Did you ever wonder how your alcoholism has impacted your children? Or your parents?
I have wondered. I have forgiven myself for most of the repercussions of my drinking, but the impact that this family disease had on my kids is what keeps me up at night. Some of us are lucky enough to have time to address the pain and trauma. Others are not so lucky.
In January, I finally get the text from John’s dad that I’ve been waiting on for more than a year.
Oh, and the waiting. It’s astounding the stories we build up in our heads when there’s no intervention from reality to prune them into a sensible shape. I ask myself on a loop, how does he think this happened? Why does he think I gave his son two pounds of my own liver, and a year and a half later handed the same man divorce papers? Doesn’t he want to know? If I have an overactive imagination, I wonder, are some others’ atrophied, seized up and dry? Or is it worse: do they just not care?
Waiting, I compose in my head a pointed, yet directionless reply to a piercingly unasked question. The meat of it wraps around a spinal litany of near-funerals for his son that he doesn’t even realize he’d missed: five by my count, the transplant (the one everyone pays attention to) not even the last one, not even the closest call.
“Come here and listen to this voicemail,” insisted my coworker, Loraine. She had a concerned look on her face, and she gestured in a way that assured me that my participation in her dilemma was not optional. She held her desk phone to my ear as I listened to the wife of another of our coworkers curse and spit venomous insults that would make Louis C.K. blush. “Jim’s wife dialed the wrong extension and left that on my phone instead of his,” Loraine surmised. “Have you ever heard anything so vile? I’m worried about them. If they talk to each other like that…that is not OK.”
More shocking for me than Jim’s wife’s language was Loraine’s reaction. I had heard vile, unhinged communication like that. In fact, I had heard a similar diatribe the previous weekend. And I gave it as good as I got it. For me, that voicemail was hardly noteworthy. For me, talking like that was normal.
I was an alcoholic. Vicious verbal combat had been normalized.
I spent way too much time on social media during the week between the holidays. I usually post about my writing and podcast, then turn it off, so anything more than a few minutes a week makes me feel gross. I probably only scrolled fb and IG for a grand total of an hour, but I still needed to take a hot shower, scrub my eyes with bleach and submerge my phone in Windex.
In case I’ve been unclear, I don’t enjoy social media. I think my dislike stems from my borderline-perverted curiosity about your messy, dysfunctional lives. I don’t want to see your family’s strained smiles wearing itchy sweaters in front of a dead evergreen adorned with LEDs and third-grade craft projects. Great – someone held Preston down long enough to comb his hair, and Bill really did a nice job sucking in his gut for the ten seconds until the timer on the phone camera ran down to zero. Precious. Send it to grandma. I want the truth, damn you!
I’ve always known he did his best. That was never in question. For many years now, however, I wallowed in my belief that his best wasn’t good enough – that he should have done more and known better. But time, when combined with an open mind and considerable reflection and contemplation, is a powerful potion to heal old wounds.
I’ve long blamed my dad. Now I’m not so sure…
If you think reading about the impact of alcohol and recovery is therapeutic, you should try writing about it.
If you are battling a compulsion to drink, or if you are the loved one of a heavy drinker, you are probably protecting a closely guarded secret. It is the kind of secret that will eat you up from the inside while the poison does mental and biological damage to you, the drinker or second-hand drinker. The erosion of self-esteem, relationships and capacity to manage are all universalisms, yet we protect our secrets like we are somehow unique in a nation with over 15 million alcoholics.
And we protect our secrets because we can’t find a safe place to let them out.
June 22, 2007, dawned beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic. A perfect day for a little bit of a sail. A perfect day for a little bit of a wedding.
John and I had been living together for most of a decade. We’d always made a big deal about the anniversary of our hooking up, I guess you’d call it, romantics that we were. In thinking of how to celebrate our 10th, getting married seemed like the obvious choice.
There was only ever one consideration for a venue. She was one of a gorgeous pair of 72-foot schooners, operating in town, berthing at night in the slips right outside our apartment complex. Surprisingly affordable, she offered many things, including an organic constraint to the size of a wedding party, and extra conversational points for having been featured in a big-budget movie. Those are just minor details for flavor, though. All we really wanted was to get married on a boat, on the water, with plenty of booze.
My wife almost didn’t marry me because I couldn’t wrap a gift. Alcoholism – we survived that. Four kids, emergency room visits, emotional immaturity, running a business together – we made it past all of those major hurdles, but Sheri almost dumped me before any of it got started because I did such a crappy job of wrapping her present on our first Christmas together.
It’s true. My wife takes the act of giving seriously. At first, I thought her rejection of my feeble attempt at wrapping made her selfish. Then I realized I had it backwards. She puts so much thought and effort into the act of giving, and she didn’t want to be with someone who half-assed it. It’s not about materialism, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. But if it’s not from the heart, she’s not interested.
Sheri used to make a really big deal about her birthday. She would celebrate for a week. Again, it was never about gifts or receiving. It was always about spending quality time with quality people – the kind of people who take their time with the wrapping if they do give her a gift. It was experiential, and Sheri wanted everyone to be as happy as she was that she was a year older. She didn’t need a big, fancy party. Her smile and laugh were celebration enough. She oozed carefree joy.
And I ruined it all for her.
“I quit drinking for you, Sheri! What more do you want from me?” I was hurting so badly from the failure and shame and debilitating depression of alcoholism. I was exerting every morsel of strength that I had to battle the cravings and brain hijacking of addiction to alcohol. I was in the fight of my life. Me. Recovery was all about me. If I was to overcome this demon, I needed my wife’s support, and I wasn’t capable of even contemplating her needs.
I had apologized for my drunken behavior so many times. On the mornings after I over drank, became irrationally angry and said despicable things, I had so often apologized and shown sincere remorse. When I made a commitment to sobriety, I had apologized again. I said I was sorry, and do you know what follows sorrow? Forgiveness. What more could Sheri have possibly needed?
Disney on Ice at the Coliseum – my oldest child, our six-year-old daughter, could not have been more excited. It was February, and the arena still smelled like livestock sweat and cow poop after the National Western Stock Show was held there a month prior, but she didn’t notice. Neither did her younger brothers who were only excited because their fearless leader, Cathryn, was bouncing off the walls.