My So-Called Secret Drinking
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My So-Called Secret Drinking


My So-Called Secret Drinking

This post was originally published on June 17, 2014.

One of the things that I frequently hear people in early sobriety say is that “nobody knew” about their alcoholism or drug use—that they were somehow able to be secretive drunks and addicts whose actions went undetected by the world at large. It’s something that I rarely hear people with longer-term sobriety say, not because they no longer think it’s important, but because they have come to realize that it simply wasn’t true. If you’re newly sober, trust me on this one. A lot more people noticed you slurring, stumbling and nodding off into your mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving than you think.

I had this conversation with one of my sober friends last week, who said this of his so-called secretive drinking, “I thought I was tip-toeing around like a Ninja in the dark, but what I didn’t know was that everyone else was wearing night vision goggles.” He told the people in his life that he didn’t drink and that he had quit drinking on his own (no AA or other program), and he actually did stay stopped for a while. Then a couple of traumatic incidents occurred in his life (both parents died a few years apart) and he started “secretly” drinking—which was apparently only a secret to him. When I mentioned to his wife one day that it was good that he managed to stay sober without having to go to AA, she laughed and casually mentioned that she had been “finding empty bottles in the basement” for a while.

I didn’t think much of this until one evening when we went to the movies. He appeared perfectly normal but when we sat down, the smell of vodka nearly anesthetized me. (If you’re newly sober, here’s a newsflash—vodka does smell, especially the cheap shit that most alcoholics resort to after their disease progresses to the point where it’s the booze and not the taste that matters). I didn’t say anything, and figured it was a once in a while thing for him, because I never saw him actually take a drink. Then I started getting the drunken emails, emails with no punctuation and no point to the stories. A few months later, he called and told me he was in trouble.

I think it’s even tougher for addicts to conquer the “nobody knew” myth, because pills and dope don’t smell. But pupils dilate, and tongues and legs don’t always operate the way we’d like them to when we’re high. I remember when a young woman in my group kept repeatedly referring to herself as a “crafty addict” during her share, so an old-timer asked her out loud, “If you’re so crafty, why are you living in a halfway house?” Most of the room laughed (except her) but she eventually got the point, got real and got sober. For addicts, there’s also the thrill of trying to “get over” on people—therapists, probation officers, staff at treatment facilities. The problem with that is even if they do get away with continuing to use and fool those people, they still can’t “get over” on drugs or the booze. The drugs and alcohol will keep doing the job they’re supposed to do on genuine alcoholics and addicts—destroy them and the people who love them. Who do you fool if you OD and die or pick up a drink and can’t ever stop again? Just yourself.

One of the reasons that we think we’re getting away with our drinking and drugging is that even if we’re obviously fucked up, people really don’t want to call us out on it. Sometimes it’s just because they’re not sure; they know something’s probably wrong when we keep missing our mouths with our forks at breakfast but it’s uncomfortable for a co-worker or friend to ask if you’re drunk or high. And sometimes, especially with loved ones like spouses or partners, they just choose to believe that we’re not really that bad.

I was married to a nurse—make that an uber-nurse—at the time that I was bottoming out, and when my brother told her that I was drinking myself to death, she said I was fine. My eyes and skin had a yellow tinge and I was exhibiting early signs of wet brain, yet she thought I just drank a little too much. Of course, I helped shape her thinking. I would sit on the other end of the couch from her at night, high on coke and stinking like the Schnapps and beer I’d been drinking since the liquor stores opened, and tell her I just had two beers. After I got sober, I asked her why she rarely said anything about my drinking. “I thought it would only make you worse,” she said. She didn’t actually believe me when I said I had two beers—she just hoped it would somehow stop.

My final secret drinking trick—which absolutely nobody believed—was when I came back into AA. I would drink booze then gargle with Listerine before the meeting. Then I just swallowed the Listerine on top of the booze to get it all the way down to my innards to extinguish the smell. Then I just started drinking straight Listerine like the homeless guys. Nobody bought it, because despite my minty fresh breath, I was still hammered. I was crushed when someone called me out on it, but I got sober shortly thereafter.

As the cliche goes, you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but in the end you can never fool booze and drugs if you’re an alcoholic or an addict. They know you and they’ve got your number.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.