Owning the Label: Why I identify as an alcoholic

Last night, I stumbled on an article by a sober blogger who doesn’t believe in the term “alcoholic”. Hmm. Tell me more. I kept reading.  Turns out, they think the term keeps people stuck in a story, that most alcoholics are actually just heavy drinkers and that the term creates fear. That was the gist of the piece. I won’t link it here because the author has enough publicity without my help but if you Google it, it’s easy to find. It’s an interesting argument and I could see where they were coming from. Maybe the term does get people stuck in a behavior. Maybe the term is out of date. Maybe calling yourself an addict or alcoholic would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for relapse. I thought about all of this as I tried to fall asleep. It made me wonder: I’ve been sober for nearly 7 years and after all this time, am I still an alcoholic?

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The resounding answer I came up with at the crack of dawn this morning was, “Fuck. Yes.” No, I don’t want to drink anymore. And no, I don’t arbitrarily go up to people and introduce myself as an alcoholic. “Hey! Nice to meet you. I’m an alcoholic!” Nor do I list “alcoholic” on my resume or social media profiles. But in a meeting? I’m Sean and I’m an alcoholic. And if a friend or a friend of a friend asks about my drinking, I’ll tell them I’m an alcoholic. Why? Mainly because at this stage of my sobriety, it isn’t about me anymore. It’s about helping other people. Look, we’re in seriously fucked up times when it comes to addicts and alcoholics. People are dying at alarming rates all over the US. The recent numbers are jaw-dropping. Alcohol related deaths topped out around 88,000 last year and it looks like it’ll be even higher for 2015. We’re at an epidemic state with drugs and alcohol so arguing the semantics of terms (like I’m sort of doing here) is fucking ridiculous. As is criticizing recovery programs. We’re officially at a “whatever keeps people alive and sober is a GOOD thing” state of emergency. We can’t afford the luxury of denying people help based on what they call themselves or what they believe. We have to do whatever we can. So If somebody somewhere knows that I’m an alcoholic and that helps them get help, then terrific.

The other thing is identifying as an alcoholic does is it keeps me grounded. When those words come out of my mouth, it’s like an exhale. Each time I say it, I’m living in the truth. As an alcoholic, I lie to myself. Like a lot. And like all of the time. So saying, “My name is Sean and I’m an alcoholic” helps me combat my lifelong penchant for living in denial and delusion. Likewise owning that I’m gay, HIV positive, the child of an alcoholic and a person who suffers from depression. These are all parts of who I am and I gotta say I’m proud of it. All of it. I’ve worked hard on overcoming a lot of shit (and still have even more stuff to work on) so hell yeah I own being a drunk and all of the other labels attached to me.

Lastly, introducing myself as alcoholic reminds that I still need help too. That I don’t have this shit figured out. That I’m not some expert in sobriety who can fix the drinking problems of others (thank fucking God). Basically, it opens the door for some sort of humility to creep in. Those words tell me I’m not better than or more sober or more amazing than any other alcoholic or addict and I need that. So yeah, I’m Sean and I’m an alcoholic.

But tell what you think. Do you identify as alcoholic? Did you ever? Why or why not? There’s no wrong answers here, kids and I’m fascinated by this discussion. Let me have it in the comments section!

has anyone ever written anything for you?

First things first please, take a few minutes to listen to this song and story behind it and then I promise I’ll talk your ear off.

There’s a special kind of grace needed when you have a “chronic manageable disease” like HIV. See people will tell you that “Oh yeah. My neighbor has it and he’s fine”, “Oh I just read a thing about a girl in France who cured herself from it by going vegan” or “Maybe you should take more vitamins/take less vitamins/get new medication/stop medication/do yoga/do Pilates/meditate more.” Grace comes in handy when you can nod your head and say, “Okay.” But the thing is these poor, well-meaning folks are just trying to say something to make you feel less awkward and don’t really realize that we’ve pretty much tried everything if we’ve had a manageable disease for a few years. I’ve told this story on these pages before but its a funny one and worth repeating. When I was first diagnosed with HIV nearly 4 years ago in August, my nurse when trying to talk me off the ledge said, “HIV is a manageable condition like diabetes.” Oh in that case, sign me up. because diabetes always seemed like a trip to the tropics. Tahiti? No thanks! Who needs it when you have diabetes!

Also, let’s talk about this manageable word they like to throw around.Doctors are in essence are telling us that we are becoming managers of whatever our given affliction is. Correct me if I’m wrong but management seems like a lot of work. Whether you’re managing Mariah Carey or a McDonald’s, managers are some hardworking motherfuckers. As my own condition has recently caused me some health problems with a side order of fear ( I would have rather had onion rings, by the way), I have to get into gratitude. I am grateful that it’s treatable and that I have good doctors. I’m grateful for all the prayers and spiritual assistance. Yet I acknowledge that it sucks and that it’s hard. So here is where Stevie comes in.

