I remember when I first started learning that alcoholism was a disease. I learned about alcohol’s hijacking of the pleasure neurotransmitters. I learned how our subconscious minds develop an association between alcohol and survival. I learned about the progressive nature of the disease, and I learned about the link between addiction, and the depression and anxiety from which I suffered. I shared it all with my wife because I wanted her to learn about my affliction, too.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Sheri.” I explained while very early in sobriety. “All this neurological dysfunction and the changes in my behavior are the result of my addiction. We should stop blaming me for what happened to us, and start blaming the disease.” My wife replied, “If you want me to blame the disease, maybe you should stop acting like an asshole.”
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.
Do you think couples know they are getting a divorce before they do? Like all things in an alcoholic marriage, aren’t they in denial until the truth is inevitable? Don’t they resist until the end is unavoidable? My wife and I are struggling mightily. But I think we’ll make it. Then again, I don’t know the answers to my own questions.
We were stuck. I had not had a drop of alcohol in over a year, but our relationship was unloving and cold. Distrust and painful memories consumed our marriage and made recovery seem impossible. We set aside time each week to mend wounds from memories of drunken arguments and intoxicated antics, but there was still an invisible barrier between us.
My wife’s emotions seemed the most raw when we talked about the rare but painful times when my drinking impacted our four children. Sheri couldn’t seem to forgive me – her instincts as a mother were simply too strong. We had to find a way over the hump that separated us from repairing our badly damaged marriage.
His cough made a hollow, painful, barking sound, and his breathing was labored. Her infant son’s struggles to breath and the sudden onset of it all was beyond terrifying. It was the middle of the night, and she scooped him from his crib to rush him to the hospital. Her confident actions were betrayed by the look of panic on her face and the trembling she felt through her entire body.
Her husband seemed half coherent as she tried to wake him and explain the urgency of the moment. She worried for the safety of her young daughter as she raced her baby son out the door and into the car. Her husband had been drinking that evening. He had drank until he passed out, and now she was leaving her daughter in his disoriented and semiconscious care.
I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
Alcoholism is a selfish disease. As a drinker, I worked hard to turn mundane activities into drinking events – to justify celebration or a spontaneous party. Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays because it provided cover for my alcoholic tendencies. I didn’t need to justify drinking heavily on a Wednesday evening. Our society, our culture and my neighborhood made it totally acceptable. Halloween was never about the kids or the costumes or the candy. Halloween was all about my wicked liquid poison.
My memory is filled with snapshots from Halloweens past. They are ingrained photos that were never really taken. They often capture the moment my anxiety and eagerness drained from my body and was replaced by the fulfillment only alcohol could provide for an alcoholic.
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.