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.
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.