The numbers are staggering. Nearly 20 million adults in America struggle with alcoholism. Over half of American adults have a close family member who is an alcoholic, either active or in recovery. Most people know someone, or of someone, who has struggled with the disease.
The statistics on recovery are even more grim. The success rate of long term recovery for alcoholics who have undergone treatment hovers around 7%. It is a disease that thrives on silence and humiliation. When someone has cancer, or diabetes or any other lifelong chronic illness, the person fighting that disease isn't usually subject to the same judgements or humiliation that the alcoholic endures.
I don't usually like to talk about statistics. Because the long-term recovery success rate is so abysmal, many chronic alcoholics are given up for lost. And many of them are, sadly, permanently lost. In AA there is a saying that an active alcoholic is heading one of three places: jail, institutions or death. But in many ways the statistics are useful: if you, or someone you love, is struggling with alcoholism they are not alone. And it is a disease that effects quite literally all walks of life - every economic and ethnic background.
It is a cunning and baffling disease. And it is a disease. Because of the humiliation and embarrassment involved with alcoholism, many people suffer longer than they need to because they feel that they should be able to get a handle on it. They feel its a moral issue. They feel they are weak, shameful and somehow "less than" because they cannot stop drinking. But the reality is this: if you are an alcoholic it is a virtual certainty that you will not be able to stop drinking without help. But in order to get help, you need to admit a problem .. this first step is the hardest, and in my opinion its why the statistics are so grim. Admitting that you are powerless over alcohol, that your life has become unmanageable (this is Step One of the Twelve Steps of Recovery) is close to impossible. Alcoholics are so fearful of the consequences of admitting their problem, they stay mired in the disease - it is all they know.
Addiction, at the risk of sounding cliche, was like spending many years inside a dark movie theater, watching my life play out on the screen. There, but not there. Laughing, crying, loving, reacting, but always one step removed from what was going on. And not even realizing there was another way. I won't pretend that I can explain addiction. Its like trying to describe the color red to someone who is blind from birth. Words fall really, really short. But I can describe Recovery.
Recovery is like emerging from the dark theater into the brightness of day. Blinding, confusing, scary and loud. And that feeling of disorientation you experience when you come out of a movie, where you have been completely absorbed in a story, in the characters, so that when you step back into the real world you have to take a few minutes to remember what time it is, what you were doing before you went in, where you are supposed to be... in early recovery that disorentation lasts a long time. And on top of that there is lots of fear, shame, embarrassment and pain. For me, it was living in reality, living in the truth, for the first time in a long while. It takes time to get oriented. It takes even more time to move past the shame, face your fears (in many cases figure out what those fears were in the first place), and to heal. Because alcoholics aren't bad people, they're sick people. And they need time to get well. Without help - for me it is Alcoholics Anonymous - they are bound to run back to the familiar, the 'safe' world of addiction, where life isn't really real. Where life happens to you, and you aren't an active participant. And although it is sad, it is familiar. You don't have to feel your feelings, you just sort of observe them. Addiction tamps down all the bad stuff, but here's the rub: it takes the good stuff with it, too.
Here is the good news: Recovery is amazing. For anyone who has hit rock bottom, for any reason, and then come back up - you will know what I'm talking about. I get to rediscover just about everything. I don't know what I thought life on the other side of Alcoholism would be like, but I certainly didn't think it would be this full of laughter, love and wonder. I have met the most incredible people in Recovery. Anyone who can stare down their worst fear, and win, is made of something special. The irony is that beating addiction isn't an event - its a way of life. For a long time I didn't understand (hated, in fact) the saying "One Day At A Time". I would think, cynically, "as if we can live more than one day at a time?". But in reality, that is exactly what many of us do. We are rarely there, really there, in a given moment, or even a given day. We're always thinking about what's next.... all of the "if only's" in life. Rushing around to the point of blindness, forgetting to see what is right under our noses. In recovery, I see everything with new eyes. I am full of gratitude. I used to think it was sad that I had to go through the hell of addiction to realize all I have, but I am - truly - grateful it happened. Recovery has taught me to keep things simple, realize the pure joys found everywhere, everyday.
People often ask me why I'm so open about my disease. They are often shocked that I am able to talk about it freely. They say things like "its called Alcoholics Anonymous for a reason, you don't need to tell the world if you don't want to". But I do want to. I have enormous respect for why AA works. Without the promise of Anonymity, most people would never, ever go to their first meeting, let alone stay there. I understand that completely. But for me, speaking my truth is a critical part of my own recovery. When I finally got help, when I learned that it is a disease, when I felt the power of the unity, empathy and acceptance I receive when I'm surrounded by other alcoholics in recovery, I couldn't keep it to myself. It was so freeing to understand that I wasn't alone. And here's the thing - I'm not embarrassed in the slightest. I'm not shameful, and I'm not afraid. And I can't be quiet about - then the disease wins.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with alcoholism - get help. A good place to start is Alcoholics Anonymous: http://www.aa.org/.