. I don't mean that in a negative way, it's simply not.

When the Wilmington-Star proposed doing this interview well, I had to think about that one. Though Wilmington isn't a tiny town, it "lives" smaller than it actually is. I love this place and I've made quite a few special friends here and, no question, it's been a pivotal scene for no small number of life-changing events in my recent history. To say that a lot has transpired in my life since I bought my house in August 2000, would be an understatement. These past six years have been filled with transitions, some of them profound, many of them scary, intimidating, gut-wrenching and a few could be labeled just plain silly and bizarre.

My first two and a half years in Wilmington, I drank way too much. My wine-consumption grew and my good judgment diminished accordingly. I spent the last few months of 2003 spiraling down until finally, on January 11th, I hit bottom. It felt wretched at the time, but in retrospect, it was a soft-landing, compared to many.

Basically, that's what the Wilmington-Star wanted to talk about - what was the catalyst that sparked the change from active alcoholic to sane(r) sobriety? I thought about it and realized that the chances were good that quite a few people would read the story, see the photo and be more than a little surprised. What would these people think? Would they look down on me. Think less of me? Make unfair judgments based on preconceived notions and just plain disinformation and ignorance with regard to alcoholism and addiction?

After thinking about the possible impact and fall-out, I realized that it didn't really matter all that much. I kept remembering the first few days after my last drink, and how shaky, scared and confused I felt. I would have given anything to read about someone who had been through what I was feeling, who had to contemplate the looming lifestyle changes I was facing, and not simply managed, but realized a better life on the other side - the side I couldn't quite see because everything felt cloudy and fuzzy and exponentially overwhelming.

When I remembered those feelings, I realized that I cared more about the potential for positives much more than any personal negatives I might encounter from such a story being published. I've always felt as if alcoholism is still wrapped in an ill-fitting, undeserved veil of secrecy. Everyone pays lip-service to their view that alcoholism is a disease. But for some reason, it's often still referred to in hushed tones - secretive - and unlike cancer or diabetes, addictive disease still sports the stigma of immorality and a condition relegated to individuals of lesser character.

I really hate that. The thing I detest most about alcoholism is the reputation to which it has been assigned and, even more pointedly, the reputation it assigns to people who honestly can't help it if they're bio-chemistry is wired in such a manner that it never quite grasped the concept of "No thank you, I've had enough", after a glass or two of wine.

Are there some horrible, not-fit-for society, terminally damaged people who are raging alcoholics - people who abuse their spouses, their kids and their dogs - folks you'd purposefully go out of your way to avoid on the street? Of course there are. There are also people who engage in spousal abuse, child abuse, drop kick their dalmatians, juggle cats for sport and refuse to pay child support who have never had a drink in their life, much less suffer from substance abuse.

Lucky individuals who have gone five years without a relapse or re-occurrence of cancer, are considered "cured". Those who suffer from diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, MS, hypo- or hyper- thyroidism, many allergies and yes, alcoholism, are never afforded the luxury of being cured. Patients suffering from all of the aforementioned conditions have illnesses which, with proper health supervision and treatment, can still live full lives as long as they stay mindful of their disease and follow treatment guidelines. My own treatment involves attending recovery meetings and sharing time with people who share my condition. If it sounds like a bitter pill, it isn't at all. It's a gift, a pleasure, a joy and the source of some of the happiest moments in my life. Unlike chemo or an insulin pump, there's really no pain or discomfort involved when I take my medicine - every now and then there's the occasional bad cup of coffee, but other than that, there are no ill side-effects - just a lot of wonderful caveats and benefits.

So what did I do? I replied to the reporter's request and we met this past Friday for an hour-long interview at one of my favorite places downtown; Courthouse Cafe. I don't know how this story will read when it appears in print, but I do know I was honest, forthright and shared my experience. Since that was all that was asked of me, it was hardly a challenge. I definitely kept it real.

What WAS a challenge was the photo-shoot today for the picture that will accompany the piece when it appears in the newspaper on 12 December. I sat at one of the tables in front of our shop on Princess Street while a very nice photographer with the longest lens I've ever seen in my life, snapped away - at times from quite a distance (I told him the further away he got the better I looked), and we encountered a few gawks when he climbed on a chair to snap from a different angle. I had to laugh. There was a glass of jasmine tea beside me on the bistro table and before we started I asked him if he thought it would look like beer in the photo? He didn't think that it would, so I got photographed with my beloved jasmine tea. I pretty much giggled through the rest of the session - and couldn't help but smile as I contemplated all of the crazy places alcohol has taken me and, I guess this would have to qualify as one of them since this man wouldn't have been snapping my photo had I not hit that bottom almost three years ago.

Truth to tell, if I hadn't been stopped in my tracks or, rather, the a parking lot, I have a feeling the only mention of me there would have been in The Wilmington Star, would involve an obituary. I'm not even kidding.

But on a lighter note, who says recovery can't be fun? I had a great time today. That whole "one day at a time" business everyone hears in early sobriety isn't simply a coping mechanism for those new in recovery who are trying to wrap their minds around the concept that they can never drink again, it's also worth remembering when the clouds clear and the days are sweet - a reminder to savor the amazing moments that fly by even when you wish those moments would slow down and linger around for awhile.

Like almost every other day since I found my bearings on January 12th, 2004, I laughed, I learned things, I spoke with friends, smiled at e-mails, hugged a few people, did a few stupid things, and drank way too much caffeine. In other words, I lived my life. Today wasn't special because of one specific event - today was exquisite because, gaffes and all, I really did live in a manner that left me without a hangover and void of regrets. Those two things alone, generate an infinite quantity of gratitude and the pleasure of facing tomorrow with a smile.