Mr. Atwater: I went to see a priest about my drinking problem several months ago, and he told me it had something to do with grief.
Nobody close to me has passed away recently, and I’m probably the only one who’s been knocking on death’s door. The only things I feel sad about are I can’t drink and my old friends don’t really want to hang out. The doctor told me that I had to stop drinking, so I haven’t had a drink in a couple months and I started to go to Alcoholics Anonymous with my neighbor. But I’d still like to know what the priest meant about the grief.
Dear Reader: Alcoholism is a disease of paradoxes, and this is one of them. It may seem inconceivable now that you are sad to see something go that was killing you, but when you’re desperate, a bad friend is better than no friend at all.
Alcoholics drink because they cannot accept life on life’s terms, and one of the hardest things to accept is losses; lost dreams, lost childhood, lost opportunities, etc. As the alcoholic drinks to ease the immediate pain of his losses, he loses families, jobs, friends, cars and finally sanity or life. Ironic that the very thing he uses to ease the pain only serves to inflame it.
Alcoholics don’t really drink because they are sad, they drink because they have not been able to accept their sadness. They deny it, make it the fault of someone else, avoid it and continue to drink.
In the short-term, it’s harder to take responsibility for your sadness and face it than to blame, avoid and drink. The long-term, of course, is a different story.
Everyone, including alcoholics, face losses every day. The healthier among us learn from losses, allow their feelings and have learned to incorporate the process of grieving into their lives. Others, however, disallow or negate grieving and say, “I don’t want to feel negative.” They store up their sadness and grief. Only when this emotional tumor has become large enough and created enough symptoms does it become unavoidable without assistance. For some, this assistance is chemical.
While drinking, you had no chance to face your grief. Sober, you have the opportunity to take responsibility for yourself and your feelings and to do the emotional work you’ve been avoiding.
Take one step at a time, and each day sober will bring you closer to resolving the sadness you’ve probably been lugging around for a long time.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.