I imagine my summer vacation with my extended family is a lot like most. Lots of warm, squeezy greetings between adult siblings and cousins who live across the great expanse one from another. Sincere desires to keep in better touch that are, in reality, words wasted due to busy schedules and naturally occurring self absorption. A Christmas card. Maybe a birthday text. Then the one week spent together every summer rolls back around.
Often, the contrast between drinking and not drinking is dramatic and obvious. Like the time my next door neighbor called over the fence for me to come try a new whiskey he found at the mega liquor store. He found a winner this time, and he invited me to share it with him and his friend who was visiting from San Diego. I don’t remember the brand, but that would be beside the point, anyway. My neighbor bought it because it was distilled with liquid smoke, and it smelled like we were drinking a barbeque grill. It was delicious, but that was beside the point, too. The new and interesting blend and the friend from out of town were just excuses for the three of us to drink most of a bottle of whiskey, with some beers mixed in, and become numb to the rest of the world around us.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.
Loving an alcoholic is torture. Helping the alcoholic you love requires unexpected knowledge, uncommon mental toughness, baffling counterintuitiveness and faith that’s stronger than pride. It takes a hero to love and help someone struggling with alcohol. Most of the time, we get it wrong and the love we feel is overwhelmed by anger, resentment, shame and blame.
It is understandable, really. Those of us who suffer from addiction to alcohol are often intolerable. Our behavior makes us almost unhelpable. Our actions overshadow love.
We all know that alcohol abuse wrecks relationships and destroys families. But getting sober doesn’t fix anything. Just like recovery from addiction requires hard work, when alcohol leaves a relationship, the couple must be prepared to address the damage the addiction caused.
Sometimes, hard work isn’t enough to save the marriage.
One of our cats died last week. Even with an opening line like that, I can assure you this is not a story about a cat. I don’t like cats, so I would never write about them. I do like my family, however. In fact, I love them. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about my dead cat for context.
They called him Royal. I called him The White One or Princess. We had three cats, and two of them are orange. So, The White One was descriptive enough that my wife and kids knew which cat had drawn my ire. I called him Princess because as he walked, he crossed his back feet side to side, one in front of the other, like a fashion model walking down the runway. His tail was always pointed straight up as he sashayed along giving him a royal aloofness and sense of superiority. My wife found it majestic. I couldn’t understand why Princess was always showing me his pooper. I think he liked me about as much as I liked him.
I didn’t even have to open the email. The subject line conveyed the devastating news. “Project Terminated.” Those two words delivered a massive blow to our plans for the next couple of years. We had an agreement to sell our business – an agreement complete with payment amounts and transition dates – and the buyer was trying to back out. There had been signs of his wavering commitment to the deal he had made, but my naturally optimistic outlook kept me pushing forward without consideration for what it would mean if he tried to turn and run. Now the reality stared me in the eyes from the subject line on my computer screen.
The pressure in my head began to build as the multitude of negative consequences raced through my mind. There would be practical, business matters to which I would have to attend. My lawyer would have to be consulted and litigation would have to be considered. I might have to go back to square one and try to find another buyer with barely two months left on our lease and, thus, not nearly enough time to make a deal in a new location with a new person.
But the work involved was secondary. The pressure in my head was because I knew the tidal wave of disappointment, stress and failure that had just crashed down on me would have no immediate relief. I had to live this nightmare with my eyes open and weaknesses exposed. I am an alcoholic almost two years sober. A lot of good has come from my work in recovery. For the next few days, however, sobriety meant only one thing. I was defenseless against the tremendous pain. I would have to wallow in the dire truth of my situation, and suffer through the disappointment, anger and fear without relief. I would not sleep – at least not much – and the other things that deserved my attention, like my wife and kids, would be all but ignored while I tried to figure out how to manage this disaster.
Do you want to know how to make an alcoholic feel like a normal, responsible drinker? You normalize his gluttonous behavior. This normalization is what separates alcoholism from other drug addictions. There is not a circumstance under which smoking meth or shooting up heroin looks normal in my world, but drinking robustly is often the norm among people who do not consider themselves alcoholics. And there is no situation that welcomes drinking to excess, even for the responsible, quite like the holidays. In fact, holidays make an active alcoholic feel normal. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Look around. I’m just like everyone else. Alcoholic? Not me.”
Loving and protecting my wife, Sheri, and our four kids, is the most critical component of my life. I think about the safety and development of my children constantly, and struggle to balance being present with letting them explore their worlds on their own. I don’t really care about money, power, status or control. I have made a mess of much of my life, and I just want to help them avoid the same pitfalls. This top priority of mine is both pretty simple and overwhelmingly complex. I pray daily for the strength and wisdom to get it right.
So when my oldest child, Cathryn, asked me if I would be OK with her writing her first essay of her junior year in high school about my alcoholism, I was excited that she was taking an interest in the topic that consumes much of my life. I expected her to write a story about our family overcoming this deadly disease. I was eager to read about the closeness of our father-daughter relationship. I anticipated reading of her trepidation about addiction and her plan to tread cautiously into the waters of alcohol consumption in her adult life.
What she wrote was not what I expected. Her essay was the most painful collection of words I have ever read.
Comfort. Comfort is necessary. Comfort is release. We seek comfort constantly – whether we are aware of it or not. Our brains are wired to equate comfort to survival, so it is the first order of priority for our subconscious, and often our conscious minds, too.
Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A cozy sweater on a cool day. Sex. A cup of hot tea. Football in the fall. Our favorite music. Cigarettes. Social media “likes”. Sleep medication. Anxiety medication. Antidepressants. They all serve the same purpose. Above all, they bring us comfort.
As an active alcoholic, I would feel a tingling sensation at the anticipation of my first cold and bitter India pale ale. Just the knowledge that I would drink in a few hours would give me tremendous comfort as I negotiated the challenges of the day. From the first sip through about the middle of the third beer, it was as if comfort was displacing the anxiety and disappointment of the day, like pouring water into a bottle pushing out all the air. They could not coexist, and I was hardwired to know the beer would win the battle for my emotions. I didn’t drink because I wanted to. I drank for survival. For comfort.