“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned,” sings Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He has left behind a life of imprisonment, torment and misery. Through grit and determination, and by the grace of God, he has built a successful business and become mayor of his town. When an innocent man is mistaken for Jean Valjean and threatened with life in prison, Valjean sacrifices his reputation, his financial stability and his very freedom by owning his label – prisoner number 24601. He risks everything to save a man he does not even know.
What does a story about courage and truth in the face of tyranny and oppression during the French Revolution have to do with sobriety and shame? Everything. Just like Valjean, I have a dark and shameful past. I was imprisoned by addiction for a decade. I clawed and scraped and begged for mercy from debilitating alcohol-induced depression only to sink deeper into the pit of despair with every drink.
I am 45 years old. For most people in my age range, the words, purple passion, conjure memories (or blacked-out-lack-of memories) of the two-liter bottles of everclear mixed with sugar, purple food coloring and artificial grape flavor we drank in high school. Even for those who had yet to acquire a taste for alcohol, it went down as easily as grape soda. And when it came up – at a party full of teenagers it almost always came up – it left a nasty purple carpet stain that was pretty hard to explain to our moms.
But for me, purple passion is not about those glory days. I coach high school soccer, and our primary team color is purple. A couple of weeks ago, I told our girl’s team that if they kept their focus and didn’t lose during a certain stretch of very winnable games, I would let them dye my hair purple.They were more than enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, they immediately started talking about braids and man buns and even cornrows. After negotiating the wager (I told them to back it down or the deal was off), we came to agreement on dying the last three or so inches of my hair a subtle shade called poppin’ purple.
My grandfather had a pipe-aroma Tiparillo cigar in one hand, and a stemmed glass of Michelob Light with a couple of ice cubes in the other as he approached his ball and squinted to line up his putt. With the beer glass placed sort-of elegantly next to his ball and the cigar dangling from his lips, he drained the putt. Papou (the Greek word for grandfather) exclaimed one of his signature lines. “Next case!” He collected his ball and his beer and was off to the next tee.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.
It was well past midnight and we had had way too much to drink. My wife, Sheri, and I were joined by great friends and perennial late-night troublemakers, Amy and Paul. We were on a mission of mischievous amusement, and the rules and gates at the fancy resort were not going to stand in our way. “I think they were trying to have sex,” whispered Amy. “Well, they should know better,” I said. “It is two-o-clock in the morning. This hot tub is closed. They shouldn’t have sex in the hot tub we are breaking into,” I said justifying the coital interruption my posse of inebriated bread-bakers caused for the couple that fled into the darkness. “Come on, get in,” I continued undeterred by the lateness of the hour or the disruption we were causing. “Paul – find the timer and turn on the bubbles. Who’s got that last bottle of wine? Pass it my way!”
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I
Do you want to know how to shock someone? Start with someone who cares about you. When they think they know you, when they think your life is smooth and easy, when they least expect it…tell them you are an alcoholic.
The first four people I talked to about my addiction had very similar reactions. I could see their faces transition as they heard the word, “alcoholism.” Their expressions softened and their attention to my words intensified. It was as if my admission allowed them to ever so slightly drop their guard on their most protected secrets. Their gaze of empathy seemed to draw my words from my mouth. They leaned closer. Their breathing quieted as a signal that my story would have no interruptions. I instantly felt indescribable warmth as my story transformed our relationships forever.
The morning after my last night of drinking began like so many such mornings before it. The agonizing stress and pain of failure consumed me. It had happened again! I had allowed a minor stress – an unexpected and innocent change of plans from my teenage daughter – to throw me across the line from planned and limited Sunday night beer drinking to out-of-control, straight-from-the-bottle, warm gin guzzling in search of relief – relief from the stress, relief from the constraints of controlled drinking and relief from the shame of my failure.
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, I stared sullenly into the bathroom mirror at the despicable, disgraceful drunk I had become. My eyes were puffy and my face was bloated and the sadness in my
My eyes blinked open. Before I could distinguish 3:07am from the blurry-red glow on my bedside table, a paralyzing wave of panic washed over me. A bucket of ice water thrown in my face would have been a more peaceful wakeup. Again! I had failed again! The Pit, as I called it, was more dark, deep, lonely, inescapable and depressing than ever. I had to start another week – another Monday morning – without a shred of pride or self esteem.