Breaking the shame of an alcoholic death

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Dead drunk -- from my personal experience

Ten years ago I attended a college reunion. What I remember most centers around alcohol -- patently avoiding it and noticing it simultaneously. Being barely six weeks sober, I was terrified. I wasn't afraid so much that I would "slip" and drink, but that people would notice their former party playmate wasn't drinking and ask me why. At six weeks I was still in shock over the diagnosis (i.e., admission) of alcoholism. I was still in the anger stage of grieving for my best friend, my lover, my god, my king alcohol.

Astonishing as it was to me at the time, no one gave me a hard time about not drinking. I made it through reunion sober and strong.

However, during both evenings' social events I happened to notice a woman who I will describe as having been "overserved." She was smashed, wasted, in her cups, blotto, sloppy drunk. I noticed her with hyper-awareness. It's amazing what you pay attention to when you're not drunk yourself.


A drinking problem 10 years later

The woman in question -- I'll call her Megan Betts -- was not someone I was close to. I knew her name, but could not have told you what dorm she lived in or who her friends were. How did I happen to notice she was drinking excessively two nights in a row? Must have been my budding "AA-dar" -- a recovery sixth sense we develop to be able to spot other alcoholics still suffering.


I tucked the memory neatly into my recovering brain and went on my merry way. I thought no more about Megan Betts over the next decade.

As the 2014 reunion got closer I wondered if I would see Megan Betts there and what kind of shape she would be in. I wondered if I might run into Megan at a "Friends of Bill W" (AA) meeting during reunion.

I also worried she had not gotten sober. You see, alcoholism is a progressive, fatal disease.

2014 -- Not how I pictured it

This year I missed the Friday night "Dance Your Class Off" party. I did not inquire, nor did anyone report to me, a classmate named Megan Betts falling on her butt (or generally in the location where her danced-off ass would normally be...).

On Saturday morning we kicked off our class meeting at 9 a.m. with memorials of the classmates who had died since our 2009 reunion. There were a couple of cancer deaths -- pancreatic and breast, as I recall. Possibly a heart attack. A tragic accident.

And then there was Megan Betts. They described her escapades as an overachiever at school, a brilliant lawyer who'd gone on to be a judge. Her eulogizer included a personal comment from family members about how she loved to argue with her dad.

But absolutely not one word about how she died. Zip. Zero. Nada mention.

I knew immediately she'd died of alcoholism. By this time my AA-dar has had 10 whole years to develop. I understand the disease much better than I did at six weeks sober.

Still, the reality of Megan's death hit me hard.


Why the silence?

Does Megan Betts not deserve the same sympathy as her colleagues? Do her family members deserve to have their daughter/wife/mother's death shrouded in mystery? Is it shame? Ignorance? Both?

Why do we, as a society, still consider alcoholism taboo? To the point that potential grievers were left to speculate on their own how Megan died? Suicide is still verboten, it seems. But anymore HIV/AIDS. Usually even an OD -- perhaps because it's quick and brutal and seemingly "accidental" -- get named, at least informally, as the cause of death.

But drinking oneself to death is still a dirty little character defect. Those who do it shall not be diginified or glorified. No matter how grand their achievements or contributions in life, their deaths must be hush hushed.

As much as I was not surprised to hear of her death -- in an eerie way I'd seen it coming in 2004 -- I was shocked that one one talked about it. Her death was being whitewashed, slid under the rug. Saying nothing left the question unanswered. Yet not a single person in that room raised her hand to ask "Does anyone know how she died?" That's just not the kind of detail you want to know about an alcoholic, I guess. Maybe everyone else in the room was operating under the alcoholic cone of silence and I was the only one on the outside screaming "Say it! Just say it! People need to hear this!"

For the record, I made a point of confirming my suspicions with a classmate I knew would have the straight scoop. Me: "Pam, did Megan die from drinking?" Pam: "Oh definitely. Alcohol related causes. In the end it was cirrhosis. Not pretty."


A progressive, fatal disease

Megan Betts was obviously not a stupid woman. She was smart and accomplished at her work. She was what we call a "high-functioning" drunk. Many alcoholics are extremely bright and hold positions of power and authority. They are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lawyers, executives.

Why, then, did she drink herself to an early grave?

Because she was sick, not weak. Sick, not bad or flawed. Would you say that of a person who develops breast cancer? She got it because she was "weak" or "bad?" Of course not.

Megan Betts suffered from the disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism is not curable. It can be arrested. If it is not, it continues down a slope of personal destruction and loss. If not arrested, the alcoholic will become more and more ill and less and less functional. In the end, there are only three places an end-stage alcoholic will end up:

1. Prisons

2. Institutions

3. Death

Types of Drunk People -- Funny?

