Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
“I wanna go back to Tommy’s and get belligerent drunk,” said the guy at the trough-style urinal next to me at the Indy 500 on Sunday. “I don’t even want to go back into the race and watch the rest. I just want to go back to the house and get belligerent. Do you know what I mean?” He was talking to his friend on the other side. He wasn’t talking to me. But I knew. I did know what he meant. When I was in my fearless and invincible 20s, I felt exactly like that, too. All this public social drinking, even at the Indianapolis 500 where mild intoxication was the respectable minimum standard, was not enough. What the stranger to my right longed for was neither mild nor respectable. He wanted to go to some safe place and drink without rules or boundaries. Becoming belligerent wasn’t an insult. It was the euphoric goal.
We all know that alcohol abuse wrecks relationships and destroys families. But getting sober doesn’t fix anything. Just like recovery from addiction requires hard work, when alcohol leaves a relationship, the couple must be prepared to address the damage the addiction caused.
Sometimes, hard work isn’t enough to save the marriage.
I didn’t even have to open the email. The subject line conveyed the devastating news. “Project Terminated.” Those two words delivered a massive blow to our plans for the next couple of years. We had an agreement to sell our business – an agreement complete with payment amounts and transition dates – and the buyer was trying to back out. There had been signs of his wavering commitment to the deal he had made, but my naturally optimistic outlook kept me pushing forward without consideration for what it would mean if he tried to turn and run. Now the reality stared me in the eyes from the subject line on my computer screen.
The pressure in my head began to build as the multitude of negative consequences raced through my mind. There would be practical, business matters to which I would have to attend. My lawyer would have to be consulted and litigation would have to be considered. I might have to go back to square one and try to find another buyer with barely two months left on our lease and, thus, not nearly enough time to make a deal in a new location with a new person.
But the work involved was secondary. The pressure in my head was because I knew the tidal wave of disappointment, stress and failure that had just crashed down on me would have no immediate relief. I had to live this nightmare with my eyes open and weaknesses exposed. I am an alcoholic almost two years sober. A lot of good has come from my work in recovery. For the next few days, however, sobriety meant only one thing. I was defenseless against the tremendous pain. I would have to wallow in the dire truth of my situation, and suffer through the disappointment, anger and fear without relief. I would not sleep – at least not much – and the other things that deserved my attention, like my wife and kids, would be all but ignored while I tried to figure out how to manage this disaster.
I was watching a college soccer game last weekend, and it filled me with shame. My alma mater was playing, and playing very well. Indiana University was winning and looked like they might be well on their way to their ninth national championship. Soccer played at this high level should bring me joy, but instead, it shined a spotlight on my regret.
As I watched these players in pursuit of what I consider a noble goal, I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my time on that very same campus 25 years ago. I graduated in the spring of 1995 from the business school at Indiana with a 2.99 grade point average. How utterly poignant is that final GPA. It’s just a hair below a wildly underachieved B average. Of course, I always rounded it up for job interviews, but the truth is, it is a perfect symbol of time wasted wasted.
Alcoholism 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.
Loving and protecting my wife, Sheri, and our four kids, is the most critical component of my life. I think about the safety and development of my children constantly, and struggle to balance being present with letting them explore their worlds on their own. I don’t really care about money, power, status or control. I have made a mess of much of my life, and I just want to help them avoid the same pitfalls. This top priority of mine is both pretty simple and overwhelmingly complex. I pray daily for the strength and wisdom to get it right.
So when my oldest child, Cathryn, asked me if I would be OK with her writing her first essay of her junior year in high school about my alcoholism, I was excited that she was taking an interest in the topic that consumes much of my life. I expected her to write a story about our family overcoming this deadly disease. I was eager to read about the closeness of our father-daughter relationship. I anticipated reading of her trepidation about addiction and her plan to tread cautiously into the waters of alcohol consumption in her adult life.
What she wrote was not what I expected. Her essay was the most painful collection of words I have ever read.
As we drove to high school soccer training on Thursday evening, Nick took thirsty gulps from his water bottle. My son had spent the day with a friend at Elitch’s (Denver slang for Elitch Gardens amusement park). Nick’s friend, Sammy, has significantly more risk tolerance than Nick, so I was eager to hear if the boys had ventured onto some of the rides that Nick usually avoids. Nick told me about Mind Eraser, Half Pipe and Brain Drain, all between gulpy slugs from his water bottle. His speech was slightly slurred and his descriptions of his adventures a little disconnected. I struggled to understand him between chugs of water.
My interest turned to panic as it occurred to me that Nick was trying to dilute something. My wife, Sheri, was with the boys at the park all day, along with our younger boys and their friends, but she had let the two freshman roam on their own. Had their adventure included more than just rides? Had they experimented with…I don’t know…something? High school is when my best friend, Brad, and I started finding sneaky ways to drink. Nick and Sammy are both smart and resourceful. Weed is legal in Colorado and edibles are pretty easy to conceal. My mind raced with the possibilities.
An hour or so into a several hour family meeting to discuss the impact of my alcoholism on all of our lives, my mother made an observation. My sister, her husband, my dad and my wife, Sheri, all listened intently as my mom turned to me and said, “You know what we haven’t heard? We haven’t heard you say you’re sorry.” I had been anticipating this question, and I blurted out my answer almost before my mom finished speaking. “I’m not,” I said defiantly. “I’m not sorry for my alcoholism.”
I was under the influence of alcohol during the birth of each of our four children. I wasn’t drunk on any of these occasions, but I had enough to drink to prevent me from being fully engaged – fully there for my wife, Sheri. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wasn’t the father my children deserved on the days they were born. How ironic it is that their being there for me is one of the most significant reasons I am permanently sober today.
As our children grew, alcohol continued to have a subtle yet profound impact on their lives. I never forgot to pick any of them up after school or after practice, and I attended all of the games and plays and other events of their lives. This fact – my perfect attendance – hid from my view what is now painfully obvious. Alcohol was taking a toll on my family even if I couldn’t see it.