When I gave the benediction on Sunday to conclude the church service where I had just delivered the sermon, I told the congregation they were made up of three groups of people. Some people were there because of concerns about their drinking or the drinking of a loved one. Some people were there because they are my friends and they love me and I thanked them very much. Some people were there because that’s where they go to church and they had no idea I was going to take to the pulpit to share my story and encourage them to help end the stigma associated with alcoholism.
The word, “alcoholic,” conjures images of drunk bums living in the gutter. Or maybe you think of a loud and obnoxious uncle you only see at holiday dinners who can’t seem to get it together and blames everyone but himself for his lot in life. Alcoholics get multiple DUIs, get divorces and lose all their money. Alcoholics beat their wives and abandon their children choosing a bottle over life’s responsibilities.
As long as that’s the picture we visualize when we hear the term, “alcoholic,” we have no hope of ever curing alcoholism.
The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.
Grief. Mourning. Dealing with a profound and significant loss. Processing all the feelings that accompanied the death of the love of my life was the single most critical necessity to my permanent sobriety.
I am often asked by devastated and hopeless readers who suffer in the pit of alcoholic despair how I quit drinking. The how is very complicated, but this is the most imperative piece of the answer.
When Anna asks me, “How are you?” it is neither a pleasantry nor a rhetorical question. She wants an answer, and if I lie and tell her I am fine when I am not, she smirks and looks down at the ground between us with her doubtful eyes. She might not know what’s wrong, but she knows something is, and later, when we are alone, she will sit quietly and wait for me to tell her. Anna and I have been distant lapsing best friends since we were in college together in the mid 90s. Now 1,000 miles live between us, and we see each other only once or twice a year. I am riddled with guilt about how bad I am at keeping in touch between visits. When we are together, she gives me a hug with an extra squeeze at the end that tells me she forgives me and we are right back where we left off when last we were together.
My life is infinitely better now in permanent sobriety, but still, sometimes I fantasize about drinking again. If I could choose one drink in one setting and enjoy it without consequences, what would I drink and where would I drink it? My fantasy does not involve an elegant party with fluted champagne glasses or a day on the beach with umbrella drinks and pineapple wedges or a ballgame with the guys and round after round of beers. It does not contain sex or sports or dancing or telling jokes. My fantasy does not even include my drink of choice to the bitter end, India pale ale.
The sun is creeping slowly down to the horizon on a typical clear and dry Denver evening. On the secluded patio at the back of one of the restaurants on South Gaylord Street, the mood is festive as we are gathered for a business cocktails and appetizers event. There are several familiar faces, but many people are new to me which makes the purpose of the gathering – a meet and greet for our new team members – so very appropriate.
Everyone in attendance seems adept at balancing a plate of hors devours along with their beverage of choice and still managing to shake hands as we mingle. The women are mostly drinking wine while the men have various pint and pilsner glasses in their hands. I notice a margarita to my left and a clear cocktail garnished with fruit across the way. The setting sun highlights the condensation drips weaving slowly down the sides of the beautiful and shapely glasses. Classy. Elegant. The essence of adulthood.
“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.