What Does It Mean to be Sober? A Treatise on a National Crisis
Are you sober?
Do you possess a level of sobriety?
Sobriety in this context is the second meaning of the word. Gravitas, a seriousness. Here are the other synonyms:
Humorlessness; decisiveness, deliberation, determination, firmness, purposefulness, resoluteness, resolve; absorption, attentiveness, concentration, engrossment, enthrallment, immersion, intensity
Here’s what I’m getting at. In a nation where opioid addiction- now exacerbated by heroine and cocaine laced with fentanyl- is wiping out not just entire towns but nearly entire states — are we sober?
One in eight Americans is an alcoholic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 88,000 people a year die of alcohol-related causes, more than twice the annual death toll of opiate overdose. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/11/study-one-in-eight-american-adults-are-alcoholics/?utm_term=.9c62e4d3a180).
What about other drug overdoses and abuses? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 570,000 people die annually due to drug use. Here are the stats (https://thelawdictionary.org/article/every-year-how-many-people-die-from-drug-abuse)/:
-400,000 from tobacco
-85,000 from alcohol
-20,000 from prescription drugs
What about gun deaths? Close to 16,000 people just last year and rising. People who kill with guns aren’t likely to be considered sober(with the exception of the military, but that’s a whole other discussion). Let me offer example: in a Denver neighborhood, a man shot his neighbor in the back of the head five times simply because he mistakenly assumed the other man was beating his dog. FIVE TIMES. And then calmly walked back into his house. They had been neighbors for years. Friendly, amenable. Or so they thought. (https://www.denverpost.com/2018/03/28/thornton-man-neighbor-dog-shot-5-times/)
Sober people do not shoot their neighbors without provocation.
So let me ask you again: are you sober?
Road Rage Insanity
Two weeks ago I was driving my Honda Civic down a fairly busy road. I’d entered from a right hand turn, so was in the slow lane. Two miles ahead I had a left hand turn. It was busy. My right arm is in a sling as I have a rotator cuff tear. That means I drive defensively. About half a mile before the light, I checked all the lanes, turned on my left hand signal, looked over my left shoulder. There was a big pickup, but plenty of room for me to move over safely. I shifted left in front of the pickup, respectfully waved my thanks at the guy.
The driver went ballistic. He leaned on the horn in fury. Accelerated up to within inches of my bumper. As I reached the light and pulled into the left lane, he roared up next to me, screaming obscenities, gesticulating and threatening. This man was three times my size and easily half my age. I’m a 65-year-old woman, one wing down. I might weigh 130 lbs. I wear partials. This guy is threatening to pull me out of my car and beat me to death. I did everything by the book: signalled my intent, left plenty of time to move over before the light, there was plenty of room for me to slip in front of him without causing him to slam on his breaks. By the book.
This guy wasn’t sober. Not in the least. When a slight, 65 year old woman in a small car pulls in front of you to make a left turn and you feel the need to beat the holy shit out of her, there is something fundamentally wrong with you.
A Different Kind of Sobriety
This isn’t just the drunkeness of being addled or cabbaged or skewed by substance abuse.
This is fundamental adult competence.
Gravitas, a seriousness that is born of personal development.
In a world where we have a president who can barely function except to play golf, think or process information, who is anything but sober or thoughtful, nor is Congress able to function in a sober or thoughtful manner when it comes to considering the needs of a multicultural and increasingly diverse nation, is anyone at all sober?
Sometimes I wonder.
Sobriety is Earned
Sobriety is a state of mind that is earned by hard work, thoughtfulness, consideration and a fair amount of pain. There’s no other way to put it. You have to forfeit a lot of fanciful notions of self-importance. What’s unfortunate is that our leadership in America demonstrates about as much sobriety as a group of sophomoric Greek initiates on a bender. People puffed up with puerile self-importance and hurling around threats of nuclear bombs which have the potential to kill billions of people; we have insanity right at the top. Leaders so monumentally insecure that AG Jeff Sessions would want to jail someone for snorting in laughter at an obvious misstatement about his civil rights record (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/14/537232376/judge-throws-out-conviction-of-woman-who-laughed-at-jeff-sessions). Leaders who hurl thoughtless, childish tweets out at 2 am, without the slightest thought to potential damage, the cost of foreign relations or previous promises he made to anyone, for any reason. Drunkards.
The venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning writer George F. Will wrote of Trump:
Yes, a 70-year-old can be callow if he speaks as sophomorically as Trump did when explaining his solution to Middle Eastern terrorism: “I would bomb the s — — out of them. … I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.”
Those are the words of a man seriously sloshed on power, self-importance, and a terrifying lack of understanding of who really pays the price: women, children, the elderly. Entire cultures, and all their culture inheritances, razed to the ground.
We can’t look to many of our leaders for sobriety, when most are bought off by lobbyists, too many use their power to take advantage of women, and their own private antics from sexting teenagers to outright rape are hardly the fodder for admiration. A confederacy of dunces, to cop a phrase, both sides of the aisle, local, state and national politics. To say nothing of CEOs and Hollywood stars. Yet here we are.
In many ways we are a nation of drunks.
The Hard, Cold Truth
Anyone who has ever carried an AA sobriety coin as a token of great pride and accomplishment knows whereof I speak when I discuss hard, cold sobriety as something paid for dearly.
Lots of folks like to believe they’re superior because they don’t drink, so that means they don’t have a problem. I used to believe that nonsense. I had two alcoholics in my family.
I’ve never had a drink. But I’ve been just as drunk as the bar rummy wielding my credit card on designer sales. Just as drunk as Dean Martin of the 1960s Rat Pack securing Krispy Kreme donuts for my eating disorder.
I know what drunk feels like. It’s ugly and unwieldy and horrifying and damaging and destroys lives and treasure and friendships and families.
Yet I got seriously sober. Not without a cost. Never attended a single 12-step program. However the price I paid for slowing down the bus that was careening downhill without brakes was worth it.
Because the alternatives are unthinkable.
Any time we are behaving in an uncontrolled way, we are drunk. This could mean throwing our weight around at work or at home, terrorizing our kids, haranguing a customer service person over something he has nothing to do with whatsoever, taking out our anger on someone who can’t fight back. That’s drunken behavior. You don’t need to down a whole bottle of Jack Daniels to show up like an inebriated asshole. You simply need to have little to no control and not care who you hurt.
We All Have Our Addictions
We all have addictions. The challenge I see is that many of us are having a damned hard time admitting that we are drunk. My father denied his alcoholism until his death. Nobody likes to own up to an addiction. That’s the single most powerful first step to getting over it. The reason we don’t see that we’re drunk in this sense is that the lack of sobriety shows up in a such a remarkable range of behaviors. We just don’t see it as such. We have normalized so many of these compulsions that we don’t recognize how many are destructive. For example, in what educated, thoughtful world is trolling an acceptable behavior? Yet untold thousands do just that. From vicious attacks on high-profile female athletes to school children, trolls are the slimy underbelly of the American public. Pissed off and determined to hurt anyone, because they can.
Sobriety has to do with responsible, thoughtful, deliberate behavior. As a nation we tend to be addicted to Facebook and Instagram and instant gratification and porn and sugar and a whole host of things that distract us from what is immensely important: family, love, friends, developing our education, challenging ourselves, taking care of our bodies and minds. We’re addicted to movie stars and reality TV and sitting on our butts all day and fast food and getting into screaming matches over which way the toilet paper should be turned simply in order to be right. These are not the actions of sober people. Yet they are normalized. Even institutionalized in some cases. Mass consumption of toxic sugar certain times of the year on holidays, for example.
Our biggest single addiction: the need to be right. At all costs. Witness the last election cycle.
Not all of us. But too many.
Our desire to be comfortable rather than challenged has allowed us to slip into the stupor of the soak on the couch, remote in hand, beer in the other, greasy bag of McDonald’s and fries mashed into his hip.
The great comedian George Carlin used to point out that he “wasn’t a good American because he liked to question things.” Precisely. By questioning the behaviors that have become normalized but are destructive, I’m probably by definition a “bad American.” To me it’s not okay to accept the status quo, if the status quo means that too many of us are reeling around like sots and paying inadequate attention to our health, our kids’ health, our national health. Or the opposite- getting so involved that it becomes an obsession to the detriment of other important issues in our lives? Such people populate many of the “anti“-” movements.
