FEATURE: Sober Lines

By on January 12, 2016

Struggling to kick the bottle in a resort town.

(Illustration: Cait Lee)

(Illustration: Cait Lee)

Jackson, WY – “I’m just going downhill. I think I might be dying,” Elliot said as he paused from playing Grand Theft Auto. Elliott is in his mid-20s. He is snowboarder with a job at one of the resort’s bars with a weakness for Four Lokos and vodka. What does he have to say about his experience as an alcoholic? “Probably wouldn’t want to publish it. It’s all death and gloom.”

Elliott says he figured out he was an alcoholic when he was 21, even though he had been in and out of juvenile centers and rehab since the age of 14. “It really didn’t click that I couldn’t drink normally until I was 21,” he said.

How does Elliott know he’s an alcoholic? “I just keep drinking and my mind is consumed with the thought of the next drink and the effects that that produces for me. Simple tasks seem impossible without that feeling,” he said.

He calls it a euphoric rush that goes away as soon as he feels he has it in his grasp, like “scraping heaven and never really getting there.” Instead he wakes up in a ditch or at a stranger’s house with no idea of how he got there, how he passed out or what he said or did.

How has addiction to drugs and alcohol changed Elliott’s life?

“You name it, it happened: incarceration, fights, numerous destroyed friendships and relationships, crime, theft — sometimes from friends and good people who didn’t deserve it in order to get more,” Elliot said. “Somehow I have the ability to black all of this out when I’m walking to the liquor store because my addicted brain only allows me to remember the euphoric rush of that first drink or hit.”

Elliot entered Alcoholics Anonymous at one point, but he didn’t make it very far. He could never get past the 20 minutes of 12-step reading and the rigidity of the program. “It’s like they think that by reading this book it’s going to change my outlook. It was written in the ’30s, and it seems to me to be a large connection of sob stories,” he said. “Programs are BS. They have you pay money, which is why I quit Curran-Seeley, because I couldn’t afford it. I’m sure they mean well, but this has to come from inside of me and I have to really want it. I just don’t feel inspired enough to quit.”

Indeed, while Elliot may be a critic of organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, others say their criticism stems from the discomfort they feel at the notion of getting sober rather than at the organizations that provide support.

AA was dreamt up during a meeting between a businessman named Bill Wilson and a physician named Bob Smith in 1935 in Akron, Ohio. Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as they are known today, were alcoholics. Wilson had attained sobriety largely through his affiliation with Christianity. Smith, inspired by Wilson, stopped drinking after the two met. Determined to help other problem drinkers, the men soon published what has become known as “The Big Book,” which spelled out their philosophy, principles and methods, including the now famous 12-steps to sobriety. “Alcoholics Anonymous” was the book’s official title and also became the name of the organization that grew from it.

In a recent Saturday Evening Post article, “Making the Case for AA,” Jack Alexander wrote, “There is no specious excuse for drinking which the troubleshooters of Alcoholics Anonymous have not heard or used themselves.” When people rationalize their drinking at a meeting, they are met with dozens of comparable rationales and experiences. A new member of AA may get upset or defensive. New members don’t want to feel interrogated or made to feel bad for their actions and any little thing perceived as negative can trigger their defenses. They might also feel suspicious at meetings, like their leg is being pulled by a troupe of actors.

Alexander wrote that AA members insist, “The program will not work with those who only ‘want to want to quit,’ or who want to quit because they are afraid of losing their families or their jobs. The effective desire must be based upon enlightened self-interest; the applicant must want to get away from liquor to head off incarceration or premature death.” They have to be fed up with their stark social loneliness and bungled lifestyle.

Too violent or poignant

In the introduction of his book “Nature, Man and Woman,” Alan Watts wrote, “We know that the peaceful rationality, the relaxed culture and the easy normality of civilized human life are a crust of habit repressing emotions too violent or poignant for most of us to stand.”

Maybe that’s why people often turn to the immediate gratification of an addictive substance to escape the emotions and mental conflicts occurring within or around them. It isn’t normal to be constantly happy, and yet messages promulgated by the media tell us otherwise. So in order to attain a feeling of perfect happiness, some look for fulfillment from outside sources, whether that be skiing or illicit substances.

