Sometimes, I wish Ellen DeGeneres was an alcoholic.
I’m glad she’s not, but we alcoholics need someone with big balls and a big profile like Ellen to celebrate the life that results from alcoholism.
When Ellen came out as gay to over 41 million people on her very popular prime time sitcom in 1997, she was loud and proud about it. Actually, she was grinning and sarcastic, but that’s her trademark style, and pride just oozed from her confident and hilarious pores. I’m sure that in reality, she was terrified of the repercussions, but it didn’t show. What we all saw was a famous person declaring something important about herself unapologetically and without concern for the approval of others. And by telling us she didn’t care what America thought of her sexual orientation, she won our approval in ways and in numbers never before considered possible.
It was a game changer for our society in general, and the LGBTQ community specifically, and as an alcoholic, I’m jealous.
Ellen didn’t admit to a character flaw. She used humor to boldly announce who she was. She hadn’t learned to live with a handicap or forgive herself for a dysfunction. She wasn’t in the process of making amends with all of her straight friends who didn’t understand. She was gay. She was happy. And our bigoted misunderstanding wasn’t her problem anymore.
And I’m desperate for someone as strong and famous as Ellen DeGeneres to liberate us alcoholics.
You might be confused because lots of celebrities have opened up about their struggles with alcohol, but sheepishly admitting their depravity is not what I’ve got in mind.
I’ve read articles where Bradley Cooper says he would not have achieved his level of success, and his relationships would have suffered, had he not stopped drinking. Ben Affleck says, “Battling any addiction is a lifelong and difficult struggle. Because of that, one is never really in or out of treatment. It is a full-time commitment. I am fighting for myself and my family.” Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Lowe are pillars in the recovery community for openly celebrating their long-term sobriety and giving hope to so many who are hopeless.
Russell Brand, Craig Ferguson, Marc Maron, and Robin Williams have devoted serious chunks of their comedic work to self-deprecating jokes about their own battles with alcoholism. In Brand’s book about recovery, he adapts the 12 f*cking steps into his own hilarious, yet profanity laden language, and Williams’ definition of what it means to be addicted to alcohol is one of my all-time favorites saying, “As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you will lower them.” That’s both funny and true, but it’s not what I’m looking for.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of celebrities openly trudging through recovery with various degrees of success. I describe their success as variable, of course, because the aforementioned Robin Williams died of suicide in 2014. Many celebrities have relapsed. Many celebrities are dead from suicide or overdose. And that’s why I think we need more than open honesty and disarming humor.
We need a leader to shout the glories of alcoholism from the highest rooftops. We need an Ellen.
I’m not making light of the most serious of diseases. I’m painfully aware that there are over 15 million alcoholics in the United States alone, and that over three million deaths per year are attributable to alcohol worldwide. I’ve suffered the agony of alcoholism, and I know how hard it is to claw back from the edge of total destruction and rebuild my life from the ashes. I get it. And I’m thankful to the celebrities and non-celebrities who have chosen openness in recovery—even the ones who had openness chosen for them by TMZ. Anonymity is deadly, and all of our stories are important if we ever hope to end this epidemic of alcoholism.
But I want more. I don’t just want to slowly diminish the stigma associated with alcoholism, I want to obliterate it.
I want a celebrity who brags about the enlightenment available only to those of us who have used alcohol to hide from our stress, our insecurities, our anxiety, and our depression. I want to hear about the arrogance of alcoholism being replaced by the humility and connection of sobriety. I want a famous person to explain with great pride that non-alcoholics just don’t get it, what with their pursuit of fame and wealth as their misguided keys to happiness. If you want to be truly happy, you need to stare into the abyss of death, and realize the alignment of your whole life has led you there.
Then you need to do something about it.
I feel sorry for people who live their lives free of the challenge of defeating alcoholism. Those people have never mastered experiencing emotions with no available defense mechanisms. It is like standing naked in an ice storm. Once you get used to the relentless pummeling, all that’s left is the glory of survival.
Before and during active alcoholism, I talked a lot, and I thought I needed to prove to others how important everything was that I had to say. Now, I mostly listen, because that’s where the learning is. And I couldn’t care less about what others think of my thoughts when I share them. Take this very article, for instance. Lots of Alcoholic Anonymous faithfuls are going to tell me my huge ego is a huge problem, and my relapse is inevitable. I know that criticism is coming, but I don’t care. When I was a drinker, I cared deeply about what everyone thought of me.
Do you think I had the balls to brag about my status as an alcoholic when I was a drinker? The enlightenment of sobriety makes me proud to be an alcoholic.
