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 shared my friend’s sentiments. When I was in active addiction, sober or drinking, I didn’t enjoy being with my kids.
The pull to the thing I called “relaxation” was strong. I wanted an altered state of consciousness. I wanted to numb reality. I wanted to zone out in front of the television. I did not want to play Monopoly or shoot hoops or go for a bike ride. I didn’t want to connect – not with nature, not with brain stimulation, not with exercise, and definitely not with my kids.
Whoa…that is a big and shame-filled admission for me that I would never have had the courage to admit without the permission given to me by the admission of my friend.
Part of the facade of high-functioning alcoholism is that I held my life largely together. I was holding on by my fingernails, and chaos swilled around me on the daily, but to the outside world, there was nothing to see here.
Then, when I admitted the truth a year into my permanent sobriety, I shared the damage alcohol did to my mental health and my relationship with my wife. Eventually I even shared the worry I felt for damage done to my kids. But I never admitted that I didn’t want to spend time with them when they were most in need of nurturing.
Why did I keep that part a secret? Because for a high-functioning alcoholic who always wanted kids and takes great pride in being the best father I can be, that is the lowest of lows.
That I abdicated my parental duties to my wife when I drank too much is despicable enough. That I never really wanted to spend the time loving and guiding them…that was so deep and dark a secret that I couldn’t bring it to the surface. I wasn’t consciously aware of my own appalling lack of interest in the lives of my offspring.
I hid the truth even from myself. And I’m not alone.
There is another reason I am able to talk about it now. In addition to the courage I received from the admission of my friend, there is another monumental piece of encouragement that allows me to be honest and vulnerable. And it is the best part of the story.
That old feeling is gone. Now, I love spending time with my kids.
I genuinely enjoy their company, their questions, their crazy ideas, their silly stories, their eye-rolls at my dad jokes, their morning grumpiness, their exasperation when asked to fold their laundry, their burps and farts at the dinner table, and how much they laugh at the sounds that their burps and farts make at the dinner table (my wife, Sheri, who is determined to not raise heathens is less amused).
I realize this is taking a turn toward an aspect of the alcoholism recovery community that I hate. I can’t stand the rainbows and unicorns memes on social media that proclaim that every day sober is glitter-covered perfection. It is not, and that pollyanna sentiment is utter bullshit. Sobriety is hard. At least it is hard until it is not. And for people in early sobriety, the cotton candy and puppy dogs are a desperate attempt to cling to hope. It is a perfect example of the thin veil that is social media. People post vacation pictures of perfect families and beautiful sunsets. They never post pictures of uncontrollable sobbing while floundering on the bathroom floor. So whether it is about recovery from addiction, or everyday “normal” life (whatever that is), the bursts of perfection people cling to have no room in my life. And for that reason, I am nervous about sharing how much I like hanging with my kids now. I don’t want to blast sunshine up your ass. Before it was this awesome, it was unspeakably shameful.
This past Sunday, the first Sunday of October, my youngest son and I made a spider web on our front porch while listening to the “Halloween Town” Pandora station. This is an annual family tradition that dates back deep into my drinking days. I enjoy spending lots of time with my kids these day, but the annual Halloween kick-off event was profound because of the memories of early Octobers past that it conjured up for me.
I can remember painfully enduring the eager spider web stringing of my four enthusiastic proteges. It was an NFL Sunday, and I had plenty of beer in the fridge. I just wanted to be done with the obligatory parental task so I could semi-watch whoever play whoever and drown my anxiety for the pending work week in IPAs.
I wanted my wife to see me being a good father. I wanted my kids to experience me being a good father. I wanted my neighbors to witness me being a good father.
The problem was, I had no desire to spend the time actually being a good father.
Four impressionable partial genetic replicas of mine who hung on my every word wanted to string a web with me just because I was me, and all I wanted to do was get away from them – isolate and medicate.
As I took genuine pleasure in spider-web Sunday with the only one of my kids still young enough to enjoy this kind of time spent with Dad, the memories of alcohol-induced depression came flooding back.
How could the same human who feels like I feel now have felt how I felt back then?
It’s not complicated. But it is diabolically challenging to have the patience and determination to make it from there to here.
Not only did my son and I have a really good time stringing the 2021 web, I feel confident that we made the best one in family history. We weren’t rushed. We were both in the moment. When we made mistakes, we patiently un-strung sections and did them over. I wasn’t trying to get somewhere else.
I was right where I wanted to be.
I’ve never seen this query on one of those 20 question internet surveys designed to help you decide if you are or are not an alcoholic, but I think it belongs. When spending time with your kids, are you having fun (really, truly having fun), or would you rather be drinking? If you can answer that question honestly, you’ve got your alcoholism diagnosis. No further questions needed.
I’m eternally thankful to my friend who had the courage to admit the truth I was too ashamed to face. Parenting is hard, but it is impossible if you don’t want to be there. I know from experience.
What’s the best part of sobriety? You can keep your unicorns and cotton candy.
I’ll be hanging with my kids.
If you resonate, we’re here for you. Join us in our SHOUT Sobriety program for high-functioning alcoholics in early sobriety.