Photographic Hauntings

My Four Ghoulish Trick-or-TreatersAlcoholism 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.


I can picture myself sitting on my front steps at dusk with my infant daughter on my knee, and a drink – vodka on the rocks, I think – in my hand. It was her first Halloween, and I’m sure her little costume was adorable (probably a pumpkin – that detail didn’t make it into my memory’s photo). Relief washed over me as I lifted the glass to my lips. It was drinking night in America, and I was ready to go. The costumes and candy were just a necessary annoyance to me. I would drink to blackout leaving my recollection with just one happy snapshot from the moment I took that first sip and fully engaged my own self-destruction.


A few years later, my mind’s picture is of me and my neighbor sitting on bar stools greedily downing our second IPA within just a couple of minutes. We ducked into this neighborhood bar to relieve ourselves after a Saturday Halloween afternoon of drinking and making “Graveyard Pudding” with our kids. We had been good fathers, so we deserved to drink our fill. As we pounded our second beers while our wives thought we were using the bathroom, I remember vividly the moment of arrogant satisfaction that preceded my pregnant wife flinging open the door to the bar. She was enraged and I was defiant. The rest of the night was among the worst of my life. But that moment before she caught us bellied-up to the bar – the snapshot permanently embedded in my mind – was an alcoholic’s selfish bliss.


Another photo from another year – this time our three oldest were in the prime of their candy collecting careers while our fourth was struggling to keep-up. “Wait for the duck!” they would exclaim as he scurried up to the front porch like a mess of yellow feathers preceded by a large plastic bill. It should have been my best halloween as a parent. Their ages were perfect. Our oldest was still very much into trick-or-treating, and our youngest fought mightily to earn the respect of his siblings. But my kids aren’t in my memory’s still-frame from that Halloween. The picture I remember is of my discomfort from a full bladder and empty travel “coffee” mug as I watched our little duckling stumble up someone’s front walkway stairs. I was not enjoying what should have been one of the most treasured moments of fatherhood. Rather, I was counting the houses until I could empty and refill. I was selfishly fixated.


Alcoholism is a progressive disease. By my last Halloween drinking just a few years ago, I had made despicable progress. My mind’s snapshot from that night is sitting across a restaurant table from my wife staring down at the burger she bought me to try to sober me up. I was very, very drunk, and she cut my children’s night of candy collecting short and took me away from them. She was so disgusted, so hopeless, so very done with me. I was drunk to a state of blackout, but I have a vivid picture of that torturous moment. I was as appalled at myself as my wife was with my behavior. We sat in a mutual state of despondency. My drinking was killing us all, yet we could see no way out. I am keenly aware of how childish and weak this must sound to someone who has never experienced addiction. I won’t try to explain because it is an indescribable hopelessness. And there we sat – a few weeks away from my last drink – wallowing in the depths of my depravity.


I don’t know why I can picture that moment surrounded by drunken blackout, but I thank God for the trauma of that memory.


Last Halloween was both drastically different and equally terrorizing for me. I was ten months sober as we walked our neighborhood while our kids collected candy. I wasn’t drinking, but I was still overcome with selfishness.


Our neighborhood was alive with festivity. For the adults, that meant a drink in every hand. There was a house filled with 20-somethings with beer coolers in the front yard. There was an older couple sitting on their front porch with stemmed glasses and a bottle of wine between them. But the picture etched in my memory from last year is that of a man sitting on his own front steps just outside his door with a basket of candy on his knee and a tumbler of whisky on the rocks at his side. I was sober. I was a good father. But I took no pride in my performance. I was overcome by jealousy for this stranger and his elixir. I wanted in the marrow of my bones to be him – to be normal – to be able to melt away my reality in favor of the euphoric relief only that whisky had to offer. I didn’t want to be healthy. I didn’t want to do the work of recovery. I wanted to be buzzed and on the way to drunk.


I’ll never forget that man or his whiskey or how they made me feel disfigured and atrocious for my inability to drink like a normal person. I was disgusting. I was incomplete. I was filled with shame.


Last night, everything changed. I have a new picture filing itself away in the Halloweens of my mind, and it doesn’t fit with the others. Last night, I was overcome with peace and calm as I navigated the mid-week imbibe-fest Halloween is in my neighborhood. There was no jealousy. There was no selfishness. If anything, I felt a little sorry for my neighbors. I know they are not all alcoholics. But I also know they think they needed or deserved or earned or were entitled to their booze last night. They used the drink to lower inhibitions or take the edge off or relax or fit-in. They are not alcoholics, but they needed their drink. They are not alcoholics, but they self-medicated to bring about a desired mental state. They aren’t alcoholics, but…


My picture from last night was developed from time, patience, faith and determination. It features a family at peace and comfortable in our own skin. Only two of our four are still young enough to enjoy tricks or treats, and I am thankful for the happy, seemingly well adjusted, little people they are all becoming.


Alcoholism is a selfish disease. Halloween is a night to give generously to the neighbor kids. Selfishness and generosity cannot happily coexist, and I have a mental photo album to prove it.


I also have a fresh start and a peaceful perspective. I spent a lot of Halloween nights chased by my demons. I spent last night laughing with my wife and four children. That is a picture to cherish.

May 5, 2021
My Final Alcoholic Descent
November 13, 2017
Hope, Recognized
March 17, 2021
  • Reply
    TJ Nelson
    November 1, 2018 at 9:06 am

    That sounds like a perfect Halloween! It was great to see you and though it doesn’t matter, I thought you looked great.

  • Reply
    Matt Salis
    November 1, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks, TJ! It was great to see you, too.

  • Reply
    Sheri Salis
    November 1, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    Definitely a more relaxed Halloween this year !

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