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.
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.
But I never initiate, unless a misaddressed package or piece of mail has come for him. I let him know I’ve got it, and ask what good times are to bring it over, because I don’t want him to come here, and I won’t show up there unannounced.
If you’ve been lied to by an alcoholic, don’t take it personally. Denial is the cornerstone of the disease. And believe me, no one is getting lied to by an alcoholic more than the alcoholic himself. We don’t want to do it. It is not in our DNA. It is not a sign of spiritual deficiency. It isn’t a choice, either. In fact, when I was in active addiction, and expending massive amounts of energy hiding my predicament, I swore to my wife that I never lied, and that I was the most honest person in her life. And I believed that to my core.
Denial is a powerful tool. Sometimes, when we feel trapped and alone – out of options and staring the stark and bitter reality right in the face – denial is all we have left.
Sometimes, often really, denial is what keeps us drinking.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.
When you need help, really need help, you’ll take it wherever you can get it.
It had been almost two months since our initial visit with the transplant team, when they’d unexpectedly advised us that a liver transplant was not just the next step, but the only remaining step available. John had subsequently, spectacularly, failed tox screens for both alcohol and pot. And instead of being fast-tracked for the transplant list, so I could be reviewed for donation, the team told us they wouldn’t do anything until he was seeing a substance abuse counselor. Steps vital to survival were suddenly, maddeningly, on hold.
He didn’t want to do it, to go to a counselor. He told me, standing there in our kitchen, that it would be easier to just let him die. He’d prefer it.