What language do you use to describe your recovery?
Honesty. Is that what you are asking? If I’m not honest and I’m not openly talking about it, then it doesn’t benefit my recovery. I don’t make any excuses and I don’t hide anything. Every Fall for the last twelve or thirteen years I’ve gotten up in front of the [Whitman] faculty and outed myself as an alcoholic in the hopes that similar people will find that there is nothing wrong with admitting to that and that it is a beneficial part of anyone’s recovery is to be outfront with it.
What sort of dialogue and language do you use to discuss your addiction with alcohol and your recovery process? What language is important for you in describing that, in terms of either a process rather than a state or a journey in some way.
I use the present tense because it’s a lifelong journey. So for me I’m in recovery, I’m not recovered. I didn’t used to be an alcoholic. I am an alcoholic and I will always be an alcoholic. It’s how I deal with it into the future. I keep it foremost in my mind that it is a process. The language that I use to describe alcoholism is consistent with the disease concept of alcoholism as opposed to the psychological-- a symptom of something else. I think the other things are symptomatic of addiction.
I don’t know if you know this but my wife actually founded Trilogy and she’s written probably nine or ten books on addiction or recovery so we have these kinds of conversations a lot. I am fully invested in the notion that there is one cure for this disease and that’s to not drink. That’s the bottom line. I can’t have a drink periodically because I’ve been sober for thirty six years and it would undue everything for the past thirty six years. It would be a quick drop to the bottom again.
Honesty and being upfront about it. I’ve got nothing to hide.
When did you start using alcohol?
When I was fourteen as near as I can remember. The usual sneaking it out of my dad’s liquor cabinet. My dad was an alcoholic and I use the past tense there because he passed away ten years ago. Alcohol was readily available so I started drinking at age fourteen. High school it’s pretty easy to hide excessive drinking because a lot of people are excessively drinking and they haven’t shown themselves as addicts yet. The short answer is fourteen and increased over the years.
What prompted you to consider recovery or seek treatment?
I didn’t go through treatment, I just quit, which was very lucky that I was able to do that. I engaged in the usual deception and lying and covering my tracks and trying to blend in. I hung around with people who were like minded if not conflicted with alcoholism at least liked drinking and I could blend in. In that process I deceived myself into thinking it really wasn’t an issue.
The seminal moment in my recovery was when I read my wife’s first book. I saw myself in it, literally. The story was about me without my name. At that point I decided it was time to stop that deception. It was the year that I came to Whitman that I quit: October of 1984. Every party that happens at Whitman seems to be saturated with alcohol. I went to a party in mid-October which was at the house of the guy who was president at the time and got drunk like I usually did. I was walking our babysitter home,we had two kids at the time, she just lived two doors down from us. As I was coming back I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. It was innocent enough and I could have done it sober--in fact I probably had done it a couple of times sober--but that particular time I had done it while I was drunk. I said to Kathy, “That’s it. I’m not drinking anymore.” I don’t think she believed me. There were a lot of people who didn’t believe me but I managed to repeat that to myself the following morning and I managed to stay sober.
It seems like you were able to believe yourself and make a goal for yourself.
Yeah. That’s my New Year’s resolution every year. People ask me: what’s your New Year’s resolution? Stay sober for one more year. It’s one day at a time, one month at a time, one year at a time.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting recovery?
Find a partner, an advocate if you want to call it that. Somebody who supports you and what you are trying to do. I was thirty three and had a supportive wife so that was not an issue for me. It’s more difficult for someone else because, like I did in high school and college, the people you hang around with will think you are strange if you tell them you want to stop drinking and need support. I think the biggest thing is to offer myself as an advocate--which I do periodically--but make sure people know they need someone they can talk to or call or meet with on a regular basis. This is kinda the function of AA. Even though I don’t go to AA meetings I have gone in the past and I don’t anymore, that’s a group of likeminded people who are supportive of what you are trying to do regardless of where you come from and who you are and all of that.
How do you maintain recovery?
One day at a time. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. That’s not in a dangerous sense. I’m not thinking about drinking, I'm thinking about sobriety. Continuously reminding myself.
It seems like there was a mindset change that you went through.
Absolutely. I think one of the biggest difficulties, and this is from people that I know who have gotten sober or tried to get sober, is that you’ve been living life as an alcoholic or an addict for so long that you can’t contemplate life without it. At some point there is a realization that there is a life that doesn’t have to involve alcohol. I love my life and it works just fine without alcohol. This kinda goes with the sponsorship thing to help people understand that you can make it through a day and if you can make it through a day you can make it through two days and so on. Hopefully for a lifetime.
What is the most difficult aspect of your recovery?
