I scoffed at the weak and undisciplined among us. I felt superior to anyone who struggled to control his or her sweet tooth. At a restaurant with clients or friends, I boldly drank my dessert, choosing Irish Coffee over the Creme Brulee everytime. I drank extra-bitter, extra-strong IPAs. When I drank a bourbon and Coke, I asked the bartender to hold the Coke. There was nothing sweet about me…just ask my wife.
Then I stopped drinking.
It had never occurred to me that beer – even a bitter IPA – is basically carbonated sugar water. What the hell did I think malted barley was? As I weaned off of alcohol, I discovered a ravenous sugar addiction lurking just behind the booze bottle.
My ignorance about myself extends far beyond my alcohol-induced addiction to sugar. I also had a misguided interpretation of my relationship to other people – especially people in power who exerted influence over my direction and activities.
Did you ever wonder how your alcoholism has impacted your children? Or your parents?
I have wondered. I have forgiven myself for most of the repercussions of my drinking, but the impact that this family disease had on my kids is what keeps me up at night. Some of us are lucky enough to have time to address the pain and trauma. Others are not so lucky.
In January, I finally get the text from John’s dad that I’ve been waiting on for more than a year.
Oh, and the waiting. It’s astounding the stories we build up in our heads when there’s no intervention from reality to prune them into a sensible shape. I ask myself on a loop, how does he think this happened? Why does he think I gave his son two pounds of my own liver, and a year and a half later handed the same man divorce papers? Doesn’t he want to know? If I have an overactive imagination, I wonder, are some others’ atrophied, seized up and dry? Or is it worse: do they just not care?
Waiting, I compose in my head a pointed, yet directionless reply to a piercingly unasked question. The meat of it wraps around a spinal litany of near-funerals for his son that he doesn’t even realize he’d missed: five by my count, the transplant (the one everyone pays attention to) not even the last one, not even the closest call.
“Come here and listen to this voicemail,” insisted my coworker, Loraine. She had a concerned look on her face, and she gestured in a way that assured me that my participation in her dilemma was not optional. She held her desk phone to my ear as I listened to the wife of another of our coworkers curse and spit venomous insults that would make Louis C.K. blush. “Jim’s wife dialed the wrong extension and left that on my phone instead of his,” Loraine surmised. “Have you ever heard anything so vile? I’m worried about them. If they talk to each other like that…that is not OK.”
More shocking for me than Jim’s wife’s language was Loraine’s reaction. I had heard vile, unhinged communication like that. In fact, I had heard a similar diatribe the previous weekend. And I gave it as good as I got it. For me, that voicemail was hardly noteworthy. For me, talking like that was normal.
I was an alcoholic. Vicious verbal combat had been normalized.
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.
Then there are the pictures.
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.
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.
Last week, we took our daughter to college to start her freshman year, but that’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about something much bigger than our sadness swirled with excitement. But for context, here’s what happened when we dropped her off.
The drive from Denver to Minnesota was uneventful. I don’t think my daughter noticed how much I stared at her sitting behind me through my sunglasses using the rearview mirror. I don’t think she understood why I got so upset with our son, who was loud, waking her when she fell asleep on one of her other brother’s shoulders. With the exception of my wife, Sheri, I don’t think any of them understood how hard it was for me to keep pushing forward knowing every mile we covered increased the distance that would ultimately reside between me and my beloved first-born child.
I remember when I first started learning that alcoholism was a disease. I learned about alcohol’s hijacking of the pleasure neurotransmitters. I learned how our subconscious minds develop an association between alcohol and survival. I learned about the progressive nature of the disease, and I learned about the link between addiction, and the depression and anxiety from which I suffered. I shared it all with my wife because I wanted her to learn about my affliction, too.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Sheri.” I explained while very early in sobriety. “All this neurological dysfunction and the changes in my behavior are the result of my addiction. We should stop blaming me for what happened to us, and start blaming the disease.” My wife replied, “If you want me to blame the disease, maybe you should stop acting like an asshole.”
Disney on Ice at the Coliseum – my oldest child, our six-year-old daughter, could not have been more excited. It was February, and the arena still smelled like livestock sweat and cow poop after the National Western Stock Show was held there a month prior, but she didn’t notice. Neither did her younger brothers who were only excited because their fearless leader, Cathryn, was bouncing off the walls.