If I Wasn't

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If I Wasn't

By Christopher Dale 08/17/17

I have experienced a lifetime’s worth of potential calamities averted by the accessories of elevated social status. 

Image: 
Chris, Nicholas and Vector

If I wasn't white, there wouldn't have been so many chances.  

If I wasn’t a privileged subset of a privileged society – a white person in the United States – the shaky ground on which I lurked for years would have been pockmarked with deeper, more plentiful pitfalls. Alcoholics are miscreants and, in America, degenerates with darker skin are somehow more noticeable to those wielding power – employers, landlords, police.  

When a white guy like me gets pulled over, after sideswiping a taxi and fleeing the scene with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, he gets a few hours in the drunk tank, stiff fines and a six-month license suspension. An underprivileged black man, who cannot afford the pecuniary penalty and whose record isn't clean because... well... because he's a black man in America, likely awaits trial behind bars. One gets bail, the other jail. 

When my court day comes, I have a plea bargaining lawyer – a necessity to downgrade from a potential felony. My minority counterpart does not. The judge sees me, a white guy in a tie, and surmises, correctly, that I can be bled for the more than $5,000 in mandated fees and fines. My non-white counterpart will not be so lucky. I serve the community, tidying up public spaces for a few hours. He serves jail time – for a few months.

When he comes out – unemployed due to his impromptu, extended leave of absence – he'll check off those little boxes on job applications, the ones beginning with "Have you ever been convicted..." I'll be at my desk, sipping coffee, finally sober after years of dangerous debauchery. 

*****

If I wasn’t born into the middle class, with its unobstructed path to higher education and gainful employment, my many maladies – some inherited, others self-inflicted – would have overwhelmed me. Though still two years shy of 40, I have experienced a lifetime’s worth of potential calamities averted by the accessories of elevated social status. 

Most notably there is health insurance, a human right somehow neither guaranteed nor evenly distributed in what remains the wealthiest and self-proclaimed fairest country on Earth. A member of the professional class, like me, gets the good insurance, the kind that both insures and assures. The kind that covered specialist after specialist when, at age 23, I inexplicably started losing my eyesight.  

If I wasn’t one of those with the good insurance, my healthcare would have stopped at stumped. There wouldn’t have been doctors boasting seven-syllable titles to finally deliver a diagnosis – an accurate diagnosis – after lesser MDs with mere five-syllable designations failed. There are tiers of citizenry in this cruel system; the higher your caste, the more intricate the illness you can successfully have treated. 

My privileged person’s insurance has another advantage: mental health coverage, a luxury-turned-necessity for someone who, in addition to a family history of depression and anxiety, had endured 18 months of doctors, diagnostics and desperation amid incrementally vanishing vision. An affordable co-pay purchased unlimited visits to an accredited psychiatrist, with a trained ear and authority to prescribe much-needed meds that, like her, were covered. 

Soon enough, my indulgent insurance would pay for a stint in rehab, the aftermath of a small stroke and, last year, the birth of a son who would not exist were my lengthy list of ailments treated insufficiently or incorrectly. My privilege made him possible. 

*****

If I wasn’t married, I would be dead. Or worse: existing but non-living, a slave to the hellish insanity of active alcoholism.    

Rehab has its place, and Alcoholics Anonymous is a program for getting and staying sober that really does work. But without a wife – a fed up, pissed off but still very much tuned in life partner – recovery never would have taken root.  

I will never understand how any alcoholic gets sober while single. To me, the math doesn’t work: bachelorhood entails too many isolated hours for the disease’s mental obsession – an irresistible, moth-to-a-fire compulsion – to be kept at bay.  

Here, words fall short. Alcoholism is, simply, a takes-one-to-know-one affliction. Those who cannot identify with the unstoppable urge to drink or drug, despite full knowledge of the ever-worsening consequences, will always be on the periphery of an alcoholic’s recovery. Identification with other drunks is the foundation upon which millions have been restored from a disease that, untreated, is progressive, incurable, and eventually fatal.  

My wife knew and cared about none of this. All she knew is that I needed a hall monitor, a parent. A guardian from myself. Where some wives unknowingly enable, mine vigilantly disabled – a towering, 4’11” wall between me and a drink, which is to say me and oblivion. There are no AA meetings at two in the morning, only steadfast spouses. 

I doubt I’ll ever fully understand why she stayed, because I doubt she’ll ever completely know herself. Maybe she quantified the sizable investment already made in a romance begun as teenagers. Maybe she really thought I’d get better. Maybe it was textbook codependence.   

It doesn’t matter. Results matter. Without Patricia, my sobriety wouldn’t have lasted six weeks. With her, it is approaching six years.      

*****

If I wasn’t talented, none of it would matter. If I wasn’t blessed with a God-given gift for writing, this wouldn’t have occurred.  

Not “this” as in this essay – writing about writing is eye-rollingly cliché. I mean this, as in this life, or at least this lifestyle. Half-blind alcoholics have limited employment options. Pilot, police officer, bartender. No, no and certainly not. 

Through all of this, writing has been my meal ticket, a marketable skill providing cover for the eminently noticeable: visual impairment, awkward anxiety, slovenly alcoholism. My emailed eloquence disguised – at least enough – the panicky mess of a man clicking send.  

It allowed me to be on paper what I could not be in person: coherent, consistent, normal. For over a decade, it kept me afloat through repeated attempts to right the ship. 

As I recovered – learning not only how to abstain from alcohol but to be a useful, productive member of society – writing comforted, coaxed and guided. Alone at a keyboard, I can somehow put into words, feelings, concepts and causalities that elude me in the day-to-day scramble of life. My fingertips make discoveries that might otherwise die on the tip of my tongue. It also provides a therapeutic tangibility; for me, writing makes it real. 

Today I have a wife, a child, a career, a home. I have poor-yet-stable eyesight, a saner psyche and longstanding sobriety. The fortunes of my life form an unlikely straight flush. If I wasn’t very lucky, the game would be long over. 

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.

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