What the Experts Won't Tell You about Untreated Alcoholism
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What the Experts Won’t Tell You about Untreated Alcoholism

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This post was originally published on March 12, 2014.

On the evening of Sunday Jan 20th 2008, I sat alone in my apartment and watched as my beloved New York Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. It should have been cause for celebration and for every one of my neighbors, it was. Instead, I dragged my tired body off the couch and trudged out into the frigid cold and headed to work, hoping against hope that the cloud I had been living under for the prior few months would suddenly be lifted. I had been hiding my plight for weeks. I went to work. I went to the gym. I went to meetings. I spoke with my family. I even managed to go on a few dates and smiled when I was supposed to. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I was miserable. I was borderline suicidal. In a word, I was untreated.

It had been a near perfect storm that lead me to this place. It was the middle of winter, a time of year that always had been rough for me. The toxic relationship that I had been in the prior year had come to an ugly, clichéd and dramatic ending and the sponsee that I had been working with, a badass that I had known for years, died of a heroin overdose. The rational, intelligent part of my brain told me that it wasn’t my fault, that I was not in control of anyone else’s behavior, that I did not possess the power to keep anyone else sober. But the voices in my head told me otherwise. I kept hearing the same thing:

“If only you had called him one more time.”

So on January 20th, three weeks after we buried Joey S., a month after my girlfriend and I had told each other the most unspeakable insults and 36 hours since I had had any meaningful sleep, I made a command decision: If I didn’t feel any better in six months, I would take my own life. In truth, I was somewhat relieved. Now I had a solution.

The next day I called my Employee Assistance line and asked for help.

I had been sober in AA for over 20 years at that point. Getting sober at 22 can be both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, not having to suffer a life of drunkenness is a major blessing but being young and arrogant and sober doesn’t necessarily lead one to a life of self-examination and redemption. It usually just leads into different forms of destruction—less lethal, but destructive nonetheless. I explored them all.

Early on, the old timers told me, “Being sober isn’t enough. You’ve got to work on yourself.” I always responded, “It’s enough for me.”

In my defense, I can understand my reasoning. I didn’t have a wife or kids. I hadn’t been drinking long enough to have a trail of misery behind me, so who did I need to make amends to? My mother was overjoyed that I was no longer coming home every night in various stages of oblivion, so why did I need to change?

When I was in my fifth or sixth year of sobriety, the girl that I had been dating unceremoniously told me that she was tired of my philandering, tired of my lying and tired of waiting for me to grow up; she was leaving to marry someone else. I was devastated. It was my first taste of pain and disappointment in sobriety. In the depths of my despair, an old timer told me something that kept me going. He said, “I know you’re not okay at the moment but someday, you’re going to be okay.” I believed that and it stuck with me every day since. As I walked into the office of the staff psychologist, I held onto that same thought.

“Someday I’m going to be okay.”

He asked me a few questions about my metal state and had me diagnosed in about five minutes.

Alcoholic. Adult child of an alcoholic. Difficulty in relationships. Underachiever. Feelings of intellectual superiority countered by bouts of low self-esteem. I had it all. From a clinical standpoint, I was suffering from depression but he used a phrase that I had heard before yet had never been applied to me. I was an untreated alcoholic.

I hated the term. I hated the implication. I also hated the fact that he was right. I had done everything I could to get and stay sober and nothing to grow spiritually and emotionally after that.

We then had a discussion about what type of anti-depressant I should be taking. I shut him down immediately. “Pills are not an option,” I informed him.

“Let me get this straight—suicide is an option but Paxil isn’t?” He was quite smug sitting under his Harvard PhD.

I was as arrogant as he was smug. “Do you have a pill that is going to make me feel better in the next 24 hours?” He shook his head, no. “Then let’s move on.”

I’d like to say that I walked out of his office, never turned back and lived happily ever after. It didn’t happen that way. It took a few more months of riding the roller coaster before the cloud finally lifted. But through it all, I knew that someday I was going to be okay. At one point, my shrink went on vacation and we didn’t speak for three weeks. I decided that the best way to get through the loneliness was casual sex with equally lonely women. When I arrived at his office on his first day back, I was in shambles. The arrogance was gone by then.

Sobriety isn’t for everyone. I know that. AA isn’t for everyone. I know that as well. The Big Book isn’t the answer for everyone. It wasn’t for me. I needed professional help to work on the issues that I was dealing with. But one passage in the Big Book always stuck with me: “When all else fails, work with another alcoholic.”

In my case, another phrase that I had heard inspired me to action: “If you don’t have a service commitment in AA, then you’re not committed to your recovery.” I laughed the first time that I heard that. I wasn’t laughing anymore. I hadn’t made a cup of coffee or chaired a meeting since my second year of sobriety. I went back and joined a new group and got a commitment there. Six years later, I still have it.

I went on a bunch of speaking commitments and rather than talking about how wonderful it was to be sober, I talked about my experiences with depression in sobriety. When I was dealing with it, I was too embarrassed to admit that I was 20 years sober and miserable. When I eventually stood in the front of the room and talked about it, countless numbers of people in similar situations came up and told me that they had experienced the same thing.

I’d like to say that it’s been all sunshine and rainbows since then. It hasn’t. I buried my father since then. I was out of work for a year. I ended another relationship after four years. Life continues on. The depression, however, hasn’t returned. Mostly because I’m committed to my own recovery. There is no secret pill. No magic potion. I treat every event in my life the same way. Good or bad, I share about it. Nothing gets held in.

I used to hate when I heard people say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Now, I’m the one saying it. That and one other saying: “Someday you’ll be okay.”

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About Author

James McAllen was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY where he still resides with his demons and his imagination. His 1st book, Split Rock Road, was a 2014 IndieReader Discovery Award winner. His novel, Pretentious, is available on Amazon. When not making coffee in church basements, he can be found posting on his blog.