In today's Boston Sunday Globe there are two full length obituaries.
Amy Winehouse's death from drug and alcohol addiction at 27 years old. I am profoundly impacted by her death, although it isn't much of a surprise. Her struggle with addiction has been plastered across headlines for years now. I remember a couple of years ago a British tabloid was running a contest - a morbid countdown of sorts - asking readers to bet on how much longer she would live.
Her obituary spells out in sad clarity the ravages of drugs and alcohol; her life cut short, her talent squandered to the disease of addiction.
Below the fold is another obituary, George Brewster, who died after a fifteen year battle with cancer. He was 70 years old. Despite a life full of challenges, his children describe a man of unbridled optimism, someone whose spirit shone through adversity. His daughter describes how even near the end he would talk about embracing the "glorious day", how he would walk every day; even as cancer treatments weakened his physical condition, his spirit soared. He was 27 years sober at the time of his death, and the obituary describes how he was active in AA, a pillar of the recovery community, always ready to lend a hand to help a fellow alcoholic in need.
The juxtaposition of these two lives leaves me trembling with gratitude and fear. Gratitude that I am sober, that I didn't lose my own battle with the disease of addiction, that I am able to embrace life, with all its ups and downs - as a sober woman of grace and honor. Fear because I know so many people who are struggling to get sober, who haven't surrendered to the fact that alcoholism is a disease, one that cannot be cured. You can't think your way out of addiction any more than you can think your way out of cancer.
Fear because addiction kills. Just last week a member of my home AA group died from an alcoholic seizure. My heart aches for the people I know who are struggling to get sober, because death - as horrible as it is - isn't the worst thing alcoholism does to you. First it destroys your life, your spirit, your family.
Now that I have been in recovery for almost four years, I fully understand the power of the disease of addiction. It is a disease that tells you you don't have a disease, that if you just tried harder, had more will power, you could beat it. It drives you into isolation, full of shame and fear, and slowly erodes your spirit, your will. It wants you silent, alone and afraid.
I am humbled and honored to be able to help women who are struggling to get sober. It helps my own recovery to reach out, share what I have learned, be an empathetic voice at the other end of a phone line, or over coffee. I know I can't get anyone sober. I realize that in order to get sober a person has to surrender, to accept that they are powerless over alcohol, that they need help. All I can do is encourage them to get honest, to be a safe harbor in their sea of bewildered hurt.
But I'm scared. I'm scared for everyone who is in the clenches of alcoholism. I know first hand how hard it is to wrench yourself from the jaws of addiction. The statistics aren't good. I hate talking about statistics, hate how despairing they are; I prefer to focus on the hope. But the bleak reality is that alcoholism eventually kills the majority of the people afflicted by this horrible disease.
And it is a disease. I am aware that this is a controversial topic, and I listen with an open mind to to those who argue that it isn't. But I'm done being polite about it, because I know it is a disease. It is a disease of the mind, body and spirit. No addict wants to destroy their life. When bewildered loved ones ask addicts "WHY? Why are you doing this to yourself?" I know the answer is this: because they have a disease. An alcoholic who drinks can no more control how their body reacts to alcohol than a diabetic can control their body's insulin.
People who argue against the disease concept - and many of them are in recovery themselves - don't like the loophole it creates, fearing the alcoholic will keep drinking, saying "I can't help it. I have a disease."
My response to this is simple: my disease isn't my fault, but my recovery is my responsibility. My responsibility is to stay away from that first drink, the one that will activate my disease. To stay away from that first drink I choose a program of recovery; I surround myself with other alcoholics in recovery, I talk about how I'm feeling. I ask for help. A lot.
I didn't choose to be someone who can't have one or two drinks safely. I would never, ever have done the things I did, taken myself and my family down such a dark road, if I had been able to stop drinking on my own. I don't know that I will ever be able to find adequate words to describe what alcohol did to my brain. It possessed me. Even when I wasn't drinking, it nagged at my consciousness, pulling me back in over and over. I don't know how to describe to someone who isn't an alcoholic what it feels like to wake up in the morning thinking, "Oh NO. I did it again."
I have a disease. A disease that springs to life if I have one drink. It may not destroy me right away, but eventually, it will. I have no control over my own life when I'm drinking, because alcohol calls all the shots.
The only way out of the disease of addiction is to surrender to it. To accept in your heart that you can't have even one drink without triggering the craving, the obsession.
Surrendering is hard. It takes more guts to surrender than it does to fight, because surrendering involves vulnerability, and we're hard-wired to avoid feeling vulnerable.
The stigma of addiction keeps people unsurrendered. People simply don't understand what alcohol does to an alcoholic, how it eventually takes over every aspect of our thinking. It is hard to ask for help, because the response is all too often, "well, why don't you just stop, then?"
Choking out the words, "I can't stop," feels like defeat of the worst kind. It feels like you are the weakest, most morally corrupt person on the planet. Ironically, choking out those words is the bravest thing anyone can do. Eventually, alcohol degrades a person's life to the point where drinking feels like the only good thing left. And then the script changes, goes from "I can't stop" to "I won't stop".
THAT is the disease of addiction.
To break the cycle, to get out of the spiral, you have to surrender. You have to look yourself dead in the eye, and admit that you have tried everything you can to stop, and nothing is working. That you aren't in control when it comes to drinking. Peel your hands off the wheel, and go get help. Fall back into the arms of people who understand, who can carry you until you feel like carrying yourself.
When I die, I want to be that sober person who faced the ups and downs of life with gratitude in my heart and a hopeful spring in my step. I want to grow and learn through adversity, not skirt around it, shrinking from the hard truths in a bottle.
I didn't choose to be an alcoholic. But I can choose surrender, I can choose recovery.
I feel sometimes like I end every post about addiction and recovery this way, but I will keep saying it over and over: if you are struggling with alcoholism, open your mouth to save your life. Tell your truths. And please, please surrender. You will never be able to have one drink in safety. If that thought sends terror into your heart, go find the people who understand, who have walked the path before you, who can show you that a life full of light and hope is waiting for you.
Because here is the bleak truth: it will kill you. But first it will destroy your spirit, your happiness, your ability to love. It will.