I’m a hunter. I’m married to a gatherer. And it’s really fucking hard.
Does this stupid analogy really explain why we find marriage to be so difficult? Do you also want to hear my regurgitated insight about the mixing of oil and water, the distance between Mars and Venus, and the oh-so-soothing conventional relationship wisdom about how opposites attract? Is it really so simple? I have been accused of oversimplifying before. Usually by my wife after I have hunted down a solution while she is still gathering information on the topic.
She was good. Really good. Like most high school stars who are awarded full-ride athletic scholarships to division one universities, Amber was used to being the best ball player on the diamond. Her freshman year at Baylor University in 2000 would be her first experience having to work hard to keep up. How did she respond? She drank.
Just because I no longer drink doesn’t mean I am free. This will be my fifth consecutive sober Christmas, and I still wear the chains I forged in my drinking life. They are lighter now. They no longer define me, nor do they prevent me from living the holiday season with a joyful heart. But I can still feel enough weight from the chains that confined me in addiction to serve as a reminder. I am reminded that alcohol is a diabolical poison not meant for human consumption. But I am also reminded of time lost and mistakes made in the indelible ink of holidays spent with a young family. The future is bright, but I’ll never be free of the weight of the mistakes of the past.
The ghosts are all around to remind me. The stockings hang from our fireplace as they have since each of our four children was born. Like our kids, they are ready and sparkling and full of promise. And I can’t help but remember the times my selfish drinking left the promises unfulfilled. The lights twinkle and the decorations adorn, and it all reminds me of both festive times and regrettable memories of my disease trumping the potential for peace and love. The chances are all around me this time of year. Chances to make new memories, but also chances to remember the past lest it be repeated.
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.
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.
Rules. Discipline. The ever-popular, yet mystically elusive mythology known as human willpower. I just needed to try harder. I just needed to establish a realistic drinking strategy and follow it. Drinking alcohol was far too important a component of my happy and successful life for me to give it up. I just needed to unlock the secret to controlling my drinking.
Here is my top-ten list of drinking rules I adopted at various times in the last decade of my drinking career. As you read through them, see how many you have tried. Are there rules on this list that the drinker you love has used to try to control his drinking? Keep track of the number of rules you recognize, and I’ll give you my take on what it means at the end.
Have you ever cheated the alcoholic death you deserved? I have. I can tell you fuzzy, intoxicated stories about at least a dozen times when I should have died. So when I talk about my sobriety saving my life, I am talking about two things. I am talking about a return to health and the reversal of the long, slow, gradual slide toward my alcoholic demise. But I’m also talking about the fact that I no longer cheat certain alcohol-induced death.
That second one – the acute, not the chronic – that’s the kind of alcoholic disaster that we don’t think or talk enough about. That’s the kind of death that our friend, Cheryl Kuechler, stared in the face a couple of weeks ago. That’s the kind of sudden, tragic, immediate, heartbreaking death that Cheryl’s sobriety saved her from.
I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll get to Cheryl’s story in a minute. First, I want to talk about you and me.
While playing soccer last weekend, my son pointed and laughed at me. We were running around on a frosty morning, and I had developed a string of snot dangling from my left nostril. I thanked my son for drawing my attention to the booger chain (while drawing the attention of everyone else, too), and made the very classy move of grabbing it with my hand and wiping it on my leg (why I didn’t wipe it on the grass is a mystery to me). Other than some exclamations of, “Oooh yuck,” and, “Gross,” it was over and we played on. Luckily, in the age of COVID, there were no handshakes or high-fives for the other players to awkwardly avoid after the game. I did notice no one wanted to rub my leg in celebration.
The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.
A good friend told me she was participating in a sober October program. I told her that would have been terrifying to me when I was still drinking because of how much I used to love, LOVE, to drink on Halloween. She told me she cheated. She started her sober October on September 30th so she could drink on Halloween. That kind of defeats the purpose of exploring sobriety across the various aspects of your life, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that make the entire last week of the sober challenge useless as anticipation builds toward a night of costumes and parties and drinking?
I don’t think she has a drinking problem. I know she wishes wine wasn’t so inextricably linked to all facets of our culture, and she’s probably curious about how she will feel after a month of abstinence. Probably. But then again, no one knew I was an alcoholic before I quit drinking and told them about my disease. I sure was good about manipulating the rules I established to control my drinking. Isn’t drinking on Halloween just a sober October rule manipulation?