“You can’t always be doing great. Why do you always tell me you are doing great?” On the phone from 2,000 miles away, this question from my mother, asked a couple of years before I quit drinking, stunned me a little. “What do you mean? Everything is going very well,” I replied instinctually. I paused and prayed, and to my considerable relief, she dropped that line of questioning. She was right. I was lying. I was very good at lying to my parents.
If I had to pinpoint when the lying started, I would say it was in response to an “incident” from my freshman year in college when my ex-girlfriend – my longtime high school sweetheart – visited me for a weekend at Indiana University. We had ended our relationship because neither of us wanted to bring to college the baggage of a long-distance relationship. There was no nasty breakup. In fact, we were still quite fond of each other. I was very excited about the weekend with Sara.
We were not old enough to go to the bars, and we spent most of the weekend at my fraternity talking about college and laughing and rekindling and, of course, drinking. The night before Sara was to head back to her college, we did all of that in elevated quantities. No doubt with help from the alcohol, Sara had second thoughts about our decision to shun a long-distance relationship. Neither of us were in any condition to have a rational discussion about the matter. So we didn’t. We had a raging, screaming fight about it. My fraternity brothers interceded, and Sara spent her last few hours in town on a friend’s couch away from me and the alcohol-fueled dispute. I have neither seen her nor heard from her since.
I did, however, hear from my parents a few days later. A version of the story of Sara’s visit made it back to our hometown. My parents confronted me with an accusation that painted me as an out-of-control, booze-devouring, hate-filled, raging madman. I did the only thing that made sense to me. I lied.
I downplayed the situation and presented a version of the visit that featured a heartbroken girl that wanted the relationship to go on forever. I explained that we drank a couple of beers and her feelings got carried away. She left unhappy, but it was no big deal. That was the first of many, many times that I would soften the trauma and tell my parents and others that something was “no big deal.” The truth was that it was a very big deal. We both had feelings for each other. We dumped gallons of alcohol on the flickering flame of young love. The result was an inferno of embarrassing words and behavior. I have never admitted the truth about that weekend until now. Only now in permanent sobriety can I face my shameful out-of-control actions – my drunken, despicable rage. Insidiously, my drinking career was just getting started.
Lying to my parents became easier from there. I lied and hid how much and how often I drank. My parents rarely pressed me for the truth. I don’t think they wanted to know. I don’t think they wanted to be ashamed of their first-born child. My father drank daily, and my mother, while not as consistent a drinker, accepted alcohol as part of their daily routine. Confronting the drinking habits of their son might have been difficult or felt on some level hypocritical. I don’t know if this was one of the reasons they feared confronting me. I only know they rarely did.
We have lived hundreds or thousands of miles apart my entire adult life, so time spent together has always been festive – holidays and vacations. With festive times comes alcohol as an unavoidable accoutrement. When spending time with my parents, I often awoke in a panic and stared at the ceiling trying to piece together the last couple of hours of the previous evening. Surely my parents noticed how drunk I was. They might not have noticed me slipping away to steal slugs from the many bottles in the liquor cabinet in their basement, but they had to notice my slurred words and oddly childish behavior. They had to know. But when I mustered the courage to appear to the family in the morning, they almost never said a word about it. I often sighed in relief at the realization I had gotten away with drinking way too much once again. I thought at the time that they didn’t know. Now, I wonder if they were just too afraid and ashamed to confront it.
With lying and hiding from my parents came emotional distance. Each time I downplayed a situation or took beer bottles to the recycling before they could count them or made my gin-and-tonic almost entirely without the tonic, the shame of the deceit put more strain on my relationship with my parents. The more I lied the more I pulled away. I painted the picture of the perfect family – my wife, Sheri, and me with our four kids and stable employment and three cats and two paid-off cars. Nothing to see here, everything is great! I watched with growing jealousy as my sister turned to my parents for comfort and guidance when she suffered illness or wanted career advice or shared the challenges of parenting her own three kids. I watched my sister grow closer to our parents in her adulthood while I slowly and methodically built a wall between my parents and me – a wall built from bricks made of lies and deceit.
The wall had cracks in it, though. There were times when the truth about my drinking was staring all three of us in the face and we had to deal with it. On a couple of occasions, when I was drinking too much and fighting with Sheri, she called my parents and asked for help. When Sheri asked them to confront me about my drinking, they always did so with love and concern and sincere attempts to help. They always underestimated, however, my commitment to downplay and deceive. I convinced them Sheri was exaggerating and, while I needed to cut down on my drinking, stress from work was probably as much to blame as anything for our arguments. On one occasion, my father bought a plane ticket to Denver and told me he was coming to help. I calmly explained that if he came to my house and intruded on my role as husband and father, I would not be there when he arrived and the damage to our relationship would be irreparable. He had an impossible decision to make. He could do what his heart and mind told him to do and risk an end to his relationship with his son, or respect my request and speculate helplessly as to the truth of what the hell was going on in Denver. He stood down. I told him Sheri was exaggerating my drinking and he need not be worried. I dodged the truth again, but, in doing so, I added many bricks, raising the wall even higher. The distance grew and the three of us were seemingly helpless to prevent it.
Closeness would have required truth. An honest relationship with them would have meant admitting my weakness, and ultimately, my defeat in the battle to control my drinking. All I ever wanted as it related to my parents was to make them proud. The truth about my reckless drinking would spread the intense shame I felt about myself to shame my parents felt for me, too. Instead, I hid the amount I drank from them, and they, in turn, ignored that which was obvious to us all. Their son was a drunk. They rarely confronted my drinking because of the shame it would bring. They shied away from that confrontation because they risked me rejecting their help thus destroying what relationship remained between us. Instead, they gave me what I longed for. They told me they were proud of me as a father. They told me they were proud of me as a husband. They told be they were proud of me as their son. What else could they do?
Festive times with my parents had transformed into binge-drinking nightmares hidden behind lies and deceit. “You can’t always be doing great,” my mom said. She was right. I was often in pain, but then I drank to make the pain go away. My parents never knew about the pain. Before they could get close enough, I lied to make them go away, too.
The wall is high and I pray the damage I have done is not irreparable. Now begins the process of pulling down the bricks of deceit. You are right, Mom. Everything is not always great. At least now, as I face the truth, everything finally has a chance at getting better.