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.
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.
I was under the influence of alcohol during the birth of each of our four children. I wasn’t drunk on any of these occasions, but I had enough to drink to prevent me from being fully engaged – fully there for my wife, Sheri. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wasn’t the father my children deserved on the days they were born. How ironic it is that their being there for me is one of the most significant reasons I am permanently sober today.
As our children grew, alcohol continued to have a subtle yet profound impact on their lives. I never forgot to pick any of them up after school or after practice, and I attended all of the games and plays and other events of their lives. This fact – my perfect attendance – hid from my view what is now painfully obvious. Alcohol was taking a toll on my family even if I couldn’t see it.
The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.