5 things I mean when I say I'm an alcoholic

Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m an alcoholic.

That’s how I started my last post. I hadn’t shared that part of my story publicly before, and it felt more than a little vulnerable. But it also felt like one of my most honest and genuine pieces of writing.

I’m more comfortable talking openly about this than I am the other deeply personal topics I opened last week. (That said, I wrote this week for Key Ministry about why church leaders need to talk about sexual assault, and my post next week there will be about 10 ways churches can be safe places for survivors, so I guess I’m getting more comfortable with that discussion too.) And I want to clarify a little bit of what I mean when I say I’m an alcoholic.

1. My body has two switches when it comes to alcohol: yes and no.

For the last six months I was drinking, I never had just one drink. I planned to, plenty of times. But one glass of wine became a bottle. One margarita became a pitcher. One beer became a six pack. (And I’ve never even liked beer.)

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t do middle ground well. I live on extremes. When it comes to alcohol, I can either stay sober or be drunk.

2. I can’t drink. Ever.

My husband, my kids, my friends, myself… we all deserve a sober Shannon. I say I am an alcoholic instead of I was an alcoholic because this isn’t a past tense thing. Sure, I’ve been sober a long time. My kids have never seen me drunk. (And, oh, how I thank God for that grace!) I’ve lived in Raleigh for 11 years now, and no one here has known me as a drinker. But alcoholism doesn’t have a cure. It doesn’t go away. I stopped drinking, yes, but if I started again, I’d be switching back to that extreme.

Last summer, I toyed with the idea of trying alcohol again. It had been long enough, I figured. Maybe I could try socially drinking again. I like alcohol, after all. (You don’t become an alcoholic without liking the taste!) I’m glad I didn’t go there, though. I’m confident it wouldn’t have ended well for anyone.

3. You can drink, though, assuming you’re not an alcoholic.

I’m not bothered by alcohol. As long as you’re not pressuring me to drink, I’m happy for you to have a glass of wine.

(I miss wine.)

I’ll gladly join you, with a diet coke or lemonade or water or anything else that’s not alcoholic. Please don’t feel like you can’t have a drink just because I can’t. I can handle being around alcohol.

Except when I can’t. And if I can’t, I’ll let you know or quietly excuse myself.

And alcohol jokes? Please don’t silence those for me. At a recent birthday party for a little friend of my big girls, the mama hostess quipped that we should have a keg available in the back for grown-ups. I agreed, because OH MY WORD NINE YEAR OLDS IN A SKATING RINK could drive anyone to consider drinking. Another mom friend of mine recently laughed as she suggested a play date where the kids could have Capri Suns while we sipped wine. I didn’t bristle at that. Instead I laughed with her and made a comment about “mommy juice.” I wouldn't have partaken in the keg or accepted a glass of that juice, but I can join in the joking.

4. I have crisis plans in place with my people so I can stay sober.

You might ask, but you’ve been sober for more than 12 years? Why do you need crisis plans? Is life that hard? Here’s the deal. I’ve stayed sober by knowing my limits. During the stress of our first adoption, I found myself craving alcohol for the first time in years, and it scared me. So I texted my friend Melinda, whose background was in addiction counseling but who didn’t know my story back then. I said something like, “I know this is random, but I’m an alcoholic with 8 years of sobriety and I’m struggling. Could we talk?” We had been friends for a while, but that moment shifted us to go far deeper than the surface. I’ve shared a lot online lately, but Melinda knew those stories, just like I knew she was in a dark place before I got the news she had taken her life almost 15 months ago.

I wanted to drive straight to a liquor store when I got that news. But I had a friend’s daughter’s birthday party, and though I didn’t feel like celebrating, I put on sunglasses, loaded up the kids, and drove to the party because sticking to the routine would keep me from buying alcohol. Back then, I hadn’t let other people in much. Other than Melinda, I didn’t have a friend who I could text, “I want to drink. I won’t, but I need someone to know I want to.”

I do now. Several, in fact. My people are truly the best people.

5. Staying sober means dealing with my stuff.

Getting drunk was never about drinking. Staying sober isn’t about not drinking.

I drank to forget. I drank to relax. I drank to feel confident. I drank to not feel at all.

When I told my friend Annabel that I thought I was an alcoholic more than 12 years ago, she said, “You know, the solution isn’t to just stop drinking. You need to figure out why you were drinking in the first place.” Boom. She was right, but I didn’t like it. She’s still right. I know if I want to drink then I need to get curious about what’s truly going on under the surface for me.

I shared a couple days ago that I was going to my first AA meeting. That was last night. I liked it. I’ll go back next week. I won’t blog about it or share details out of respect for the anonymity of the program, but I can say one thing: AA is a room of truth tellers. When everyone who speaks starts off with “I’m ________, and I’m an alcoholic,” that cuts through the superficial.

