When people live through trauma, they often talk of how the experience shows them who their true friends are. I have always thought of that as quite sad. I’m not sure why, but my mind has always focused on the many friends who deserted the afflicted in his time of need. I have always looked at it all wrong.
My alcoholism and my decision to discuss it openly has led me to find out who my true friends are. And it has been among the best experiences of my life.
Never did my love of alcohol flourish as it did in college. Sadly, my education took a back seat to my fraternity life, and my fraternity life centered around alcohol. There were huge weekend blow-out parties, and there were beers after studying a little on a Tuesday night. There were themed dances organized with other fraternities and sororities, and there were guys-nights filled with junk-food, movies and booze. There was bar hopping and associated hazy memories and questionable decisions, and there were lazy Sunday afternoons watching football and nursing hangovers with the hair of the dog.
I had something like a couple hundred fraternity brother during my four years in college. If ever I wanted to drink (and I usually wanted to drink), I could always find someone who was ready to go.
From those couple hundred brothers, there was a crew of six of us in the same pledge class who did just about everything together. As the years drifted by after graduation, even four of those five faded slowly out of my life. We all got jobs and started families, and our importance to each other naturally dissolved. It’s not sad, it’s just part of growing up.
When I came out as an alcoholic in January, I heard from a dozen or so of my fraternity brothers – mostly in the form of social media likes or brief comments of support. But two of my brothers have gone a lot further – two from my crew of six.
One of my brothers who reached out was not a surprise. DJ is the only one with whom I have kept even a distant relationship alive. We exchange Christmas cards, text a couple of times a year and talk very rarely. DJ was not as surprised to learn of my addiction as he was to learn of the pain and suffering that alcoholism carries with it. Like most – my pre-alcoholic self included – DJ didn’t understand alcoholism until now as he experiences it through my explanations. DJ called just a few weeks ago because something I wrote that he read compelled him to check on me. That is different. That is meaningful. He didn’t call to tell me of his job promotion or new address for the next Christmas card. He called because he couldn’t stop thinking about me. That might be the best phone call I have ever received from DJ. Without alcoholism, that phone call would not have been possible.
Andy’s contact since my coming out is far more surprising. Andy married his college sweetheart just like I did. When they divorced, my wife and I sided with Andy’s wife and cut him out of our lives. That is one my and most regretted decisions and greatest mistakes. Marriage is hard. Relationships between good people fail everyday. Andy was once one of my very best friends. It was never my job to judge. It was my job to support my friend when he needed me. I failed. I turned my back on him because I lacked empathy until I battled alcoholism.
Andy contacted me through social media after reading my blog. Now he is a regular contributor in my blog comments. Andy doesn’t just give limp, meaningless attaboys. He challenges my thinking and supports me in my mission to end the stigma associated with alcoholism. He still calls me Mr. Salis, which is an inside joke from college, and I smile everytime I read his feigned formality.
Andy supported me when I needed him even though I deserted him when he could most have used my friendship. Maybe Andy’s divorce helped him find empathy, or maybe Andy’s just a better person than I am. Either way, I am lucky to have him back in my life as one of the true friends my alcoholism helped me identify.
After college, I met an Irishman who led me on an exploration of the pubs of St. Paul, Minnesota. John and I worked together. We drank together. We got married during those years, and we started our families when our friendship was strong. John calls me Bubba, and I call him Pods – another inside connection that traces back to a series of jokes we learned from the steel workers at the mill where we trained together in Kentucky in the late 90s.
Pods tells me he looks forward to Wednesday because it’s the day many of my blog posts are released on the world. There is nothing somber about my communications with John. He doesn’t mourn for me or ask how he can help. He treats me like an equal. He banters back and forth with me until we are both laughing and completing each other’s sentences. He recently enjoyed a trip to Ireland – a repeat performance from a trip Bubba and Pods took years ago. He didn’t shy away from telling me tales of drinking and adventure for fear of triggering me to want to drink. He treated me like a strong man who would want to hear of his friend’s adventures. He was right.
Bubba and Pods live a thousand miles apart, and we don’t get together much anymore. But I look forward to the next time we do because I know John loves me for me, and he couldn’t care less about the drink in my hand as long as I remember the punchlines to his jokes.
My wife and I have spent the last 15 years in the whole grain bread business. The bond we have with some of our fellow bakers and business owners is indescribable. We have experienced up and downs that can’t be appreciated unless you’ve been there and done that. We’ve also drank together. Most of the best drinking times that were sprinkled into my years when addiction was taking control were enjoyed in the company of my bakery buddies.
Some of these relationships standout to me as I manage my recovery. Mark, Ainley, Matt and Marin attended the sermon I gave about alcoholism in June. After church, they came back to our house for lunch. I expected the conversation to turn to business or our kids or summer vacation plans – anywhere a superficial relationship goes in polite company. It didn’t.
We talked about the stigma associated with alcoholism for three hours. They asked my opinion and shared theirs. They sat on the edge of their seats while my wife shared how my addiction had infested her life. They told of the horrors of alcoholism in their lives – friends and loved ones who suffered. We had deep and thoughtful conversation – not just about trauma of the past but about hope for the future – my future, their future and even our society’s future. We laughed and we cried together. Above all, they encouraged me to keep going.
My friend, Cheri, is one of my very best bakery buddies. She is not an alcoholic, but she understands the disease well because it hits very close to home for her. We used to meet every few months for a beer to stay connected. I always got the sense that Cheri could take or leave the beer, but that our connection was important to her. Now we meet every few months for coffee and an ever more meaningful connection. I was right. The beer didn’t matter to Cheri. What did matter then matters even more now. Cheri regularly contacts me about my writing. Just like my other bakery friends, her feedback is strong and consistent. She always urges me to keep writing, keep talking – just keep going – and I love her for it.
The encouragement of my bakery friends is, in large part, why you are reading these words. They are at the top of the list of my true friends as revealed to me by my alcoholism. But they are not alone. Brian is a customer who comments on my writing in profound and deeply personal ways. Nancy and I share a weekly hug at church because she knows…she just knows…and our connection has gone from cordial to vital. Kevin thanks me and tells me to keep going. Bill is twenty years my senior and is my most consistent social media supporter. Kelly and I are trying to find ways to work together to end the stigma.
These and so, so many others have revealed themselves to me as my true friends only because I faced my addiction and revealed it to the world for all to see.
If I was given the chance at a do-over where I could avoid the devastation alcoholism poured down on my life, I don’t think I would do it. I wouldn’t do it because my life would be so superficial and devoid of true connection without the pain and comfort and knowing and camaraderie shared with these beautiful, loving, gifted and generous true friends of mine.
Want to know something really interesting? Not one of the people I’ve identified is an alcoholic. I have received wonderful, cherished support from the recovery community, but that has nothing to do with the love received from these true friends. They don’t support me because they understand debilitating alcohol-induced depression. They don’t encourage me because they, too, have medicated alcohol-induced anxiety with alcohol. They don’t love me because they have been there and done that. The truth is, I don’t know why they give so much to me. But I have an idea why.
There is nothing more healing and soul reviving than connection. My connection with my true friends is as fulfilling as any experience in my life. I suspect the connection must scratch an itch for them, too. If so, I am eternally grateful for these mutually beneficial relationships brought to us as an unintended consequence of alcoholism.
I know who my true friends are, and that is not meant to disparage the many relationships in my life that have, for one reason or another, not yet developed fully. It is not meant to be a dig.
Knowing isn’t sad. Knowing is a blessing.