By Matthew Betley | CONTRIBUTOR |
Twelve and a half years of sobriety may seem like a long time, especially in the middle of a seemingly endless and politicized pandemic, but as I write these words, there’s a part of me that thinks I should’ve never made it this far in my recovery from alcoholism. But somehow I did, and my life is unquestioningly better for it. I have a family, a career as a professional writer, my health, my sanity, stability, and a number of other things I’d never have had if I hadn’t taken that first two-part step – admitting I had a problem with alcohol and asking for help.
If you’re reading this article, you may be struggling with addiction yourself, or maybe you know someone who is, and that person hasn’t sought help. All I can do is share my experience and one simple truth – if I can get sober, anyone can. There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): “It works if you work it,” and like most catchy, cliche sayings surrounding addiction and recovery, it’s true.
When I was drinking, everything else in my life was secondary. The problem I had is that I was a fairly-intelligent and competent person – a great example of a highly functional alcoholic – but all that intelligence and competence did was feed my ego and prolong my addiction until I finally had to face it head-on or succumb to the disease, because that’s what alcoholism is, without a doubt.
“The first step is the hardest.”
In 2009, I was a 37-year-old Marine captain getting ready to attend my next career-level school ahead of my next promotion. The only problem is that I was truly, utterly miserable, lost in life, unsure of what I wanted, and only making matters worse by drinking myself into oblivion pretty much every weekend since I was 18, destroying relationships, my health, career choices, and any chance for a normal life.
One of the truly insidious problems with alcoholism is that when you’re in it, you don’t see it. You justify and normalize your actions with convoluted pretzel-logic – “stinking thinking” as I once heard it called – that anything you do seems normal when everyone around you knows it’s not. Fortunately for me, I’d seen the infamous rock bottom coming, and I knew it was going to consume me or save me.
For me, the end came on a snowy Sunday night in February 2009. I knew my base was going to be closed the following Monday, and I’d been drinking all afternoon – only 18 beers that day, a light day for me – and I’d run out of beer by 7:30 PM. But I needed more.
As an alcoholic, once I started drinking, I always needed more. And I did what any self-respecting alcoholic would do – I called a cab to go a mile and half in the snow to get more beer before the liquor store closed at 8 PM. I justified it to myself that it was normal because “I wasn’t driving,” although I’d done that more times than I could count. (Horrible side note: by the time an alcoholic gets pulled over for a DUI, he or she has likely driven hundreds if not a thousand times under the influence.)
As I stared out the windshield of the cab watching the snow fall, I was overcome with the pure lunacy of what I was doing, and I fundamentally knew, right at that moment, that it had to stop, because if it didn’t, it would kill me. But don’t get me wrong, even after that realization, I still purchased a 12-pack and drank it to satisfy the physical compulsion that my alcoholism fueled.
The next morning, I called my commanding officer, and I referred myself to the Marine Corps Substance Abuse Counseling Office. A few weeks later, I was attending the “intensive outpatient program” at Joint Base Andrews, where I drove each and every day for five and a half weeks for a full day of counseling, recovery, and therapy.
What was shocking to me is that the other “outpatients” were highly successful service members in their various fields, including one pilot who was an officer of the year. (There’s another lesson for you: alcoholism doesn’t care about your race, job, income, intelligence, gender, or lifestyle – it will gladly destroy you, regardless of how successful you are.)
This time, sobriety stuck, and I here I am, writing these words all these years later, grateful for one more day. But no matter what I have today, I still remember those early days of sobriety, and more importantly, I remember what my life was like before sobriety – the lying to others, the self-deception, the self-destruction, and worst of all, the desperate, suffocating feeling that my life was in a downwards spiral that I couldn’t get out of, no matter how hard I tried.
But I did, and that’s the point. I hit my rock bottom, and I asked for help. One of the best, most surprising, humbling parts of early sobriety and recovery was how encouraging and supportive all of those around me – both military and civilians – were once I faced my addiction. In life, people want you to succeed. They want you to overcome obstacles, especially unbelievably hard ones like addiction. And people are there to help you if you ask for it. But you have to ask for it. No one can really do it for you, even if you’re arrested for a DUI and forced into rehabilitation. Accepting you have a problem is an internal decision you have to make, but once you do, the help and support come soon after.
That first step is the hardest. Believe me. I’ve been there. But like I said at the beginning, if I can get sober, so can you. All you have to do is ask.
Note from the Editor
For Matthew, after his outpatient program through the military, he found the resources, structure, and companionship available through Alcoholics Anonymous to be what he needed to change his relationship with alcohol and walk out his sobriety since 2009. If you find yourself struggling with alcohol or other addiction issues, google resources and support in your local area to see what may work for you or a loved one. Remember, you are not alone.