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That song so beautifully talks about giving it away when you feel the absolute worst. I hope I can do that. I need to do that right now. Here’s my attempt to do so. If you have traumatic brain injury, manic depression, rheumatoid arthritis, bipolar disorder, suffered a stroke, are getting off drugs, have just lost a loved one, can’t get out of bed, tried to kill yourself, suffering from MS, learning to walk or speak again, trying to not pick upon a drink, living with HIV and yes diabetes; all I can say is I get it. As a bonus, I won’t tell  you what books to read or that my old English teach has whatever you’re dealing with.  All I can tell you is even if it is manageable, I know you hurt , that everyday is a battle to stay positive and healthy and that I am sorry. I hope you can laugh, I hope you do nice things for yourself and know that by fighting and managing everyday, you’re helping me and lot of other people. So has anybody ever written anything for you? I have.

And I hope you can do the same for someone else. As Stevie says, “If not for me, do it for the world.”

Resty McResterson

Rest-AreaI’m not great at following directions or heeding the advice of others. In fact, my inner child is constantly screaming, “Don’t tell me what to do! You’re not the boss of me!” Suffice it to say, this has made my four and half years sober a challenge. It’s not my nature to take direction; its my nature to tell you to go screw yourself and to mind your own damn business. Over the years, I have gotten better at this though. I figured out pretty quickly if I wanted to stay sober, I needed to listen to people who knew more than I did. I’ve learned to say “Thank you” or “That’s an interesting idea” or “I’ll have to try that sometime” when well-meaning/controlling people have a litany of ideas on how I could fix myself. I’ve even learned to ask for advice and for help when I’m really stuck. So when my doctor told me to get rest this weekend, I took it seriously.

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Stress and running myself ragged is something, like not taking direction, that also comes naturally to me. Unfortunately, given my HIV, its also the kind of behavior that can win me a first class ticket to the ER. Even though there were a ton of events and activities happening this weekend, I cleared the docket and chilled the hell out. I snuggled with my cat, I watched Hulu, I wrote a ton, I read and I napped in a manner that would make the aforementioned feline very proud. I cancelled a couple of things. I put off some work stuff until Monday. In short, I rested.  And guess what? I feel better! Taking 48-hours to relax has really helped. Last week was a whirlwind of stress, doctor appointments and running around like an idiot. Amid the uncertainty and general fear, it was imperative that I find a way to power down and take care of myself. I managed to do it and I’m so happy I did.

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Maybe its the heat. Or the fires. Or the stress from all these doctors appointments. But today, despite my best efforts, I was crabby. Maybe even a little bitchy. And sort of crazy.

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A telltale sign that old Sean isn’t his shiny happy self is when I start yelling at inanimate objects and muttering to myself like the guy outside the soup kitchen who looks like Famous Amos and mumbles about conspiracy theories. So earlier today when I cussed out an ice cube tray and yelled at my phone charger, I knew I wasn’t in the best shape. I actually started wandering around my apartment,  bitching at no one or nothing in particular. This was not cute.  I was a Nick Nolte beard and handmade sign away from being totally batshit. Luckily, no human beings were harmed in my momentary lapse in mental health.

Mainly, my patience is shot and I feel totally and utterly overwhelmed. I wanted to wallow and sleep all day. But thanks largely to the criminal lack of chocolate in my apartment and a simmering feeling that I needed to get outside of my crabby-ass self, I went to a meeting. For 60 minutes, my crap melted away and seeing people I love and who love me back–crabbiness and all- healed my stank attitude, even if it was only temporary. This works for me over and over again. Hearing others hope and strength and courage suddenly makes whatever crabbiness and self-pity I’m going through seem ridiculous. But today something else happened too. People in my meeting who know what I’m going through came up and hugged me and asked if I needed anything.I felt like regardless of how awful my mood was I was going to get thru it.

These feelings of “kumbaya” faded after a phone call from my clinic which began, “I don’t mean to freak you out but…” Really? Who does that? Just FYI healthcare people of planet Earth: just by saying I don’t mean to freak you out, you’ve already done so. It wasn’t too big of a deal however and I’m going back in for a treatment that should help until I get my new meds. It just all seems like a lot right now. Oh crap. Suddenly, I’ve blogged myself from crabby to whiny.

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Before this turns into a therapy session, I’ll wrap it up. This is what I do know: I’m going to be fine. And not being happy all the time and pretending like everything is okay is actually pretty healthy for a chronic people pleaser like myself. Nobody promised me that if I got sober I’d never have another problem ever again. What they did promise me is that I’d have a life beyond my wildest dreams, that I’d never have to drink again and that amazing people would be part of my fellowship.  Crabby attitude and stressed out self aside, I know this to be true and the meeting I went to earlier confirmed it. In the meantime, I’ll work on my attitude.

