Over on the Huffington Post, “Blogger and Sober Señorita” Kelly Fitzgerald wants us to know that April is Alcohol Awareness Month. To make us aware of the dangers of alcohol, she’s provided us with a bunch of statistics I didn’t bother reading. Why? Because statistics are boring. If you want to make a point, I’ve learned in recovery, you’ve got to tell a story.
Before attending 12-step meetings, I had little awareness of alcoholism, and just a vague inkling that alcohol was perhaps a problem. Sure, the 88,000 deaths that are annually attributed to excessive alcohol use is a shocking statistic, but I’d never personally met anyone who’d died from the disease. I wouldn’t have considered myself at any such risk. (Little did I know.)
Your ‘Math’ Meant Nothing to Me
Alcohol was my dad’s beer, sitting untouched in the fridge. My mom drank Bailey’s on Christmas Eve. In other words, my mother and father were both normal drinkers. Never mind that my family system was crippled by my dad’s sex addiction and issues with gambling, alcohol wasn’t a problem for my family when I was growing up. Alcohol wasn’t the problem when my older brother started using drugs—first pot, then heroin (funny how confused I was when the high school pot dealer told me he’d stopped hanging out with my brother because “Dude, your brother does drugs”). I mean, obviously yes, my brother’s drinking was a problem. But drinking wasn’t his biggest problem, right?
Nor was it mine, I thought. Even though right from the start, Bad Things Happened™ when I drank, I never pinned my problem on booze. Driving drunk the wrong way on the highway? A crazy night. Getting hammered and having to get my mom to call to get me out of work? (And subsequently getting fired—so much for being a “sandwich artist.) These things just sometimes happened. All teenagers drank, right? Had I read a statistic that said teen alcohol use kills 4,700 people each year, my eyes would have glazed over. Bad things happened, sure, but only truly terrible things happened to kids in after school specials and Public Service Announcements—not to me.
Tragedy, I thought, was more the result of bad luck than booze—and my luck was good. Especially in the early years, I was highly functioning. If someone had suggested to me that alcohol could damage my emotional stability, finances or career, or impact my family, friends and the people I worked with, I wouldn’t have believed them. You maybe, but not me. Although eventually it all began to unravel, I still had trouble relating any unmanageability in my life back to alcohol. Only after a decade of drinking did I begin to reluctantly acknowledge I had a problem—with sex. Even then, I had the most tenuous of ideas that my out-of-control sexual conduct in any way related to being constantly drunk.
Ignorance Wasn’t Bliss
I didn’t really become aware of alcohol and alcoholism until I went to AA, and started listening to stories. Although I don’t attend meetings any more, I first went to meetings at the recommendation of a therapist—probably to prove him wrong—and “kept coming back” for nearly seven years. They suggest newcomers try to identify with the feelings first. In my first copy of the Big Book, I underlined everything I could relate to. In the first chapter, when Bill described his “remorse, horror and hopelessness” after a night of drinking, I could relate. When he talked about “loneliness and despair,” I could recognize those feelings. Reading the literature and going to meetings, I began to see the point.
Listening to other alcoholics describing their lives and experiences, I found, was the best and perhaps only way I’d have been willing to learn about alcoholism. Statistics may say that alcohol is responsible for aggression and physical assaults, for example, but before I got sober, I never considered myself an angry person. Certainly I wasn’t violent—I worked in domestic violence prevention! And yet, when I was drinking, picking a fight with a stranger—altercations that sometimes escalated to physical violence—was one of my favorite ways to end the night. When I heard stories like mine at 12 step meetings, it all started making sense.
Turns out, I Qualified
Personally, I like stories—being a writer, that’s probably obvious. And yet I’m not the only one: there’s actually an impressive body of research that has determined that the most effective method of presenting data is through storytelling. There’s even some scientific explanation as to why stories can sometimes have a greater effect. “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained,” says John Allen Paulos, a Professor of Mathematics, “whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”
Google tells me that “awareness” is the ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of something. It’s to be conscious of events. It means knowing one’s thoughts. It means feeling one’s emotions. The tragic irony of Alcohol Awareness Month is that alcohol’s primary function is to make a person unaware. I was an alcoholic unaware of my problem, and that unawareness increased with every drink. I didn’t believe the problem was booze, and statistics on alcoholism only emboldened my disbelief. It was listening to stories that broke through my denial.
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