The moment my daughter was born, my life changed dramatically. Not because I had to bathe her, change her diapers or because of the sleepless nights everyone warns first-time parents about. Rather, my top priority changed from a focus on career and financial success to helping my daughter navigate her young life. When each of my three boys was born, that sense of singular purpose to nurture well-balanced, joyful kids intensified. I wanted my four kids to be happy.
Naturally, I wanted my children to eventually enjoy a similar experience to what I long considered the best time of my life – my four years at Indiana University. College meant freedom. College fostered friendships. College was staying-up late and sleeping-through morning classes. College involved sports and parties and music and girls. I wanted my kids to have the same big-school lack-of-personal-accountability period I recognized as the very best of times.
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.
It was morning again, in America, and our movie-star-turned-real-life-leader-of-the-free-world president was basking in the glory. The economy was humming, interest rates and inflation were low and I had no understanding of any of that grown-up gobbledygook. I was in my first decade of life, and my family was content and comfortable with worries so few I can’t remember a single one.
Weekends were particularly enjoyable because my sister and I were given a well deserved respite from the seemingly arduous routines of learning stuff, and our dad was home from work. It was many a Saturday that my family would lounge on the back deck as the afternoon shadows grew long and we recapped adventures of the day. “Grab me a beer and I’ll give you a sip,” my father would say. The screen door would bang behind me before he completed his request. I would return quickly but carefully, as the foamy taste from a jostled can of Budweiser was far less desirable than the crisp and nose-tingling sip of unshaken lager. I don’t really remember liking or disliking the taste of beer at that young age. What I remember was experiencing a glimpse of manhood – sharing a sip of my hero’s refreshment of choice. His beer tasted divine, no matter what my taste buds said.
It was well past midnight and we had had way too much to drink. My wife, Sheri, and I were joined by great friends and perennial late-night troublemakers, Amy and Paul. We were on a mission of mischievous amusement, and the rules and gates at the fancy resort were not going to stand in our way. “I think they were trying to have sex,” whispered Amy. “Well, they should know better,” I said. “It is two-o-clock in the morning. This hot tub is closed. They shouldn’t have sex in the hot tub we are breaking into,” I said justifying the coital interruption my posse of inebriated bread-bakers caused for the couple that fled into the darkness. “Come on, get in,” I continued undeterred by the lateness of the hour or the disruption we were causing. “Paul – find the timer and turn on the bubbles. Who’s got that last bottle of wine? Pass it my way!”
Sunday of Memorial Day weekend meant just one thing to a five-year-old kid from southern Indiana…it was race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As the first rays of sunlight stretched across the two-and-a-half mile oval, the center of the auto racing universe was intensely quiet – a stark contrast to the screams of thirty-three 500 horsepower engines and 325,000 exuberant fans that would roar through this cathedral in a few short hours.
My friends know me as a happy guy, always there with a smile and a handshake or a hug. They know me as a devoted husband and a loving father. They see the time I dedicate to my daughter and sons and many other kids in the community. My church friends hear my monthly children’s sermons and see the joy it brings me to help my wife teach Sunday School. My customers feel the warmth of my greeting and my sincere appreciation for their business. My neighbors know I always offer a smile and a wave as I maintain my house and tend to my lawn. They all know I am eager to help anytime they need a favor. They all know me. At least, they think they do.
None of them know the defining characteristic that almost destroyed it all – my marriage, my business, my reputation. No one knows the shameful secret that would eventually have killed me. No one knows I
The two-headed monster of shame that I was battling – shame from my behavior and lack of control when drinking, and shame from being the only non-drinker at most social occasions when I wasn’t – was fierce and daunting. By my fourth, fifth and sixth attempts to slay the beast, my resolve was strong and my attempts at sobriety lasted not just a few weeks, but four to six months each. I knew what to expect and was prepared for the unanticipated. It was the anticipated that tripped me up and sent me back to the drink.
Since, in our society, we have turned almost every event from a three-year-old’s birthday party to a 5K-run finish line into a drinking occasion, it was almost impossible to navigate life sober without drawing the attention of everyone I knew. Even when my determination to remove alcohol from my life was most firm and committed – a commitment in response to another morning of shame following another night of overindulgence – my sobriety meant I still had to face questions, ridicule and even humiliation on a weekly basis. “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Are you an alcoholic?” Simply choosing not to drink when all of my friends knew how much I loved alcohol was not an option. Something must have been wrong. I must have been broken in some way. “Did something happen?” “Did you get a DUI?” “Are you and Sheri
Alcoholism is a disease of shame. When I first admitted to myself that I was drinking too much and I needed to do something about it, I was ashamed of my behavior and lack of control. When I woke in a panic because I could not remember huge chunks of the night before, I was filled with shame. When I argued with my wife, drove when I should not have or was loud and obnoxious – shame, shame and shame. At the end of my drinking life, every beer…every single sip…was like another brick in my wall of embarrassed self-loathing.