 

Jamar Rogers of ‘The Voice’ is My Kind of Hero

By now, readers of this blog have picked up on the fact that I’m kind of a reality TV whore. And by kind of I mean a  total reality television junkie. I’m especially into things that are competitions. Chopped, Top Chef and Amazing Race are among my favs. After years of watching American Idol and drunkenly yelling at the TV when the wrong person won, I thought I gave up on singing reality competitions. But last year, The Voice roped me in with the mere promise of Cee Lo Green’s funktacular presence and the program enticed me yet again this season. Unlike last year however, I’m really invested in the outcome this time around. Because this time around The Voice has a contestant who’s an awful lot like me.

27 year-old Jamar Rogers is an addict in recovery who also happens to be HIV positive. He rocked his blind auditions with a rollicking cover of the White Stripes “Seven Nation Army.”  As I watched his interview and his triumphant ass-kicking performance, my eyes welled up. Here was this cool kid with mad amounts of talent saying to America “Look you can recover from drugs and alcohol and be HIV positive and still rock out.”  His dream came true that night when  the aforementioned Cee Lo picked him for his team. Last week, Rogers secured a place in the finals after defeating his friend Jamie Lono in the battle rounds. Again, more tears were had both by Rogers on stage and by me at home. Jamar’s story has moved me from moment one not just because of how similar it is to my own but because of how The Voice has embraced him as a modern hero and an inspiration. And if you think about it, us ex-drunks and recovering junkies are heroes. In an era where musical legends are routinely taken out by addiction and alcoholism without so much of a raising of the eyebrow, stories like ours are rare and heroic indeed. We’ve honestly tackled our addictions and gone after the lives we want.

Well,except for that reality TV addiction. I’m not giving that up anytime soon. Not at least until I get to see Jamar Rogers win The Voice. I’ll be, unabashedly, clapping and crying the whole way.

You’re the inspiration

When I was drinking and using drugs, I used to tell myself “everything is going to be okay.” I said this especially when things were really fucked up. Like I honestly thought just by saying everything was going to be okay that it would be instantly better. I know now that yes, everything will be okay but it helps if I’m actually doing something to insure the road to okayness. Things are less likely to be shitty when I’m not contributing to the overall shit-fest.

At seven months sober, I had run away to live by the ocean and go to AA meetings and go back to school. I left my hipster part of town, my relationship of 12 years, and my daily drinking friends to get my act together. I didn’t know what getting my act together would exactly entail. Like did that mean I was going to rehearse dance numbers and sew sequins on a top hot or did it mean admitting I had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol and asking for help? I’m afraid it was the latter, less glamorous and more daunting set of tasks I had to take on. I gained some clarity and started to face parts of my life that previously scared the shit out of me. Through this lifting of the fog, I decided it was time to go to a doctor and get a HIV test. I was a 36 year gay man who snorted and screwed his way through Los Angeles in the 90’s and had only been tested once. It was time. It’s never a good sign when the clinic that took 3 hours to take your blood and tells you they’ll call you in two weeks blows up your cellphone three days later at 8 o’clock in the morning. They needed me to come in for my results. As soon as possible.  Fuck. The grey haired gentle RN, whom I’m sure I owe some sort of apology or thanks to, told me I was HIV positive. It was as if she said those words and then I was submerged underwater. The next 5 minutes were a blur as my face grew hot and red while tears dripped down my cheeks like a leaky faucet. I barreled down the stairs of the clinic desperately trying not to collapse or vomit. Great, I thought to myself. What wonderful timing. Divorced, trying to get sober and now HIV positive. Given my current streak of fabulous luck, I assumed it was only a matter of time until I found out that I was adopted or that I needed to have a limb removed. Once on the bus, I called my sister. I told her the news. And told her I really wanted a drink. She told me I couldn’t and told me to go home and lay down. While blubbering tears, I said “I never wanted to be somebody who had to overcome things. I never wanted to be an inspiration.” She wisely replied, “Well sweetie, it’s not up to us.”

Two and a half years after that diagnosis and days before my third sobriety birthday, I’m still not sure that I’m ready to be an inspiration or if I even qualify. But I do know this, I have gotten through what I’ve gotten through largely because when I thought my world was crumbling,  people who had lived through similar things told me “you are going to be okay” and I believed them. I wasn’t like when I lied to myself  that everything was just fine. Oddly enough it was admitting that everything was supremely fucked up and having the courage to laugh about it,  that made everything okay.  So that in short, is why this blog exists. Sharing a laugh or talking about uncomfortable things makes me feel better.  And maybe I can do that for you too.  Hopefully others who are addicted or positive or heartbroken will read this and believe me from the bottom of my heart that everything, will in fact, be okay.