Alcohol is a ticking time bomb

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Losing a hard battle with a clever, evil foe

I heard a woman speak at an AA meeting just last night. She is a nurse. Before she got sober she used to tend to the alcoholics in withdrawal/delirium tremors. As she'd stick an IV in and strap them down to prevent them from self-harm she'd say to herself, "Poor sots. They just can't handle their booze."

And that is absolutely true. We alcoholics cannot handle our booze. But there is a reason for it -- we are allergic to alcohol. We do not know that every time we put alcohol into our bodies desperately seeking relief. Our system is rejecting the alcohol that it cannot process properly. What a strange phenomenon. All the while our bodies reject the poisonous substance, our brains develop a "phenomenon of craving," commanding us to drink more, more, more.

No wonder people stay away from talking about it. It makes no sense. If you look solely at the behavior of an alcoholic, you would naturally want to spare them further indignity. When you see someone drinking more and more despite negative life consequences -- it seems like either completely crazy or the sign of a morally weak person, or both.


I suppose the idea of not revealing that someone died of alcoholism comes out of compassion.

Of course we want our alcoholic loved one to be remembered for the good she accomplished. The good grades, the advanced degrees, the career highs, the volunteer work, the children and grandchildren, hobbies and causes. These are all the good things that death steals from all of us.

Perhaps well-meaning families and friends wish to preserve the positive memories of their loved one. They want to ignore the horrible losses, betrayals, ruined finances, the emergency room trips, and all the rest of the ugly insanity that accompanies the disease of alcoholism.

And I get that. My point, however, is that well-meaning families and friends eulogize their loved ones who lose their "courageous battle with cancer." Battling with a disease that is cunning, baffling, powerful, persuasive and pernicious (alcoholism) requires no less courage. Whether we ever make it into recovery or not, every day the battle with alcohol is a struggle.

Like cancer, alcoholism can strike down the most intelligent, accomplished among us. In the end, Megan Betts could not argue her way out of cirrhosis. I believe that sad fact deserves to be noted. RIP Megan Betts.




Is Anonymity what it used to be?

Alcoholics Anonymous celebrated 75 years in 2014. Its principles have not changed, although the world has changed a lot.

I respect the concept of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not okay to 'out' someone else who is in the program. It's okay to 'out' yourself if you so choose. I've seen friends on Facebook wish themselves a very happy 24th sobriety birthday and say sobriety was the best decision ever made. In my opinion, it is NOT okay to wish someone else a happy 24th sobriety birthday in public without their express consent. If I want to let the FB world know I'm celebrating an AA milestone, I will. If I don't, I expect all my friends to follow my lead and wish me happy AA birthday offline only.

Personally, I'd like to see a world where the NEED for anonymity is much less. If you get cancer, are you ashamed? Of course not. Do you tell people? Does your family tell people? Of course.

My point is, by keeping silent and burying (no pun intended) the topic of alcoholism as was done with Megan Betts, we are missing an important teaching opportunity.

Whether due to embarrassment or shame, or simply ignorance about this killer disease, the people who memorialized Megan Betts missed a key message about her life. Megan Betts reached high heights in her career. She did great things. But being a good lawyer, being a learned judge, could not stop alcoholism from taking her down.

As I sat in that room, I wished others had the curiosity to ask what killed Megan Betts. I wish Megan could have received the same level of respect and sympathy for her courageous battle as those who'd died of cancer.


The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

There but for the grace of God go I

As I sat there and listened between the lines as they eulogized Megan Betts, a wave of gratitude came over me. I had last seen Megan alive in 2004. It seems our paths had reversed. I had been a heavy partier at school and our earlier reunions. But I'd been able to identify and arrest my disease. I had spent the 10 years since our 2004 reunion reversing my slide into alcoholic death. I have not had a drink since 2004.

Megan, on the other hand, was already descending into the pit of hell in 2004. I saw it and, at only 45 days sober myself, could already name it. I saw a drunk woman and recognized a fellow alcoholic. As the 2014 reunion approached, I wondered how bad Megan's alcoholism would be this time. Death had not crossed my mind (although in hindsight, it certainly should have).

I don't know which year since 2009 she died, but I do know cirrhosis is a painful, ugly way to go.

Again, RIP Megan Betts. May your passing be a cautionary tale to others.

Please

If you suspect someone has a drinking problem, speak up. Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. It may save their life. It may also save others who recognize similar behavior in themselves or their loved ones.

And note to anyone who may have reason to eulogize me: you have my permission to be honest.


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