When I gave the benediction on Sunday to conclude the church service where I had just delivered the sermon, I told the congregation they were made up of three groups of people. Some people were there because of concerns about their drinking or the drinking of a loved one. Some people were there because they are my friends and they love me and I thanked them very much. Some people were there because that’s where they go to church and they had no idea I was going to take to the pulpit to share my story and encourage them to help end the stigma associated with alcoholism.
The word, “alcoholic,” conjures images of drunk bums living in the gutter. Or maybe you think of a loud and obnoxious uncle you only see at holiday dinners who can’t seem to get it together and blames everyone but himself for his lot in life. Alcoholics get multiple DUIs, get divorces and lose all their money. Alcoholics beat their wives and abandon their children choosing a bottle over life’s responsibilities.
As long as that’s the picture we visualize when we hear the term, “alcoholic,” we have no hope of ever curing alcoholism.
The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.
When Anna asks me, “How are you?” it is neither a pleasantry nor a rhetorical question. She wants an answer, and if I lie and tell her I am fine when I am not, she smirks and looks down at the ground between us with her doubtful eyes. She might not know what’s wrong, but she knows something is, and later, when we are alone, she will sit quietly and wait for me to tell her. Anna and I have been distant lapsing best friends since we were in college together in the mid 90s. Now 1,000 miles live between us, and we see each other only once or twice a year. I am riddled with guilt about how bad I am at keeping in touch between visits. When we are together, she gives me a hug with an extra squeeze at the end that tells me she forgives me and we are right back where we left off when last we were together.
My life is infinitely better now in permanent sobriety, but still, sometimes I fantasize about drinking again. If I could choose one drink in one setting and enjoy it without consequences, what would I drink and where would I drink it? My fantasy does not involve an elegant party with fluted champagne glasses or a day on the beach with umbrella drinks and pineapple wedges or a ballgame with the guys and round after round of beers. It does not contain sex or sports or dancing or telling jokes. My fantasy does not even include my drink of choice to the bitter end, India pale ale.
“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned,” sings Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He has left behind a life of imprisonment, torment and misery. Through grit and determination, and by the grace of God, he has built a successful business and become mayor of his town. When an innocent man is mistaken for Jean Valjean and threatened with life in prison, Valjean sacrifices his reputation, his financial stability and his very freedom by owning his label – prisoner number 24601. He risks everything to save a man he does not even know.
What does a story about courage and truth in the face of tyranny and oppression during the French Revolution have to do with sobriety and shame? Everything. Just like Valjean, I have a dark and shameful past. I was imprisoned by addiction for a decade. I clawed and scraped and begged for mercy from debilitating alcohol-induced depression only to sink deeper into the pit of despair with every drink.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
“You can’t always be doing great. Why do you always tell me you are doing great?” On the phone from 2,000 miles away, this question from my mother, asked a couple of years before I quit drinking, stunned me a little. “What do you mean? Everything is going very well,” I replied instinctually. I paused and prayed, and to my considerable relief, she dropped that line of questioning. She was right. I was lying. I was very good at lying to my parents.
I had high expectations. For starters, I expected swift and significant weight loss. I expected my wallet to fatten and my energy levels to increase. I saw no reason why I would not be more alert and free from sadness. I envisioned an immediate return to trust, warmth and desire from my bride of nineteen years, Sheri. I had no doubt that I would leave shame and suffering behind. Hours spent wallowing in what I called The Pit, the depths of depression and self-loathing, would be a distant memory. I would be myself again instantly. Was that too much to expect from my decision to quit drinking? If I was going to abstain from the second most important love of my life – second only to my wife and four kids – those benefits had better be the result.
Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.