Raising one for the power of sobriety

With Washington about to face its former coach (again), I'm recirculating the column I wrote last year about how any discussion of Steve Sarkisian makes me think of my sobriety.

My opinion of Steve Sarkisian has changed a great deal in the 10 years since he left Washington to become the coach at USC.

Some of that has to do with challenges Sarkisian faced, but more of it has to do with changes I’ve made and the camraderie that I feel with not just Sarkisian but anyone and everyone who has struggled with their use of drugs and/or alcohol. I’ve retrofitted a column I wrote last year on this subject, but first, here’s a link to this week’s “Say Who, Say Pod” with Christian Caple.

I’m rooting for Steve Sarkisian.

Just not on Monday when I’m in New Orleans, watching his Texas Longhorns play Washington in the Sugar Bowl. I’ll be rooting like hell for the Huskies then, but that’s because I love my alma mater and not because I have any particularly sour feelings about Washington’s former coach. I hope Sark finds professional satisfaction, and — more importantly — personal happiness.

Frankly, I'm surprised about this for two reasons. First, I’m at least a little petty, and I tend to see former UW coaches in the same way I saw an ex-girlfriend: I don’t wish them ill per se, but I definitely don’t want them winding up happier than me.

The second reason is less petty and more specific. By the time Sarkisian left Washington for USC after the 2013 season, I was ready for the man to be gone. Actually, I cheered his departure. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the way he resuscitated the program, brought it back to life in the wake of Tyrone Willingham’s winless swan song, but Washington wasn't going to get over the hump with Sark. Actually, I believed they weren't going to get over the hump because of Sark and what I saw as a pretty profound lack of organization in the program. I suspected this might be correlated with his alcohol consumption.

I started cheering for him again in 2017, and while I don’t remember the exact date I know it was a Friday and it must have been September because we were broadcasting our radio show from the Seahawks headquarters and afterward I went to a Mariners game.

Sarkisian was the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons at that point, and we were talking about his history with alcohol, which had culminated with USC firing him in 2015. Sark had sought treatment, and as we discussed his return to coaching as part of our radio show, I talked publicly about my own drinking problem for the first time. I remember the back of my neck getting warm as if I had a bad sunburn, the spots behind my ears getting especially hot. I was almost light-headed. I hadn’t scripted anything out and wasn’t even sure how much I was going to reveal until I started talking about how I’d stopped drinking back in April.

“What made you think you had a problem?” asked Jim Moore, my co-host.

The truth is I don’t think I’ve ever had a healthy relationship with alcohol. I have been a binge drinker since I was a teenager. The frequency with which I drink has never been a concern. The volume I consume when I do drink has been. But binge drinking is such an essential part of American teenage culture -- or at least the American teenage culture that I experienced -- that it can be hard to differentiate what's a problem from what is a phase. I blacked out occasionally, but not always.

For the 20 or so years after I graduated college, I tinkered with different limits and personal rules to mitigate the fact that– left to my own devices – I’m more than willing to drink myself stupid. In 2016, I knew for absolute certain there was an issue because I was trying to rein in my consumption and the result was that I was drinking even less, but on those occasions I did drink, I was getting more drunk. I was blacking out. I was drinking by myself. Actually, I preferred to drink by myself.

In April, my wife had come home on a Saturday night and found me passed out on the bathroom floor in our condominium. I told her for at least the fourth time that I was afraid I had a drinking problem. I went to the bookstore and bought a book on quitting. I planned to stop, and then three weeks later she came home and found me smoking a cigarette in the corner of the parking lot so intoxicated I couldn't speak.

I remember only snapshots from that confrontation. I saw the north entrance to our condo building open, our dog Peach emerging with Sharon holding the leash. She saw me, and I knew I was in trouble. I remember trying to speak but being unable to. She told me I ran off in the middle of the conversation, but I don't remember that. I do, however, have a recollection of using a bathroom on the ground floor of the condo building, which was located in an unrenovated hallway down from the saunas no one ever used. I must have waited until the the lights went off in the condo, signaling she was asleep, and came in to sleep on the couch.

I am deeply embarrassed that had to happen before I was able to address the problem, but that’s apparently what it took. I went to a 12-step meeting that Sunday night. It wasn’t the first time I’d attended one, but it was the first time I kept coming back. I went to meetings all over the Seattle area that first month. I started seeing a substance-abuse counselor named Richard Sirota over in Bellevue. I attended the SMART recovery meetings he oversaw in Factoria, using an approach rooted in cognitive-behavior therapy. That wound up being a program I stuck with. The first time my wife went out of town, I made sure to go to a meeting each day she was gone.

For years, the one thing I had feared more than the possibility I had a drinking problem was the idea of telling people I couldn't drink. It felt like an admission of weakness. It felt like I would be cordoning off an entire region of my life and my history forever. That I would become a less-complete person. It felt like it was something I could never do no matter how much I needed to because it would be like saying I would never have fun again.

Almost seven years sober, you could not pay me to have a hangover. I feel so much better in both a physical and emotional sense, and the decision to stop drinking has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Talking about it on that Friday in the fall of 2017 was the final step for me which brings me back to Steve Sarkisian.

I have no desire to try and discern the impact that drinking did or did not have on Sarkisian’s tenure at Washington, and even if I was inclined to make such a judgment, I lack the knowledge to accurately gauge the impact. I knew Sark liked to drink on a strictly second-hand basis.

What I can speak to is the transformative power of sobriety, and that’s why I’m rooting for Sark. Because I saw – like everyone else – how he lost his job at USC, and I can imagine the embarrassment and pain he felt and I know what I feel like now to be out from beneath the burden I was placing on myself by drinking. It’s truly transformative in how completely different I feel about so many things.

I’ve got nothing in the world against people who drink. It doesn’t bother me to be around people who are drinking. I would if I could, but understanding and accepting the fact that I just can’t has made me a happier, more capable person and a better man. The very thing that I thought would make me feel like I was somehow a lesser person has allowed me to reach for things that I no not think I would be capable of if I were still drinking.

I don’t know the specifics of Sark’s recovery any more than I know the details of his drinking. I simply hope that he’s experiencing the same kind of second life that I currently feel, the full range of my own potential once again available. That’s why I’m rooting for him. Just not on Monday.

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