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.
Joey is a light sleeper. On at least two occasions, he sat in his top bunk bed and screamed for us to stop. Sheri and I were fighting. I don’t remember the topic, but I will never forget that my drinking was the cause. Booze shortened my temper, erased my tolerance for conflict and diminished my patience. The kids were asleep. We didn’t think they knew we were fighting. Joey knew. He was woken from peaceful dreams to the nightmare of his reality. It only happened a couple of times, so I rationalized it and compartmentalized it and picked him up from basketball practice on time. In my sober mind as an active alcoholic, everything was fine. But what I couldn’t see while I was in the grip of addiction was that the terror of those rude awakenings left an inexcusable mark on our precious son.
When I walk Joey home from school, I often ask him what he learned that day. He usually tells me he didn’t learn anything or he can’t remember. But if I ask about the nights our fighting woke him, he remembers. He remembers the details.
Nick argues with and yells at his siblings like every kid, but he is often quiet and contemplative. Sometimes he is dreaming up stories or engineering his next Lego creations, but other times I worry about the topic with which his mind is wrestling. Did he hear something or see something that he is processing in the lonely corners of his brain? Did I say something when drinking that causes him to retreat in isolation and dread? Is he more intuitive than I realize? Could he tell when I’d been drinking, and does he pull back from me because he doesn’t like how it made him feel? Is he just a deep thinker, or has he built walls between us to protect himself from the side of me he doesn’t like?
Cathryn and Andrew absorb and react to the world around them. They are both sensitive and compassionate to the emotions of friends and family alike. They are inquisitive and long to help anyone in need. They both give the best squeezy hugs, and I can tell they need to feel the warmth of my embrace as I hug them back.
Cathryn and Andrew both suffer from hearing loss. I often wonder if their auditory challenges are a gift from God to protect them from me when I was drinking. Maybe they slept through arguments when Joey sat up in bed and Nick pretended to be asleep. Maybe their greatest assets – their compassion and thirst for knowledge, would have been overwhelmed if they could hear the undercurrents of alcohol-fueled disagreement swirling around them. I am a firm believer in divine intervention. Maybe their hearing loss was delivered by God. Maybe their hearing loss is my fault.
I carry a heavy burden of guilt in my sobriety.
But just like my disease humbled me and made me a better husband and friend now that I am sober, in my recovery from alcoholism, I am a better father than I ever would have been had I never become addicted. My terror about the damage I may have inflicted on my children makes me attentive to their needs and feelings in ways I couldn’t previously comprehend. I know from my research that parents have a massive impact on the behavioral patterns of their children. There is a reason alcoholism runs in families and abused girls often marry men who abuse them, too. It might be emotionally damaging to see a parent have affairs, but it is a trait that will likely be repeated. Just look to the first family for evidence of that.
I worry about my influence on my kids everyday. It is the least I can do considering the tremendous impact my kids are having on my sobriety.
I made at least six failed attempts to quit drinking before I made it over the hump. Looking back, I am convinced the young age of my children played a big role in my relapses. My oldest two children are now teenagers. They are now old enough to know when their father is under the influence of alcohol, and their disappointment and concern is striking. It is more than I can stand. The idea of letting them down after the negative impact they have already endured from alcohol is not in the realm of consideration. If I forget the damage booze has had on my life – if I look past the strain my drinking had on my marriage – my dear, sweet children are always there to remind me of my blessed responsibility as a role model and provider and giver of so much love.
There is simply no place for my drinking in my family. I understand it. My wife understands it. But most importantly, my kids are old enough that they understand it, too.
On a family road trip a couple of weeks ago, my kids and I splashed around in a hotel pool. As I searched for a jet shooting hot water into the frigid pool, fourteen-year-old Nick played a human torpedo game with eight-year-old Andrew. Eleven-year-old Joey and Sixteen-year-old Cathryn provided targets for the torpedo launch. All four kids splashed each other relentlessly as the game transpired. I rested along the edge of the pool and watched.
It occured to me that I was not needed in the pool that night. Quiet and introspective Nick had taken charge and created a game all four kids enjoyed. Andrew and Joey swam and splashed fearlessly, while Cathryn didn’t care what anyone thought of her playing a silly game with her baby brothers. My detachment from the events was both disheartening and simultaneously satisfying. Sure, I was sad to feel unneeded, but I was proud to watch the bold and assertive yet generous and creative little people my wife and I have developed. My kids are far from perfect, but they are on a path toward happiness. Nothing brings me greater joy.
Watching my kids in the pool that night bolstered my belief in redemption and eased my alcoholic guilt ever so slightly. Raising happy, healthy kids takes unbelievable effort, but it is also firmly planted atop my priority list.
My kids love me. My kids depend on me. Maybe most importantly, my kids are proud of me. I intend to keep it that way. My sobriety depends on it.