I went to college out of state and while I was always very busy, I tried to remember to call home every few days. Things would be going fine in my life: classes, extracurriculars, and friends. But every few months, one of those phone calls would throw all of that into a tailspin. Within the first few seconds on the phone, my heart suddenly drops into my stomach. I could always tell. Throughout the conversation, my voice gradually grows angrier until I finally ask the question that I already know the answer to. Tears start to form in my eyes and the phone call ends in a hang-up.
The days that followed would be an utter mess. I couldn’t focus in class, put on a fake face for my friends because of course I couldn’t tell anyone what was actually going on, just certain that I was the only person on the whole campus who knew what this was like. I felt so guilty if I ever forgot about it for a while and started having fun. How could I be laughing at a movie with my friends while all of this was going on with my family? So I’d call home every few hours out of obligation, even though it usually just upset me all over again. Still I held onto the desperate hope that my calls were somehow helping, or even that one of these times I called, I might hear a sober voice on the other end and things could be alright again.
Fast forward to only a few months ago. I’d had a great day at work and was on my way home, looking forward to a nice, relaxing evening. I had just wrapped up an evening group with lots of participation and good insights. A long-term client had reached an important milestone in her recovery and had achieved a major breakthrough in her individual session today. I’d even finished all my paperwork for the day before leaving the office (a rare and precious occurrence on par with seeing a double rainbow). Stopped at a red light, I realized I hadn’t called home in about a week, so I did, hoping to share the news of my good day. It didn’t take long into that phone call for the familiar knot in my stomach to form. I was devastated. She’d been doing so well.
Just as I was picking up my proverbial blowtorch, preparing to set my entire life on fire in response to the news as had become my custom, I paused. I remembered that that is exactly what alcoholism wants me to do. It wants to tear the victory of my day away from me, erase all of the battles that I had won against it earlier that day. And it wants me to do it myself. And I refused to let that happen. For the rest of the night, every time the temptation to sulk or cry or bury myself in the couch returned, I said, “I refuse to give alcohol the power to ruin my good day”. I literally said those exact words to myself. What a dork, right? Well it worked: I had a nice evening. I made dinner, watched my favorite TV show, played chess with my boyfriend. I won. (The day, not the chess game. I lost the chess game very badly).
I’d been terrified of doing that for so long because it felt like a betrayal. How dare I be happy when someone I love is so miserable? Watching TV and laughing as though everything’s just okay. It’s not okay! I felt like I had to suffer in solidarity. Like going on a hunger strike until a prisoner of war is freed or something. How exactly does me starving free any prisoners? Well… it doesn’t, I guess. But it makes me feel like I’m doing something, at least.
The reality is that making myself miserable has never made my loved one any more sober. If anything, it makes me less sober. Remember how her relapses used to affect me in college? Terminally unique, obsessive, isolated, powerless, control freak, consumed with guilt and shame. A mini alcoholic if there ever was one. Alcoholism has had a claim on my life ever since I was a child. I used to think that if I just never picked the bottle up, I was safe. But it found a way to sneak into my heart and consume my life anyways in a way I never expected. Alcohol wants to be the biggest part of my life. It wants to be able to ruin my day in the first 3 seconds of a phone call, to entirely consume my thoughts, emotions, and conversations with others. It wants to be the most important part of my family dynamic. It wants to be the biggest part of my loved one’s identity.
Refusing to let it is a radical idea. Anyone who was ever told growing up when a class bully would start acting up to “just ignore him” knows how difficult this is to do. But it’s the truth: that bully only wants to get under my skin in any way possible. Refusing to let him is something he never sees coming and it shuts him down faster than any comeback I could ever think of to yell back.
I wish it hadn’t taken me until January 2019 to figure this out. I think about all of the perfectly happy weeks in college that I let the disease steal from me. But today, the best weapon I have is to have enough compassion for myself to say that my happiness doesn’t need to depend on someone else’s recovery. I deserve to have a good day –and a good life—no matter how much alcoholism disagrees and wants to convince me otherwise.
Every day that I decide that is a battle won and one less life claimed.
-Sarah Bruhn, LADC-US, LPC-US