Recovered alcoholics have two birthdays. Our belly-button birthday – the day we took our first breath – and our sober birthday – the day we took our last drink. We get presents for both.
I’m telling you this not because my sober birthday is coming up – August 27 is 13 years without a drink – but because we live a life divided. Our sobriety has given us a new life but it comes with price. Secrecy. Anonymity. I am speaking about the life we lead among our clan of fellow recovered alcoholics.
We have sayings – “Keep coming back it works if you work it” – and we have tokens of devotion – colored poker chips to denote lengths of sobriety. We have clubhouses and private meetings. But there are no dues for membership.
I am not knocking any of this. I love my sober life. I am telling you this because this is not always an easy way to live. Especially if you are a dual-diagnosed recovered alcoholic. For many of us, we have spent much of our lives either denying we had a problem, convincing ourselves that we could handle it, ignoring all of it and covering our tracks.
For all of us, we have suffered alone. Afraid and/or too proud to ask for help. We know what stigma feels like. There are huge swaths of our lives we want to keep hidden. We feel weak and incompetent. We cannot control our urges no matter how hard we try.
Can you imagine wanting something so badly that you hide it in the basement behind the old paint cans or back behind the Christmas ornaments on the top shelf? Can you imagine feeling utterly despondent, hopeless and numb that you want to die but still you go to work everyday and act as if you’re fine, just fine?
Even when we get well, we hit bottom and clawed our way out, we can’t share our success. Even among our fellow recovered alcoholics we are afraid to share our success because so many will criticize and judge our decision to take antidepressants and mood stabilizers. They tell us we aren’t really clean and sober if we’re taking these “mood altering” drugs.
We create a kind of caste system among our contacts. Among these people we cannot divulge that we are recovered alcoholics or mentally ill. These folks know about our alcoholism and recovery but we can’t tell them that we take medication for our other mental illness. These people – these very few people – we can speak freely about our alcoholism, our depression and our medication.
So much of our lives – even in recovery – is a secret. We have lived with secrets for so long that we have gotten used to it. Secrets are our normal. I chose a different path. I am at an age and point in my career and parenting that I am able to be open about my depression, bipolar and alcoholism.
But I do not force, or even suggest, that my decision is the best, appropriate way to live with alcoholism and depression. Unlike the gay activist Harvey Milk, who urged gays and lesbians to “come out of the closet,” I don’t and won’t urge dual-diagnosed alcoholics to “out” themselves. It’s not for me to say. The goal for all of us is to stay sober and healthy. I support that. Who am I to urge you to do something that could be so mentally stressful that it makes you sick?
I will support and respect your decision either way.
Photo by matulio, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.