In a place that’s far away from everything and also at the center of the universe, a shaft of light streams through the pines and maples overhead. The maple leaves are finally turning, starting at the tips furthest from the stems, glowing autumn fire bleeding into still summer green. The beam spills through to the forest floor, where a woman stands in the ferns and the moss. She is gazing up, arms outstretched, a silhouette against brindle light and shade, her shadow long in the morning sun, her faithful dog (her other shadow) at her feet.
The smile on her face is visible.
The woman has been here before, has been in this very spot before, but it’s the first time she’s been whole here.
I was shocked when he said it. Not only did he admit to letting his drinking get in the way of spending time with his children, but even when he was actively engaged with his kids, he didn’t enjoy it. He wanted to be somewhere else. The connection with his own flesh and blood was empty for him.
For a proud father, that was a bold and vulnerable admission. I know a thing or two about vulnerability. I have written and spoken publicly about some of my most despicable behavior. But I have never admitted to hating spending time with my children.
At quarter past nine last Saturday night, there was a knock on my front door.
There’s a vanishingly short list of people who could call me after 8 p.m. any day of the week and not get my voicemail, whether I’m there or not (I probably am), whether I’m busy or not (I’m probably not). I’m a by-appointment-only sort of introvert.
But an unannounced physical being summoning me to my door, in the flesh, with midnight less than three hours away… my God, what fresh hell was this?
While I was crossing a street in Chicago, a parked car backed into the crosswalk and stopped just short of taking me out at the knees. In anger, I slammed my fist down on the trunk of the car and shouted some obligatory curse words. The driver pulled forward into the parking spot, put the car in park, got out and punched me in the ear so hard that I had to puree all my food in a blender for the next two weeks. I thought he owed me an apology. He valued his car over my right to be disappointed with his driving. That was twenty-four years ago, and I haven’t made uninvited contact with another person’s car since.
I was seventeen, back in that long ago when you could stand with your whole family at the terminal gate as you waited to board your flight. So there the four of us were, shifting uncomfortably on our feet, staying together until the last available moment. A group of Canadians walked by, speaking their specialized version of French. Breakfast, eaten with an unfamiliar dread in the metallic airport café mere minutes before, lurched dangerously in my stomach.
I looked at Dad in despair. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
He looked back at me, and a flash of acute empathy briefly fractured his stoic Downeast faҫade. “You’ll do fine,” he said, quickly collecting himself.
As a prolific drinker, I confused politeness and stigmatized silence for concealment. Maybe it was my ego. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe my internal shame was all I could handle, and considering the truth about what my friends and family observed would have killed me from embarrassment. Whatever the reason, I actually thought most people who experienced my overconsumption didn’t notice.
Some people drink until they pass out. Others drink to blackout – that fully functioning, zombie-like state where we say and do stupid things, but are spared from the memories in the morning. I was an overachiever, proficient at both the blackout and the pass out under any circumstances and with very little warning. I often even surprised myself with my alcoholic dexterity.
“I’m gonna buy a gun.”
There were few worse sentences John could have slurred into the phone, his voice broken down into bits and pinging across six hundred miles worth of cell towers before reassembling itself in my horrified ear.
“No, you’re not.”
There were few sure things in that moment, with the physical miles separating us suddenly the shortest distance between us, but that was one thing. My previously calm Maine evening had been taken hostage by unbidden images of piles of unfortunate, unsuspecting, and quite dead delivery people at our doorstep, not to mention the thought of my own bespattered demise on attempting to rouse him from a signature catatonic state at just the wrong time.
He absolutely was not going to bring a gun into our house.
I was naked before the hotel-room door closed behind me. I love the rare occasions when we are behind the locked door of a hotel room – just me and my wife, Sheri. No kids. No neighbors. No one who hasn’t seen me naked more times than she’d like. I threw back the shades and walked straight onto the balcony. Our room was one of the few with a solid, three-foot-tall, concrete and plaster railing, rather than the metal slats with three-inch gaps leaving nothing to the imagination of anyone peering up from the pool or hot tub below. “We could have sex out here, and no one would know,” I thought, but was smart enough to not say out loud. I’ve come a long way in my sobriety, and the associated adolescent immaturity shedding.
I’m not exactly sure when my husband died, and neither is he.
He thinks it might have been during the surgery. “Sometimes I feel like I died on that table, and I woke up a brand-new baby. I had no idea who I even was.” I’m standing in his room, while he lies there, addressing the room at large, not really looking at me, the TV reluctantly paused. (I suspect this is the most honest he’s ever been with me.)
I chalk it up, his sense of having died while being decidedly not dead, to emerging from an encephalopathic fog. He’d been missing for so long.
He did pull through, but something got left behind.
If you think reading about the impact of alcohol and recovery is therapeutic, you should try writing about it.
If you are battling a compulsion to drink, or if you are the loved one of a heavy drinker, you are probably protecting a closely guarded secret. It is the kind of secret that will eat you up from the inside while the poison does mental and biological damage to you, the drinker or second-hand drinker. The erosion of self-esteem, relationships and capacity to manage are all universalisms, yet we protect our secrets like we are somehow unique in a nation with over 15 million alcoholics.
And we protect our secrets because we can’t find a safe place to let them out.