That’s another good question. I think if I had to choose one it would be people who for one reason for another are unwilling to let me be sober. There are a whole bunch of examples: when I told my dad who’s an alcoholic. When I told him I quit, his response was “what are you trying to prove?” I have colleagues on campus and elsewhere and none of them are addicts and they don’t know why I can’t drink socially. I’m constantly asked if I want a glass of wine or beer. It’s gotten less over the years but there are still people who will offer me one. Usually I say, “Are you kidding me? I’m a freaking alcoholic. Why would I want a beer?”
I wrote a column for the UB a couple of weeks ago on how I resent the fact that I have to justify my sobriety. I can’t drink socially. Do I have to have a reason for that? Or can it just be that I can’t drink and don’t drink. I don’t want to have to explain it to people who are not particularly open to understanding it. At one party I was offered a glass of wine and I said, “No thanks.” The response was, “Oh you’ve got to try this my sister made it and it’s delicious.” And I said, “No thanks.” They replied, “Just take a sip.” I said, “I’m a fucking alchoholic what’s the matter with you? Why can’t you understand this?”
My relative who as near as I can tell is not an alcoholic--I think there are some issues but that’s neither here nor there--every once in a while when he visits or we visit over there will pontificate and say, “You know Pat, I don’t see anything wrong with a social drink now and then.” I don’t either but I can’t do it and he doesn’t seem to understand that. So I don’t know if it’s just that they don’t understand the nature of the disease. There’s probably a large component of that. I think a lot of people feel threatened by it, like my dad. My dad’s response was clearly he was threatened by the fact that I wasn’t drinking anymore and he still was.
Over the years--I’ve been living this life for thirty six years now--it’s gotten less but it happened last year. Someone offered me a beer and I had to take the time to explain to them, and this wasn’t the first time, why I can’t have a beer. I hate that. The most difficult thing is being accepted. The analogy I used with my brother-in-law, his son is deathly allergic to peanuts, is that I don’t tell him to have a peanut now and then just because I’m eating peanuts. I don’t tell someone to eat broccoli just because I’m eating broccoli. They don’t need to explain to me why they can’t. It’s no less serious in my case. Having a drink wouldn’t be lethal but it would undue thirty five years of sobriety.
Lack of understanding. Lack of accepting it at face value and not needing a reason why.
How do you find support for your recovery specifically in Walla Walla. You mentioned your relationship with your wife.
She understands alcoholism better than anyone else I know. She actually drinks so there is an interesting juxtaposition there. It doesn’t bother me that she drinks. She understands what I am going through and how difficult it is and I get a lot of support from her. It’s not all the time verbal support, I get plenty of that too, but it’s just being there and understanding. I have a colleague that is also in recovery and we meet somewhat regularly and just talk about things. Sometimes it’s addiction and recovery and sometimes it’s just other stuff but we are constantly checking in on eachother. It’s the support system, which is what Trilogy does. They offer a kind of support that a lot of people don’t have. I’m really lucky that I have the support that I do.
Would you like to share any more insights from your recovery journey? Things that we haven’t touched upon that you feel are particularly important for people to know about?
You know there is help and there is recovery, it’s a real thing. There are people around that can help you get and stay there. That’s a good message to spread. This disease directly affects more than ten percent of the population and probably indirectly affects seventy percent of the population--probably more than that actually--in more than one way or another. Either through a family member who’s an addict or interaction through a friend who’s an addict.
Just maintain hope. It takes sometimes a radical reevaluation of just the way you live your life. There are certain parties that I know there is going to be nothing there for me. So I avoid places like that. I remind myself that I am an addict and there is no reason to go to a party where the primary function and social exercise is drinking a lot. That’s probably more of an answer than you wanted. Just realizing that there is help and support and making use of the help and support. De-stigmatize the disease. When we do this first faculty meeting thing--I don’t know this without a shadow of a doubt because I don’t know all of my colleagues really well and most of them I know sort of well--I know there are people struggling with addiction or alcoholism in the audience but the stigma of saying, “Yeah I’m an addict. I’m an alcoholic” is just too great. That prevents them from getting the help they might want and many of them probably need. They don’t want to be branded. Alcohol is one of those things that is so ingrained in our culture and our society that it’s an oddball who doesn’t want to or can’t drink. Nobody wants to take on that burden by going public.
Even the life of sobriety is misunderstood and difficult to explain to people.
That and also the reality is I think there’s stereotypes that are associated with alcoholics. I lived in Seattle for fifteen years and, it’s not as bad now, but the farther south you went downtown the more people you saw laying on park benches covered with newspapers drinking out of a bottle that’s in a brown paper bag. That’s the stereotype of an alcoholic: down and out and destitute. On the other hand there are surgeons and college professors and business people who are equally addicted and live in a different world. This is where the stigma thing comes in again. You stigmatize yourself in an environment where suddenly if you go public then everyone is going to be looking at you.
I want to thank you for your help with this project. Our main goal is to unravel those stigmas that are behind being in recovery and show the faces of people who are going through it.
Awesome. Thank you for doing it.