October is scary movie season for me. While watching The Exorcist a couple of weeks ago, it struck me how far we have come in the treatment of mental illness. The movie was made in 1973, and having the possessed girl talk to a psychiatrist was the absolute last resort. Psychiatrists were seen as kooks. The preferred treatment option, before talk therapy, was to drill into her skull and remove part of her brain.
I guess that is less an example of how far we have come, and more evidence of how recently we have been completely ass-backwards as it relates to mental health.
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.
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.
As a prolific drinker, I confused politeness and stigmatized silence for concealment. Maybe it was my ego. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe my internal shame was all I could handle, and considering the truth about what my friends and family observed would have killed me from embarrassment. Whatever the reason, I actually thought most people who experienced my overconsumption didn’t notice.
Some people drink until they pass out. Others drink to blackout – that fully functioning, zombie-like state where we say and do stupid things, but are spared from the memories in the morning. I was an overachiever, proficient at both the blackout and the pass out under any circumstances and with very little warning. I often even surprised myself with my alcoholic dexterity.
“I’m gonna buy a gun.”
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.
I was naked before the hotel-room door closed behind me. I love the rare occasions when we are behind the locked door of a hotel room – just me and my wife, Sheri. No kids. No neighbors. No one who hasn’t seen me naked more times than she’d like. I threw back the shades and walked straight onto the balcony. Our room was one of the few with a solid, three-foot-tall, concrete and plaster railing, rather than the metal slats with three-inch gaps leaving nothing to the imagination of anyone peering up from the pool or hot tub below. “We could have sex out here, and no one would know,” I thought, but was smart enough to not say out loud. I’ve come a long way in my sobriety, and the associated adolescent immaturity shedding.
I’m not exactly sure when my husband died, and neither is he.
He thinks it might have been during the surgery. “Sometimes I feel like I died on that table, and I woke up a brand-new baby. I had no idea who I even was.” I’m standing in his room, while he lies there, addressing the room at large, not really looking at me, the TV reluctantly paused. (I suspect this is the most honest he’s ever been with me.)
I chalk it up, his sense of having died while being decidedly not dead, to emerging from an encephalopathic fog. He’d been missing for so long.
He did pull through, but something got left behind.
If you think reading about the impact of alcohol and recovery is therapeutic, you should try writing about it.
If you are battling a compulsion to drink, or if you are the loved one of a heavy drinker, you are probably protecting a closely guarded secret. It is the kind of secret that will eat you up from the inside while the poison does mental and biological damage to you, the drinker or second-hand drinker. The erosion of self-esteem, relationships and capacity to manage are all universalisms, yet we protect our secrets like we are somehow unique in a nation with over 15 million alcoholics.
And we protect our secrets because we can’t find a safe place to let them out.
She… bid farewell to her family with one ecstatic wave
Out the window as the car rolled away
She just vanished into a thick mist
Bright Eyes, “Hot Knives”
I don’t get depressed.
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe by shrouding in shame people who become addicted to the soothing properties of alcohol, we are stifling potential and ignoring the greatness hiding in plain sight. Maybe as we look away in disgust and disapproval, we are emboldening the stigma. As alcoholics, maybe our own behavior – like tucking our tails between our legs and slinking into a church basement – maybe that keeps us buried under the crushing weight of an embarrassing diagnosis.