A Secret Sobriety

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The jig was up when my friend’s seven-year-old daughter whispered behind me, “We’re celebrating because Kevin hasn’t drank wine in a year.” Turning around, I saw my friend Mirinda (not seven years old) strolling in with balloons. I also noticed a cake had appeared on the kitchen counter while my back was turned. At this moment, another friend announced, “Happy birthday – or something. There was an email, but I didn’t really read it.” I knew then that my wife had announced to our church that I was one year sober from alcohol, a personal milestone I chose to celebrate in secret. She even asked on the way to church that night, “Are you going to say anything?” I shook my head. “I don’t see the point. But, if you want to, go right ahead.” I could tell she was excited about my first “dry-versary,” so I expected her to say something, perhaps during a post-communion lull. I did not expect a full-blown surprise party, especially with the very people I had consumed so much booze with over the past ten years. Except for my friend’s seven-year-old daughter. I never drank with her.

For the record, that little girl was spot-on: I had not consumed wine in well over a year. But that’s because I wasted no time with wine. Beer was my passion, my first and truest love. I worshipped at the throne of Hops and Malts no matter how severely they rewarded me. Nevertheless, I was no snob about beer: I was a nerd, an enthusiast, a bottle-lipped whore for its every variety. Ales. Lagers. Ciders. Domestics. Foreign. Craft. On draft. Bottles and cans. Cheap swill. Top-shelf ribbon winners. I simply loved beer. Period. And I made sure everyone knew it. I wore swag from breweries, completed drinking challenges to earn my name on pub-wall plaques, and kept detailed diaries of beers I had tasted or hoped to try.  For a decade, I wrote about Texas craft beer for a local dirtbag zine, hoping to evangelize the already-sauced to consider more sauce. Friends often called from beer aisles or consulted me while planning dinner parties. Knowing beer was my life’s work, and it culminated in the greatest service I could offer: deterring those I loved from consuming more Shiner Bock.

My choice to divorce my obsession was big. The decision also felt, in many ways, made for me. A haunt fell over me regarding alcohol, a gnawing realization that my consumption was hurting me and others, but I could not leave it. By age forty, I’d been a heavy drinker for two decades, and, thankfully, during that, I never caused a cataclysmic event. Still, my sense of peace, my creativity, my finances sifted away like beached sand under my feet. I woke the morning of Monday, November 19, 2018, too hungover to attend work. That night, head-pounding and dehydrated, I attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and spoke aloud a long-hidden truth: “My name is Kevin, and I’m an alcoholic.”

My decision to quit drinking, even to attend AA, was a private one. Over the next year, I made comments about being sober here and there, but I did not speak openly about my journey. My family still does not know I am sober. Some friends still may not know. The journey was one I needed to walk with a small circle, and this — surprisingly — did not include my church body.

Admittedly, my church is somewhat unorthodox. We are a non-denominational home-ministry. My wife and I moved to Texas twelve years ago from Kansas City to join this body. We have walked with them, quite intimately, since. We are a small group. High-attendance reaches around twenty-five. We live in a college town, so “membership” fluctuates alongside academic transition. We live our lives closely, sharing meals, washing each other’s dishes, farting into one another’s furniture. At times, we may be too close, so we often find ourselves engaging conflict resolution. In this way, we occasionally love more than like one another, and we have few secrets. We are quick to confess, to seek counsel, and (hopefully) to forgive when that counsel jabs low. So, the question begs to be asked: why did I choose to keep my sobriety secret from these people?

I kept my sobriety secret, primarily, because this was not the first time I had quit drinking. Over the past decade, I “took a break” from booze several times, and each time I yammered and wrote ad nauseum about my heroic flight from temptation. I flooded my people, even my beer column, with my efforts not to drink. The sheer absence from the activity of drinking — all those hours pursuing and consuming and recovering from booze — needed to be filled, creating anxiety that spends easily, for me at least, in words. Regardless, once I made the decision not to drink (three-months here, six-months there), I abstained rather well, especially by preening endlessly about not-drinking.

However, two notes should be added to this point. First, the need to take frequent “breaks” from booze is a classic red flag. The occasional “Dry Spell,” a fast to honor the body for a specific season, is a healthy and disciplined approach to an examined life. But a convicted need to assure oneself and others that alcohol’s control is not as profound as one’s own echoes a potential cry for help. Second, addiction literature, like the Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book, looks more closely at one’s attitude about consumption than their actual level of consumption. AA refers to the alcoholics’ “mental obsession,” that inability to curb fantasies of the next drink. This is where my own alcoholism revealed itself most, for while I did abstain from consuming alcohol, I remained preoccupied with beer throughout my “breaks,” dreaming of happy hours, setting new boundaries around drinking, imagining which pint — oh, the possibilities! — might break my fast. My body abstained from booze, but my mind, like one of Pavlov’s pooches, never ceased salivating. I simply did not know, nor did anyone to whom I boasted, that abstinence is a far cry from sobriety.

I also withheld my sobriety because I assumed most people wouldn’t get it. For years I watched in slack-jawed amazement as friends sipped one or two pints, maybe less, and then stopped. Such a concept was foreign to me. Two beers merely flipped my switch, after which my day was done. All literacy and meaningful conversation washed away, like guttered gunk in a heavy rain, with each subsequent drink. I became the incarnation of Flowers For Algernon’s conclusion. Few people witnessed my decline. I handled myself well in public, analyzing others for cues as to when I might order another drink. Often, I slipped from conversation to mentally tally the beers waiting at home. Were there still four or did I drink down to three last night? Would I need to stop on the way home? Was I sober enough to handle a detour and a transaction? I missed many stories and jokes while planning my next steps and assessing the awkward evidence of my buzz. Years of self-managing — of such mental obsession — had become exhausting. So when friends or family helpfully suggested, “Why can’t you just have a couple and call it a night?”, I wanted to laugh in their naive faces. Have “a couple of drinks?” Nothing could sound more preposterous. I would rather have zero beers than two beers.

But there was more to it. There were aspects of sobriety I did not know until I surrendered. For instance, sobriety is not solely about abstinence. In AA circles, it’s well known that one can abstain for years and never truly become sober. Abstinence is no longer the primary goal: it is merely a helpful tool to reaching sobriety. This is why finding a recovery community, like AA, is so important. Sobriety is a weird, winding, bramble-ridden road that, when walked purposely, often reveals beautiful (albeit jacked-up) things, and it helps to have an experienced guide illuminate the path.

It’s safe to say that in the months before surrendering I drank less than I had in years. This seemingly newfound self-control was due more to gastrological problems than to a healthy relationship with booze — a truth I alone knew. Still, I found myself drinking, even to excess, when I did not want to, often alone, and I regularly underplayed the amount I drank or tried to hide the evidence. Yes, I was drinking less, technically, but my red flags haunted me.

In the end, the decision to surrender, to give voice to the long silent conviction that I am an alcoholic, was a choice that felt made for me. To ignore the signs, to skirt once more the prompting that now haunted both my dry and wet days, would be to hand my keys over to a Judgment I was too afraid to cast upon myself, and I did not want that. Not to mention, I was tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of lying. Tired of hiding. Tired of watching my most sacred spaces swirl into a toxic puddle of foam-slick refuse. And, maybe for the first time ever, I was also tired of talking because, maybe also for the first time, I wanted something I could not simply speak into existence.

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