This post was originally published on October 13, 2014.
One of the things I learned after I started to clear up a bit in sobriety is that there’s a lot more to telling the truth than just not lying. I was reminded of this again last week as I watched a handful of new guys from my recovery circles—with varying levels of willingness to stay sober—not outright lie, but instead indulge in those lies of omission that can be so damaging to our chances of making it through early sobriety without a relapse.
When I was first getting sober (this time), I did all the stuff I was supposed to do—go to meetings, pray, call my sponsor, do service—but I also did one of the things that I knew my sponsor or the people helping me would strongly suggest I not: Watch my team’s football games at an Elks Club when I was less than a month clean. So I kept my mouth shut and just did it. Even though I had nearly drank myself to death and seriously struggled to get sober, there I was in a fucking Elks Club drinking soda water while everyone else was getting hammered. (There’s a reason they call them Elk-aholics.)
Now I’m not saying that I have to stay out of all establishments that serve booze for the rest of my life—I go to plenty now—but in early sobriety, it’s strongly suggested for a good reason. People who are newly sober usually don’t know how to not drink in those situations, and it’s a high risk (relapsing) versus low reward (hanging with drunks I don’t even really like) proposition. And while I didn’t drink, continuing to hang out in places like that probably kept the obsession going longer than it had to.
So in hindsight, I’ve got to ask myself this: If it was such a good idea and I really didn’t think there was anything wrong with what I was doing, why didn’t I tell my sponsor or another sober person?
Answer: Because I did think it was a bad idea and was afraid that sober people might tell me what a shitty idea it really was. And I’d feel judged, or even worse, I might not actually hang around that shithole bar or engage in some other risky behavior that I didn’t want to tell anyone about (like calling my cocaine dealer just to see how his kids were doing). It’s a lot like people who lie to their therapists by not telling them how much they drink or that that they’re fucking their best friend’s spouse. If I don’t want to stop what I’m doing or I feel embarrassed about it, I just keep quiet and leave those very important details out of my story. But if I’m not going to tell the people that are trying to help me get better about the stuff that is probably hurting me, how am I ever going to get better?
All alcoholics and addicts are, to some degree, liars. Which is something I didn’t believe the first time I came around. I would hear people say, “I was a liar, a thief and cheat” and I would roll my eyes and think, “That’s definitely not me.” But I lied constantly about my drinking, stole money out of my wife’s pocketbook for booze so that she had no lunch money (pre-ATM) and cheated myself out of any kind of a decent life for a very long time.
But it wasn’t really the outright lies that nobody (but me) believed were hurting me. It was the denial, which is a close cousin to the lies of omission and is, for me, just as dangerous. Denial is lying to myself, and I kept denying that my drinking was hurting anyone but me, denying that I couldn’t stop and denying that booze and drugs were the source of my depression and suicidal thinking.
Back to the guys that reminded me of this in the first place.
There were three guys (all with six months or less of sobriety, and two with a history of multiple relapses) who did the “lies of omission” thing, but with varying degrees of consequence. The first is a guy with a history of relapse that I sponsor who had finally strung together five-plus months. His last relapse resulted in a well-thought out plan to hang himself (before he came to his senses and checked into a detox). He has been a model of recovery so far—going to meetings every day, taking multiple group commitments, calling sober people and really trying to do the right thing. But when his wife was leaving town for a week on a business trip? Not a word to anyone, despite the fact that he’d started drinking again every time she left town in their seven-year relationship (four of which he’d spent trying to get sober).
But the day before her trip, he left me a casual message at a time when he knew I was not going to answer my phone. Afterwards, he said he doesn’t know why he “forgot” for so long (this guy tells me everything), but it probably speaks to the insanity that precedes the first drink for alcoholics. After the call, he took some suggestions, doubled up on meetings when she left, made a lot of phone calls and when the desire to drink came rushing back when she left town, he didn’t.
The second guy was not so “lucky.” He was at a morning meeting with his sponsor and our men’s group, and didn’t say a word to anyone about his wife going out of town (and he talked to his sponsor every day). So as soon as her tail lights left the driveway that afternoon, he hit the vodka. He checked into detox after a four-day bender where he didn’t make it to work, and drank again as soon as he got out. After the cops escorted him from his home (because his wife finally had had enough after multiple relapses), he moved in with his parents instead of his wife and two babies. My guess is that it was his plan to drink all along, despite going to meetings and calling his sponsor daily.
The third guy had a little different scenario but it had the same elements. He also planned to hang himself right before getting sober, but like the first guy, went to detox instead. After six months, he had gotten into a relationship (which he told no one about) and it went south. His reaction was to “get away” for a few days a couple hours north of the city where his friend worked at a bar. He told no one before going.
His plan was simple but changed hourly: Visit friend, but not at bar; Visit friend at bar but tell him he’s not drinking; Visit friend at bar and not tell him he’s not drinking but say no when he offers; Fuck it, just drink.
That’s when he called his sponsor, who told him to get to a meeting. He met a drunk guy there who had just relapsed and couldn’t stop crying, so he spent a long time talking to him after the meeting. With this little reminder, he didn’t drink or get drugs as planned.
What’s the moral of these stories? The guys who finally “ratted themselves out,” as we say in Boston, stayed sober. The guy who didn’t drank and now seems like he may have used up his last chance with his increasingly desperate wife.
The truth is that lots of people do stupid things and stay sober. I’m a firm believer that you can be a bartender in a crack house and still stay sober if you want to badly enough, but the chances of success are a lot better if you don’t do risky shit. I’ve found it is just a lot better to run those things by people in a way that might be uncomfortable before I do something that is going to threaten my sobriety.
I’ve also found that the more I live my life in the truth, the easier it becomes.