Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dragging the Truth into the Light

One morning earlier this month, Diane Schuler, a 36 year-old mother of two, left a campground with her two children and three nieces. At 1:30pm she crashed her car headlong into an SUV, after driving two miles at high speed the wrong way down a familiar highway. She killed the three occupants of the SUV, herself, her daughter and her nieces. Only her 5 year old son survived.

Nobody who knew Schuler could understand what could have gone so terribly wrong.

Even in the face of irrefutable toxicology results, in news reports family members and friends insisted they had never seen her drink to excess, that she didn't have a problem with alcohol or drugs, they would have known.

Earlier this week I was contacted by a reporter from USA Today who wanted to know whether it is really possible that Schuler’s family didn’t know. "It is possible," I told the reporter. "To understand what happened, we have to talk about denial.”

In order to slip into addiction, you have to tell yourself a lot of lies. In the earlier stages, the things you tell yourself are like the white lies we tell overselves: it has been an unusually hard day, I need a drink. I don't drink every day. I need my wine to sleep. I am a more patient mother after a drink. I can only compare it to dieting, something more of us understand: I was good today, I'll just have one cookie. One dessert won't hurt, I'll spend an hour at the gym tomorrow. I'll eat this today, and then I'll be good the rest of the week.

Like someone who somehow ends up heavier after a month of dieting, the alcoholic gets further down the path of addiction, and doesn't even know it. As the disease progresses - and it always progresses - the lies become more desperate: I can stop anytime I want to. I'm not hurting anyone but myself. Everyone drinks too much sometimes, right?

In the end game, when you can't stop, denial is in full bloom. Your rational mind says: I'm drinking at 10:30am, this is really, really bad. Your disease tells you: just have one to get the edge off. You can stop after one.

There is a complete disconnect between what you are thinking and what you are doing.

Your sick thoughts become your reality. You think to yourself: I'm not that bad. Your disease tells you: they won't understand how much pain you are in, how much drinking sustains you. Your primary objective becomes making sure the world doesn't find out. You carry breath mints, drink coffee. You stash bottles around the house, keeping one bottle "for show" in the refrigerator that you never touch. When you go out socially, you drink in secret beforehand, so you can do your "normal" drinking in public. You go to great lengths to ensure your secret stays safe. You are convinced you can stop when you want to, that you will stop tomorrow. Just one more, is the constant litany in your head.

When my drinking was nearing its worst, my house was always clean. The kids' hair was brushed, their outfits matched, their packed lunches nutritious. I tried to be on time everywhere I went. I made sure I always appeared put-together, neatly dressed. Any crack in this veneer terrified me, because I thought the smallest signal to the outside world that something wasn't right would reveal my terrible secret.

Towards the end, I was lying to myself almost all the time. One weekend, I was supposed to go away with some girlfriends. The morning I was to leave, I woke up and thought: I think I'm coming down with something, I'm tired. I shouldn't go. I called my friends and cancelled. The reality was this: I was afraid, because I wouldn't be able to drink like I wanted to around them. I was afraid I would expose my secret. But here's the rub: I believed the lie I told myself, I really thought I wasn't feeling well. To admit differently was to face my ugly truth - that I was in serious trouble.

The more the disease progresses the stronger the lies become, the more you believe them. You cannot possibly be truthful with anyone else when you aren't being truthful with yourself.

The emptiness of obsession and addiction crowds out your spirit – stamping out everything about you that is warm, loving, passionate, responsible and empathic until nothing but a tiny pilot light remains, barely discernible in the darkness.

So I understand how it could have happened. An alcoholic can no more control her own drinking than a diabetic can control the level of insulin her body produces. Being a mother doesn't come into play with late stage addiction, any more than being a mother would matter with Stage Four cancer. We can't know what Schuler's family knew, if or when they knew things were off. But it is clear from the news reports that they don't want to believe addiction could be at the root of it all. Alcoholics are masters at covering up their disease. Family and friends may see odd behavior, things may not all be adding up, but the hard truth is that - especially with mothers - addiction is rarely considered.

Nobody wants to believe the truth: not the addict, not the family. It touches on something too ugly, too frightening. Addiction is fueled by silence and denial. We can't prevent alcoholism or addiction from happening, we can't even cure it. But we can drag the truth out into the light of day, talk about it, and realize that in using our hearts and voices we can heal. In order to bust through the largest obstacle in addiction - denial - we have to talk about it. Even if it makes us wince. Especially if it makes us wince.

If you know someone you think may have a problem, speak up. And read this post by Damomma - she lived it firsthand. As she said to me once - you can have unconditional love, but you don't need to have unconditional acceptance.

And if you are struggling with alcohol or drugs, if you are worried you may have a problem, or if you know you do, get help. If you are too ashamed to talk to family, friends or loved ones, go to an anonymous meeting and listen. Get informed. Try telling yourself the truth. As scary as that is, it isn't nearly as frightening as a life of secrecy and denial. Trust me.


  1. You are a great person for making this your mission!

  2. Amen to all you wrote.
    When I was in treatment one of the exercises we did was figure out what our preconceived notions of an alcoholic were and what we told ourselves so we wouldn't fit our own category.

    One of mine was that I'd never been in our town's liquor store so even though I went on binges from time to time I couldn't have a drinking problem.
    Oh, the crap we believe when we want to.

  3. I wish you the best with your recovery.

  4. I think it is a powerful and courageous thing you do to admit your actions and thoughts. I know people can congratulate you until the cows come home (they actually do come home around here!), but what you see around you every day I'm sure is reward enough...but still, a *pat* on the back is due!

  5. Wow. Thanks for this.

    In addition to being brilliant, the line about love/acceptance just crystallized a bunch of completely non-related things for me.

    Best of luck in recovery, and thanks again.

  6. You're amazing Ellie! Thank God for Alcoholics Anonomous and Al-Anon!

  7. Opps, I meant Alcoholics Anonymous! I can't spell without Spell Check!

  8. I think it is wonderful you share your story. I am always amazed by you Ellie. I have heard about you through Liz for years. I am so glad you are writing your own story now.

  9. Ellie, I know very little about the addiction community but I think you are serving so many people well by exposing its underbelly.

    You are so generous to share of yourself. You have a lot going on and no one would fault you for concentrating on your own recovery and family. But you reach out. And no doubt make a difference.

  10. I rarely, rarely comment on blogs.

    But as someone with a loved one battling addiction, I want to say thank you.

    Thank you for treating this as something that doesn't have to be hidden in a corner.

  11. Thank you too, although I am still in the closet. And I know the lies are piling up.

  12. Wow. That was amazing! Thank you!