Everyone’s story is different. Today, a precious friend is celebrating her first year of sobriety. Today, I’m celebrating my 12th year, 2nd month, and 19th day of sobriety. I have other friends with more and fewer dry days they’ve earned. Some of five things I mean when I say I’m an alcoholic will resonate with those friends while others might not. I’m only speaking for me here.

I’m Shannon, and I’m an alcoholic. And this is my story.

And because I love this clip and feel like it explains alcoholism well, I offer Leo McGarry and his story. (Don't try to tell me he wasn't real. In the current state of politics in our country, I've been retreating into The West Wing often. Bartlet for America... )

more than an alcoholic

My name is Shannon, and I’m an alcoholic.

It’s been more than 12 years since I realized that: 12 years, 2 months, and 17 days, since my last drink, to be specific. I knew that night that I wasn’t living a life aligned with the values I professed, but it would be another few days before I realized I truly had a problem. I told my best friend almost immediately. It took a week before I told Lee, my fiancé at the time.

Tomorrow I’ll go to my first AA meeting.

I’m stable. I’m not going because I’m in rocky territory. I'm going because I think there's something powerful and sacred of being in community with those whose stories overlap with your own. I’m going because I always meant to go to meetings, even though I've never been to one.

Tomorrow that changes.

I don’t know if I’ll keep going after tomorrow. Lee will be with me this time. Our new church is just beginning to host meetings, and this first one is open. Anyone can come. Subsequent ones will be closed, meaning they’re just for those trying to live sober.

Next week, I’m planning to go by myself.

That’s fitting in a way. In the beginning, I had a lot of support. Newly sober folks need that. I had a therapist and a supportive fiancé and some phenomenal friends. Then I got married and moved to Raleigh.

And I tried to go it solo.

Technically, I stayed sober. I haven’t had a drink. But I kept my hard-earned sobriety a secret. Instead of celebrating what God had done in my life, I hid it. I kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, and kept myself away from alcohol. I was scared I would be defined by my addiction alone if I told anyone. I didn't want to be treated as fragile if I told new friends I had been sober for exactly 15 months on the day I moved back to North Carolina. So I kept quiet. And I was part of denomination known for abstaining from alcohol, so that fit. Most people assumed I was opposed to alcohol in general.

I’m not. Have a drink for me if you can drink in moderation. Seriously.

(And if it’s a margarita, martini, or glass of Riesling, all the better. Yum.)

This year, I switched things up. The morning of my soberversary, I texted some friends to let them know what the day was. At least one had no idea about my alcoholism until that text. I told my husband. (He knew, obviously, but I'd never made a big deal about the date so the specific day wasn’t on his radar.) I sat in my therapist’s office that morning and started by saying, “So, 12 years ago today I had my last drink.”

She congratulated me.

And I realized I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, for the first time ever.

Lee and I threw together a date at the last minute. Our usual sitter wasn’t busy, surprisingly. I suggested we should go out drinking to celebrate my sobriety, because if you can't make jokes about addiction, what's the point? He nixed that idea. (Spoilsport.) Friends on social media responded to my request for date night suggestions. We ended up at Cowfish.

It felt good to celebrate.

Before March, I felt ashamed of the years I used alcohol to numb my feelings. This year, I’m smiling about the years in which I’ve felt everything so much more deeply. No shame.

I wanted to go public on that soberversary but I wasn’t ready then.

Now I think I am. (Too late now if I'm not, huh? Hi, interwebs. This is the week in which I share all my secrets, it seems.) And I’m heading to an AA meeting. I’m done with shame. I’m done letting the stigma of addiction close my mouth. This story, like the painful story I shared last week, is part of who I am.

But it’s not all I am.

Alcoholism isn’t my sole identity. It won’t be the sole identity of anyone else at my AA meeting. I’m still everything else you know me to me: A wife. A mom. A Christian. An advocate. A writer. A speaker. A Netflix binge watcher. A lover of coffee and bacon. (God, please don’t ask me to give those up.)

Whatever you struggle with doesn’t define you either.

I’m Shannon, and I’m an alcoholic. You’re you, and maybe you struggle with something in secrettoo. And? That’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay. I’m more than just an alcoholic, and you’re more than your secret struggle too. Jesus was and is perfect. We don’t have to be. Thanks be to God.


*I hope I'm not overstepping here, but if you have a secret struggle too, might I encourage you to tell someone? Not to blurt it out, of course, but to be intentional and vulnerable with someone who has earned the right to hear your unedited story? Shame doesn't go away without empathy, and isolation only lets it grow in the dark places where it whispers lies in your ear. The internet isn't the place for most of us to broadcast our personal struggles - and my choice to do so has been intentional and calculated, both weighing the costs and choosing the words with care - but total silence doesn't lead to healing either. Find a friend or maybe a therapist. Life is too hard to do it alone.