In a resort town, being happy reaches a whole new level. Reality becomes centered on finding the escape, and the escape, if not found in nature and adventure, is sometimes found in an addictive substance. The way of Tao, or simplicity without escape, is replaced with the way of the substance — anything from liquor to methamphetamine — picking up where the Tao left off. Oftentimes activities such as hiking, backcountry skiing, mountain biking and climbing are directly followed by substance-focused soirees — wine sipping at art openings, beer drinking at community events or cocktails at your friends’ housewarming.

So how does someone seeking sobriety reconcile the devil-may-care freedom and nonchalant attitude of mountain town living with clean living?

Hushed desires

Michelle* is a language arts teacher at a local public school. She says sobriety changed her entire life and it’s something she struggles with daily.

“I first got sober when in Seattle. At the end of my drinking I’d get so drunk I’d black out every day or almost black out. Drinking was my reward for getting through the day. I was drinking through my anxiety and disappointment with myself because I hadn’t fulfilled my dreams for a great job or life,” she said.

When Michelle was laid off from her job in Seattle, things got worse. “That gave me the green light to drink all day, every day. I’d wake up, work out and go buy a box of wine,” she said. “It was so bad my mom flew out to get me.”

Michelle moved home to Jackson and lived with her parents again. She also got a teaching degree and began teaching in the public school system. She said she got sober by leaving her old stomping grounds.

“Getting sober where you used to drink a lot is really difficult,” she said. “I had to physically remove myself from the environment I was drinking in and the people I was drinking with.”

Six months ago, when Michelle had been sober for three years exactly, she made the decision enough time had passed. She thought she had gained enough control over her disease that she could start drinking again, that things would be different this time.

“In the back of my mind I knew I was an alcoholic and couldn’t have a couple glasses of wine,” she admitted. “Basically I drank nonstop for 10 days. It was spring break, and I was so spun out and right back to where I was before, drinking wine and gin. I prioritized alcohol over everything and everyone else. After 10 days of doing that I realized I couldn’t live like this anymore. I thought, ‘If I don’t stop now, I really have the danger of never being able to stop.’

So she quit on a Sunday. “It was horrible. I had an anxiety attack. I took a shower and was with my boyfriend all day. I went to an AA meeting. It’s so difficult. Even now I want to drink every day. If I could do it without being caught or anyone knowing, I would want to go in a room by myself and drink. That’s my epitome of enjoyment and extreme ecstasy: being intoxicated. And that’s the reality. I can’t do that. … It’s hollow and a hollow life.”

Unlike some addicts, Michelle has to be very careful who she divulges her struggles to, which limits her support network. “Some people totally wear their alcoholism on their sleeve, but I don’t because I’m a professional and a teacher and there’s a total stigma with something like this.,” she said. “I’d be judged, and parents of the children I teach would be uncomfortable and not want me around their child. A lot of people know I don’t drink, but I don’t say why. It’s important for me to stay anonymous, and it’s really difficult to do that in a small town where someone might see you going to an AA meeting or talking to a friend.”

What should a friend or loved one living with an alcoholic do?

“You want to support and love them but the horrible reality of alcohol is that it’s the most important thing to that person,” Michelle said. “All I wanted to do with my friends was drink. If it didn’t involve alcohol I wouldn’t even go to something. … So, for someone living with an alcoholic? You have to put yourself first. Remember to take care of yourself.”

An example of the medallions some chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous give to thier members when they reach certain milestones of sobriety. (Photo: wikimedia commons)

An example of the medallions some chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous give to thier members when they reach certain milestones of sobriety. (Photo: wikimedia commons)

Work hard, play hard, party hard

Matt Stech is a substance abuse and mental health counselor. He’s worked for Apex Substance Abuse Counseling and in prevention management organizations and suicide prevention programs. He’s currently involved with a coalition on substance abuse and “Healthy Teton County,” which focuses on youth alcohol use and changes to local ordinances involving alcoholism in the community.

Stech believes that binge drinking is high among youth in Teton County because of the number of young adults who come here to work seasonal jobs, ski and party.  A large population of young adults and older teens intersect at the mountain, and “the young adults party atmosphere strongly influences youth.” The way our community is structured creates confusing mixed feelings for people, Stech added. While there are a lot of outdoor activities there are also a lot of drinking-related activities. “Work hard, play hard, party hard” is the mentality and it’s hard to untangle that from the social scene and the prevalence of alcohol.   

Stech sees a pattern in Jackson. Many healthy 40-somethings with moderate to no substance use enjoy normal lives, while other people of the same age who haven’t learned to moderate their drinking are paying the price in different parts of their lives, especially their health starting in their 30s and progressing into their 40s.

