I had my annual physical last week, and received the results of my blood tests on Monday. I misread one the numbers and thought I had cancer. I have been feeling great physically, and was really excited to see what a life free from alcohol with a reasonably consistent nutrition and exercise routine would mean for my blood work. When my eyes moved a decimal point over one digit, I was absolutely stunned.
I immediately started sweating out of every pour in my body, and I screamed, “Firetruck!” really loudly four or five times (minus the, “iretr”). I looked at that number over and over, and went straight were we all go for medical advice, to Google, to confirm what I thought the result meant to me. The interwebs agreed – I was in trouble.
Christmas Eve was one of the biggest days of the year, not just personally or spiritually, but for our business. For fifteen years, my wife and I were bread bakers. We owned a neighborhood whole grain bakery, and holidays that brought families together around the dinner table where huge for us. Christmas Eve meant long production hours, stressful decisions about how much of each product to bake and hundreds of additional customer interactions. Many people think of relaxation and family when they think of Christmas Eve. For those of us in retail or hospitality, Christmas Eve means balls to the walls work. While everybody else was listening to Andy Williams sing about, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I was working my ass off.
One particularly stressful Christmas Eve about a decade ago, I was working late to closeout the Christmas season at the bakery while my wife took our four small children to church with my parents who were visiting for the holiday. The bakery was closed and the door was locked. I turned out all the lights and turned up the volume on the Christmas music. I drank eggnog as I worked in the dark. I blended it about 50/50 with the whiskey I kept in my desk drawer, like Lou Grant, for just such occasions.
Kyle asked to enroll in our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism on June 13th. He was in the midst of a two month stint of sobriety and looking for something to help him make it stick. In early July, he was on day one and trying again.
Kyle is a few years younger than me, but he is living almost my exact story as alcoholism slowly destroys his life. His two kids are ages five and three, and his wife has run out of love and trust for him as he is losing his battle with the beast of addiction.
On October 13th, Kyle told me, “It seems like every relapse is harder and harder to explain. Explain to myself, my boss, family and kids. But most importantly it is harder and harder for me to have faith that I can stop for good and not lose everything.” On October 31st, Kyle drank a pint of vodka in the morning to nurse a hangover from the day before. He was passed out and vomiting by the evening, and he couldn’t even muster a smile for his children when they came home and wanted to show their candy to their daddy.
And now, Kyle is trying again.
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.