William C. Moyers
Beyond Addiction by William C. Moyers
Improving our understanding of alcohol and drug addiction
Timeline to a Whole Picture
With tears in her eyes, a woman shared with her circle of friends the shame and bittersweet frustration she's felt since she drank again after decades of sobriety.
"This is hard, harder than I ever thought, because I've thrown away 30 years for a couple of weeks of red and white wines, and now all I've got is a few months of clean time again," she said. I couldn't tell whether she was forcing a thin smile across her moist cheeks or simply grimacing. I had no doubt she was hurting.
After the circle had broken up and people fanned out, I gently challenged her perspective with rapid-fire questions that revealed the following timeline:
Her first attempt to stop drinking was in 1978.
She gained consistent recovery in 1984.
Throughout 30 years, she achieved success and endured heartache that included the marriage of one son and the death of a daughter, the births of two grandchildren and a notable career as a drug treatment counselor who helped countless people like her get better.
Last year around the holidays, she drank. Not for long but long enough to know that the "glory days" of old had become the "gory days." She said the euphoric recall of that first sip of fine wine turned ugly fast. "In less than a day, it wasn't fun," she footnoted.
Since the weekend after New Year's, she's been consistently engaged again with her circle of friends in recovery, sought the counsel of a psychiatrist who tweaked her mental health medications, been doing yoga on Wednesday nights and been attending Mass almost every Sunday at the Catholic church she walked away from not long after she stopped drinking in 1984. And she hasn't had a drop of alcohol. "I make sure to stay in the Communion line with the grape juice."
In other words, she's back on track -- with fresh insight into the woman she is and her options to drink or not to drink. She's living the latter, for four months now, just as she did for 30 years until her slip.
Yet in sharing it all with me, she admitted how shameful she felt by her detour, guilty that somehow she hadn't done enough to stay the course and frustrated that under the edict of an abstinence-based model, her recovery was once again being measured in months, not measured by the track record that really counts.
So I fired away: "Sheila, how'd you feel if this were breast cancer you were dealing with? Say that 30 years ago, the doctor uttered that dreaded C-word, and you had chemo and radiation that made you sick nearly to death.
Maybe you even lost a breast or both. But you came to grips with the cancer, and all this time it's in remission, you get on with your life. Then suddenly, it comes back, and you fight the good fight again and fight it off, and now you are well. Would you feel you'd thrown all these decades away, that they weren't worth it? Would you know shame?"
We stood in the hallway of a church annex as she contemplated what I had just disgorged all over her. I have to admit that it was a bit heavy and came without warning, to her and to me. A discussion better suited for a one-on-one across a coffeehouse table while we sipped giant cappuccinos and mulled this over. But I couldn't help myself. These days, my own frustration is tinged with anger over the double standard shared by an unknowing public and a sizable community of people who have stopped drinking or drugging and believe that relapse equals failure and that anything less than total abstinence isn't worth the effort. I don't see such standards of unrealistic rigidity applied to people struggling to live with other chronic illness, such as hypertension or diabetes. As we should, we admire them for fighting the good fight and cheer them on because every day counts toward the gift of life. They don't start over if they get sick again. They just keep going. Like Sheila and me and so many others who somewhere along the journey come to a humble appreciation that the tally of progress never equals perfection because there is no such thing.
April 19, 2014