I worry that the sober curious movement is the new Alcoholics Anonymous. They both offer confused, weak, uncertain drinkers the same promise. If you let us help you, your secret will be safe. No one needs to know you have a drinking problem. In AA, you can keep your secret locked away in a church basement. If you are sober curious, you start with a very trendy dry January, and decide if you like the way you feel. Both approaches help people, and I’m all for leading people to a life of sobriety. But they also both feed the stigma by telling people they can keep their issues a secret: “If you have a problem with alcohol, no one needs to know.” And that approach is selfish. Do you know where to find the epicenter of selfishness? You’ll find it in an active alcoholic.
And that’s why we need a leader to drag us kicking and screaming from behind the shadows to take great pride in the enlightenment of permanent sobriety. We have learned lessons, conquered demons, and reached achievements that most people lack the capacity to understand. We shouldn’t be jealous of the vast majority of Americans who knowingly and eagerly consume a poison because they can’t relax and have a conversation without it. We are the enlightened few who now operate on a different plane of existence. Sobriety isn’t a cross to bear. We have obtained a peaceful knowing only available to those of us in the top five percentile (or something like that) of humanity. Enlightenment does not bind us as we reluctantly drink soda water at the party while everyone else does damage to the only brain and only body they will ever have. Enlightenment frees us to live our best lives and make our best possible contributions to humanity.
We are looking at it all wrong, and our negativity and struggle keeps the stigma thriving. Where else in society do the oppressed so encourage their oppressors?
If you are not an alcoholic, I know how arrogant I sound talking about enlightenment and a higher plane of existence. It is counter to the humility and lack of ego I so often describe in sobriety. But here’s the thing: Sheepishly admitting our weakness, and mustering the courage to say no when our bodies are screaming for us to take that next drink doesn’t seem to be working. Alcoholism is emboldened and more deadly than ever, so we need to consider a better mousetrap. Maybe telling the billions of arrogant drinkers who surround us what fools they will be all the way to their graves is the only solution. Maybe we can find a leader willing to champion the cause, not just of recovery, but a revolution of enlightenment.
We wouldn’t have so many people to rescue if we’d stop making the danger look so damned attractive in the first place.
Do you know what I mean? If you are an alcoholic in enlightenment, I bet you do. If you have never been to the gates of hell, you probably do not.
We need a major cultural shift, because what we are doing now isn’t working. I’m not bashing Alcoholics Anonymous or the 12 steps. They are based on a book written 80 years ago, and traditional forms of addiction recovery have saved millions of lives. But that approach is outdated, and far too many people die in the status quo. Just because we’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean we have to keep accepting dismal results in the present and the future.
At one time, “All in the Family“ was a top-rated, long-running hit TV show. Its lead character was an overt racist and bigot, and America laughed unabashedly. Now, today, those episodes are unwatchably backward and offensive. I want that kind of culture shift for alcoholism. I want people to be embarrassed, for ever shaking their heads in disapproval, and whispering about the depravity of their drunk uncle. We should be as embarrassed about our treatment of addiction to alcohol as we are about ever laughing at Archie Bunker. And until we are, I won’t be satisfied.
We need a change in culture. And who is better equipped to lead a cultural revolution than a cultural icon?
Who is ready to take the reins and lead an alcoholic enlightenment revolution? Stop reluctantly admitting the truth only when probed by a celebrity interviewer. Start screaming from the mountaintop about the wisdom of sobriety. Make people jealous, not just of your Oscar or your Grammy, but of your peaceful and toxin-free navigation of the human experience. Being open isn’t enough. We need someone important to scoff at the ignorance of those who glorify the deadly elixir.
We need an Ellen.
And until one steps up and leads this revolution, we need to do what we can individually, I guess. So, let’s stop making excuses for why we don’t drink at parties. Let’s stop reluctantly attending meetings because we’ll drink if we don’t, and eagerly attend because we know something others don’t. Let’s stop looking at our affliction as an albatross, and start being thankful for the enlightenment available only to us. Our numbers are unacceptably large, but we are still in the minority, and that’s to be celebrated. We shouldn’t be afraid, we should feel privileged like the solvers of the Rubik’s Cube or the scientists who are about to cure cancer.
It’s a big deal to be one of us, and the stigma is about as funny as Archie Bunker. It is time for us to dispatch the stigma to the dustbin of history. We just need a leader. Or maybe there’s no time for that.
Ellen or not, here we come.
If you’d like to learn how I made it to permanent sobriety, I hope you’ll read my free Guide to Early Sobriety.