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.
Love and marriage are nothing like I expected when I met my wife, Sheri, going into our last year in college in 1994. The life we have built with four kids and a small business is exhausting, often disappointing and stressful beyond my wildest imagination. There is no room for the physical attraction that first brought us together, and most days we barely speak to each other as we plow forward.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few months ago, I was working to unclog a sink drain at the whole grain bread bakery we have owned for the past 15 years. I made a disgusting mistake. I disconnected a pipe in a tight space against the wall where I was unable to fit a bucket to collect the drainage. I watched helplessly as several gallons of black, greasy sludge poured onto the floor. I had no way to control the oozing of decaying bread dough and fermented hand soap. It was late, and I was very tired. I called Sheri for help.
As we drove to high school soccer training on Thursday evening, Nick took thirsty gulps from his water bottle. My son had spent the day with a friend at Elitch’s (Denver slang for Elitch Gardens amusement park). Nick’s friend, Sammy, has significantly more risk tolerance than Nick, so I was eager to hear if the boys had ventured onto some of the rides that Nick usually avoids. Nick told me about Mind Eraser, Half Pipe and Brain Drain, all between gulpy slugs from his water bottle. His speech was slightly slurred and his descriptions of his adventures a little disconnected. I struggled to understand him between chugs of water.
My interest turned to panic as it occurred to me that Nick was trying to dilute something. My wife, Sheri, was with the boys at the park all day, along with our younger boys and their friends, but she had let the two freshman roam on their own. Had their adventure included more than just rides? Had they experimented with…I don’t know…something? High school is when my best friend, Brad, and I started finding sneaky ways to drink. Nick and Sammy are both smart and resourceful. Weed is legal in Colorado and edibles are pretty easy to conceal. My mind raced with the possibilities.
Last week, I wrote about my rejection of the amends process as part of recovery from addiction. I shared that while I am endlessly sorry and apologetic to my wife and our four kids, I do not feel I owe anyone else an apology for my alcoholic behavior. I received a lot of feedback, and much of it was negative. None of it touched me quite like this email I received from my sister, Joey.
An hour or so into a several hour family meeting to discuss the impact of my alcoholism on all of our lives, my mother made an observation. My sister, her husband, my dad and my wife, Sheri, all listened intently as my mom turned to me and said, “You know what we haven’t heard? We haven’t heard you say you’re sorry.” I had been anticipating this question, and I blurted out my answer almost before my mom finished speaking. “I’m not,” I said defiantly. “I’m not sorry for my alcoholism.”
My relationship with my father has been strained and distant for many years. When I got sober, that relationship got worse. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It just takes away the cover we are hiding behind and leaves exposed our pain and imperfection.
I started writing about my alcoholism in November of last year. I warned my parents that my writing would be raw and honest and expose terrors from my past that would surprise and sadden them. They were as supportive as they could be. They didn’t fully understand why I felt compelled to reveal my horrors to the world.
I shared a couple of drafts with them before I published. The drafts I sent them shared the culpability for my addiction with my parents. I’m sure it felt like an accusation about their parenting, and I’m sure it was painful to read. My father made clear that he didn’t agree with everything he read, but he didn’t want to stand in my way of doing what I needed to do. He told me he would read every word I write with great interest, but he wouldn’t discuss it with me because he didn’t want to argue with me about details. At the time, I was terrified about my parents’ response to my writing, so I was relieved with his initial feedback. I had no idea how the disconnected approach my father suggested would further strain our wounded relationship.
The only difference between me and the homeless drunk who dies in a gutter is our starting point. All alcoholics fall toward death. It can be a slow, gradual decline or a crashing, tumbling, free-fall descent. Some of us stop drinking before we reach the ultimate lethal bottom, and some of us don’t. My starting point saved my life. I’m talking about my socio-economic place in this world. I’m talking about how much I had to lose – how many loving relationships and how much tangible stuff I possessed. But most of all, I’m talking about morals. Morals matter. For an alcoholic, morals can be the difference between life and death.
Independence is a myth. The question is, what do we choose to depend on?
For 25 years, I grew increasingly dependent on my beloved drink. The physical dependence was frankly not that strong or hard to reverse. The psychological dependence, however, had a seemingly unbreakable hold on my thoughts and patterns. Never was this hold stronger than on the holidays – especially warm and sunny summer holidays like the one that falls annually on the fourth day of July.