I’ve researched a few of these national movements. The leaders and members share remarkably similar characteristics. They are frequently bitterly angry- often about something that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. The topics (school lunches, abortion rights, Planned Parenthood videos) is the vehicle which allows them to express their rage about not having the life they felt entitled to in one way or another. This is true for left and right leaning organizations. I’ve seen it in those who go apeshit over animal rights. Some members are engaged for good reason. Others, well, just need to be pissed off at something. In other words, they need a place to go get soused without actually drinking themselves into a stupor.
Getting drunk (however you choose to do so) is so often in one way or another an act of avoiding pain or anxiety or fear. Whether you develop an OCD or pop open the first of three cases of beer makes no difference. It’s avoidance. Sobriety is all about facing what scares the crap out of you.
Sobriety entails the willingness to question ourselves. Our most closely-held beliefs. Our POV. Whatever we think is worth dying in a ditch over- which in a nation of drunks is increasingly meaningless. Such as, someone’s pulling in front of us in traffic. Not getting the extra 10% off because we’re a day late on the sale. Our baby cries too much, so we shake him to death. Drunk.
The Ticket to Thoughtfulness
Getting and staying sober are hard damned work. Ask anyone who’s achieved success in a twelve-step program. After achieving sobriety, you always stand watch. You’re always and forever on guard. What’s different is now you have the necessary tools to deal with the temptations. You know their faces. You may be forever playing Whack-a-Mole. Trust me, you get very, very good at it.
Sobriety is earned. This kind of sobriety — that of an emotionally mature, engaged adult in a society that desperately needs a nation full of them — is a salve to the insanity that we all deal with everyday. It has to do with our compulsion to take our angers out on the innocent, minorities, the unwary, immigrants, the disabled, our children, our animals, anyone or anything who happens to be in our way. The problem is that when drunk people are armed with power, pharmaceuticals, or guns — name your weapon — we have horrific outcomes. The numbers speak for themselves.
The Austin bomber’s reason for killing innocent people?
The bomber talked on a 25-minute confession video about his despondence over his difficulty with employment and other “aggravating factors.” https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/22/us/austin-explosions-investigation/index.html.
To quote Dennis Leary in Draft Day, “Boo fucking hoo.” GET HELP. Take responsibility for your life. You made your messes. Figure it it out already. Who in God’s name gave you permission to kill others because you couldn’t get a job? You’re in the land where anything is possible. It’s nobody else’s fault that you can’t figure it out. Forgive me for being harsh, but at some point, we have to realize that nobody owes us anything. We owe ourselves- as well as our families, our kids, our employees and those who love us- the responsibility to take our own lives in hand and make something out of them. There is no country in the world where initiative is better rewarded than in America. Yet somehow people like this numbnut feel so strongly that he is owed that he would rip multiple lives apart and create mayhem. Someone has to pay for his difficulty in finding a job. Really? Pray tell, why is that?
It’s Worth It
Taking a good long gander at yourself, your life, the consequences of your actions can be pretty sobering in and of itself. Recognizing that you aren’t a victim (the favorite card for most angry folks) is the first step. Life is just life- how we choose to deal with it is up to us.
Getting sober was worth it. Easy? Hell no. Gone are the massive wardrobes of unworn designer clothes and shoes and the Krispy Kreme donut stashes. I possess enormous empathy for anyone facing the same slog. All I can tell you is that on the other side of this is peace. A watchful, powerful, confident peace. That’s the price of emotional maturity. We pay for our perspectives, our sobriety. And with that payment we make the world a safer, softer, saner place. Slogging through to gain relative sobriety makes us compassionate.
It’s easy to empathize with anyone struggling with addiction. I also fully understand anxiety, depression, frustration, joblessness, bankruptcy, and losing everything. I have been through all of that and a lot more. However I have no patience for people who take out their bitterness on others, who won’t control their impulses. Who down opiate overdoses while their 2-year-old infant is in the back seat. Who run people off the road with a two-ton weapon otherwise known as a car because they didn’t get laid last night. Who verbally abuse their employees because they gambled away last month’s paycheck. Who puts bombs on other’s doorsteps because they can’t get a job. But that’s increasingly where we are as a nation.
With a president who has such childish grudges and impulses he would make entire nations pay for any slight sent in his general direction.
In a world based on instant gratification, the need to be right at all costs, my way or the highway, and if we don’t agree you need to die, we need sobriety.
Yeah. It’s worth it.