“At Apex the stereotypical client profile was late 20s to early 30s with one or two DUIs, and suddenly the kid is thinking, ‘Whoa, wait a second.’ Suddenly going from recreation to treatment he or she has a kind of existential crisis. The system is saying, ‘This isn’t working out for you.’ So suddenly your whole lifestyle has to be examined,” he said.

When a person goes from partying every day at 23 to racking up problems with the law, money, jobs and relationships and taking weekly drug and alcohol tests at 29, then there is an intense feeling of vulnerability and of shame, failure and discomfort. So that’s when a choice has to be made. Continue along a path that isn’t working out or change? One in four of the people in this situation make the appropriate changes, Stech said. It’s not a vacation or another escape, but it can be a respite from hell.

There’s no such thing as bad enough

David* is a 25-year old student and thespian. A recovering alcoholic and narcotics user, he’s been sober for six years.

He started getting sober when he was 18 and was bumped off to rehab by his parents for being a suicidal drug-addicted teen. He said he started young, getting “fucked up” and trying to “figure it out.”

“I’ve been in AA since then. I’ve been around all different kinds of programs between Jesus freaks and agnostics, had people relapse and die, and relapse and be fine. I feel like I’ve gotten to see a lot in the eight years I’ve been banging around these rooms,” he said.

David thinks the hardest thing for anyone is admitting you’re an alcoholic. And by admission, he doesn’t mean just realizing and knowing you’re addicted to alcohol, but also recognizing that you can’t live a normal life if you drink.

“There is no such thing as bad enough. It’s only wherever one chooses to stop. That’s the bottom. Because it can only get better from there,” he said.

How did David identify as an alcoholic who needed AA? “I walked into my first AA meeting and they made you introduce yourself as an alcoholic and made me raise my hand and say it was my first time at a meeting. I wanted to burn everything down. I was sitting there fuming and panicking, and the room was filled with Hells Angels bikers. And some scary guy, with I can only assume Vietnam or bar brawl scars, raised his hand and spoke. The words coming out of his mouth were all of the things that I thought in my brain. Uncontrollable fear of people, self hatred, feeling like I can’t live without drinking, being scared at night of being alone with myself, not knowing what to do with my hands at home or at a bar or with friends or with family. [Feeling] happy, sad, angry, loved or any state of being without handling it by either drinking in the moment or immediately after, or days or months later just thinking about the event that made me need to drink it away.”

That old, white, sunburned dude in a leather jacket with leather skin sounded, thought and spoke exactly like David. That was the first step for him. Seeing other people who he could identify with and who self-identified as alcoholics, and seeing what those people did that made them miraculously happy through this “antiquated, draconic 12-step system.”

So to get sober, David went into therapy, a lot of therapy. “And I cried a lot. And I had a lot of people hold me. And more importantly, I actually let people hold me. I was never able to do that. I still have trouble with it now but I’m trying,” he said.

“I wrote a gratitude list and put it on my mirror. I also burned it several times because I thought it was f*cking stupid.

“I made my bed every morning. And when I got home even after my whole day was a horrible, anxious, shaking mess I still had done one thing right that day. I walked through my thoughts on situations concerning everything with other people — whether to quit a job, how to resolve an argument with my parents, even if I thought it was OK to be angry or sad about something. Because I’d been drinking for so long I hadn’t grown emotionally, and I was a stunted angry teenager even at 23.

David said he began to find joy in daily activities such as cooking and reading, but he says the most important thing he did was acknowledge his very real problem. “There’s no such thing as will power. Not for an alcoholic. The moment that I drink I lose anything that I’m trying to do for myself. I’m not me. I’m something else. I’m David plus alcohol. Normal drinkers aren’t like that.”

The culture of intoxication has long been accepted by mainstream society, barring that pesky time from 1919 to 1933 called Prohibition. (Photo: wikimedia commons)

The culture of intoxication has long been accepted by mainstream society, barring that pesky time from 1919 to 1933 called Prohibition. (Photo: wikimedia commons)

Battling the brain

Trudy Funk is the executive director of Curran-Seeley, a local outpatient program. She emphasizes that substance abuse affects not only clients but also the people around them. 

Funk recommends roommates, partners and family members seek support at Al-Anon and encourages addicts to find life skills that can be long-lasting, enjoyable alternatives to the escape alcohol momentarily provides.

The first step of recovery is not using, she said. The second is changing the habits, behavior and thought patterns that cause substance abuse. “Working around” addiction is almost impossible. And it’s tough to give up a familiar lifestyle — the familiar friends, the excitement, she said.

Think about how many New Year’s resolutions are made. People stick with them for one week, maybe one month. Multiply that by 100 and you’re dealing with an addiction. Instead of changing one or two daily habits, cutting out an addiction requires a full change in your brain chemistry. “It’s battling with your brain to change your lifestyle,” Funk said. It’s something you can’t do on your own.

Teton County has Apex and Curran-Seeley to provide support. It also offers several AA meetings a day and three Al-Anon meetings per week.

In a town like Jackson, Funk says it’s really hard to find a function that doesn’t include alcohol. A lot of people come here to party for vacation or for the season. They’re here to ski and after they ski they go to Nick Wilson’s and have a beer. It’s a party town, and people here like to escape responsibility, to escape their feelings and to escape sobriety.

Quitting alcohol when it’s something that surrounds you takes strength and immense will power, Funk says. “To say ‘I don’t want it, I don’t need it,’ that’s a skill set,” she said.

To say no usually involves battling social anxiety or depression. What caused alcoholism in the first place? What is the substance for you? How do you combat it? These are things that outpatient programs and AA can help answer. And these are the questions that friends and family members need to learn to ask addicts to help them without drowning in their manipulations, justifications and defenses.

“Every addict needs a good enabler,” Funk said. “If people stop supporting them they suddenly have to take a look at themselves. They might be angry, but they will be faced with, ‘Wow, that happened because of my alcohol use.’”

Sobriety or comfort?

Elliott returned for a second interview. He’d been thinking a lot about the possibility of returning to AA and getting sober. “I guess part of me doesn’t want to get sober and get my life on track,” he said. He feared the withdrawal and says he doesn’t want to go through two weeks of hell only to relapse again.

He says he wants to continue experiencing feelings of euphoria and freedom, but has found them more challenging to earn and easier to lose as novel “experiences” such as homelessness become a long-term reality. Elliott is also worried about losing himself.

“I think I’ve abused so many drugs and damaged so many receptors up there that any positive mood I may have, or flash of inspiration, I’m extremely suspicious of and know it’s only temporary,” Elliott said. “There just isn’t enough good in the world for me to see this life as worth living for and being happy all the time. Alcohol doesn’t make me happy but it makes me care less about the situation.”

Elliott thinks that the possibility of getting sober is better in a mountain town like Jackson. He believes that there are a lot more positive and vibrant young people here than elsewhere. He also believes there’s an element of adventure being in the mountains with your friends that will never be topped by any generic sensation created by drugs and alcohol. He thinks addicts are drawn to towns like Vail, Taos and Jackson because many of them are thrill seekers and sensitive, intelligent people looking for an escape from their mental and emotional battles.

Claudia Black is a psychotherapist, a renowned addictions and codependency expert and the best-selling author of “It Will Never Happen to Me,” a book about growing up in an alcoholic household.

Black maintains what Elliott says is valid. She believes that, like many addicts, he is seeking an intense lifestyle as a way to distract himself from pain. But Black isn’t sure that necessarily makes small mountain towns like Jackson a positive or a negative on the road to recovery.

“The culture is more one of escape,” Black said. “Addicts don’t go to Jackson Hole to meditate. They often are hiding out from other responsibilities and fueling their addictions.” However, the area is filled with opportunities for daring outdoor adventures that don’t preclude sober living. In reality, Black believes, it doesn’t matter if you live in Chicago or Jackson, in a city, in the suburbs or off the grid. People can find recovery wherever they are if they’re motivated to do so.

She says that while you should leave if you are unable to find the right support for sobriety where you’re living — and very seldom are you going to be able to keep up with the same friends who shared and enabled your addictions — you transport your fears, mood swings, habits and addictions with you when you move.

Still, Elliot hopes the valley can help to save him. “There’s so much other stuff to do [in Jackson],” he said, “that if you really wanted to get sober and work on your life there’s an abundant wealth of resources and ways to stay active and people to meet seeking adventure without substances. That might be why I’m here. Not being able to simply be happy and in the moment is probably the dearest thing to me that addiction has taken away and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” PJH

*The subject has requested his or her name to be changed.

About Claudia Turner

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