The Stealthy Maneuvering of an Alcoholic
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.
What about my wife? What was her role in my boozerific displays of alcohol-induced unconsciousness? She was my unwilling and apathetic accomplice, or course, often forced into action to try to explain away my guzzling shit-show of disappointment. We were quite the dynamic duo. Like Batman and Robin, if Batman was too incapacitated to buckle his own utility belt and Robin was embarrassed to leave the Bat Cave.
It was on or around Saint Patrick’s Day when Sheri and I joined a bunch of my work friends and spouses at an Irish pub in the suburbs of Detroit to watch and listen to Blackthorn – a delightful Irish band playing mostly original songs, the lyrics of which featured kilts, red-headed lasses and public displays of drunkenness. Actually, I think it was October, but I didn’t rely on the calendar to tell me when to flex my 12.5% Irish ancestry with twelve-ounce curls.
After four or five or six rounds, I decided it was nap time. Right there in the crowded pub while live music blared from the speakers, surrounded by a dozen loud and obnoxious friends, I folded my arms, drooped my head, and passed out sitting at our table.
What impossible conditions in which to fall asleep. Was anyone concerned? My boss and his wife were like a half-generation older than the rest of us, and she had a certain motherly quality to her. I still wonder to this day if she was worried about me as my coworkers piled everyone’s empty bottles from our un-bussed table in front of me for the photo op my unconsciousness provided. If anyone was concerned, they weren’t showing it. My wife quietly questioned her life decisions while our friends were amused by my willingness to be featured in their photo shoot. This was before the days when everyone carried a smart phone in their pockets, but luckily someone had a camera.
I don’t remember how we came to be the proud recipients of a gift certificate for dinner for six at a nice restaurant in downtown Denver. We chose a Friday night and invited a couple of couples to join us. I remember Sheri wore a nice dress and had a cheery bounce in her step. This was before she had given up all hope of a nice night out with her husband. My ability to keep it under control was still a toss up, and Sheri was optimistic that evening.
I fell asleep at the table between the appetizer and the main course. We had only had one drink, maybe two. Of course, that didn’t include the pre-game warmup drinking I did at home while Sheri was getting ready. Other than my thoroughly disgusted bride, no one knew about that. So Sheri started making excuses about my public unconsciousness.
She told them about what a long week it had been at work for me. We owned a bakery at the time, and the early hours I worked made a convenient excuse when I lost consciousness at inconvenient times. Our friends weren’t as lubricated as the photographers at the Blackthorn show, so they continued munching away and sharing polite conversation while the corpse bobbed his head and napped at the end of the table.
When I woke up, I slowly rejoined the conversation. Luckily, I was familiar with waking up in unfamiliar settings, so I knew not to demonstrate my surprise and was confident Sheri would fill me in the next morning. At the time, I assumed our friends bought Sheri’s line about my work-induced exhaustion while I reached for the bottle of wine that had appeared on the table during my snooze. Looking back, there is no way they didn’t suspect a deeper problem as their friend snored away while the setting summer sun poured in the windows of the crowded restaurant. A tired person seeks privacy and a pillow. An alcoholic has another drink.
When my grandfather died, I drank all the way from Denver to the funeral in New Hampshire. Two flights, and a significant layover in Washington D.C., and I had a beer in my hand for almost all of it. I think I did shots with a fellow slobbering drunk in D.C., but let’s just say I was grayed out at the time, so I’m not really sure. When I arrived at the Manchester airport, I was greeted by my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law, and we all headed to dinner together.
The topic of my daughter’s recently diagnosed hearing loss came up. My family wanted an update, and were concerned about the potential for the loss to worsen over time. Any imperfection in a child is heart-wrenching for a parent, and drunk or not, it was a stressful topic for me to discuss. Add a few gallons of beer, and I was a slobbering puddle of overwhelmed emotion.
I cried. A lot. I am not one of those crusty, old, squinty-eyed men who thinks emotions are for girls. I think crying is healthy. In fact, thanks to Jimmy Valvano, I think we should make it a goal to be moved to tears on a regular basis. But what I did in that restaurant with my family wasn’t an expression of emotions from a concerned father. It was a loss of motor function from a blithering drunk.
My family consoled me as though my tear ducts allowed the appropriate flow of salty water for the weight of talking about my daughter’s disability at my grandfather’s funeral. They faked it. They pretended it was OK. But I know now that I wasn’t fooling anyone.
My dad was there to mourn the loss of his father. The last thing he needed was to mourn the loss of his son to the disease of alcoholism.
I would recount for you the embarrassing tales of some of the many times I blacked out, but as the name implies, I can’t remember any of them. Sometimes there were substantial chunks of time deleted from my memory banks. More often, it was like Sarah Hepola described in her fantastic memoir, Blackout – like lights flickering on and off. Frustrating pieces of memory remained leaving enough gaps in consciousness to allow me to imagine abysmal, shame-worthy behavior.
From what Sheri tells me, my imagination is pretty accurate.
Almost no one talked to me about my alcoholism until I broached the subject over a year into my sobriety. I discussed my drinking with my parents on several occasions before that, but they passed on the opportunity to discuss the cheery subject of addiction the morning after a drunken display of buffoonery on more occasions than I can count. For the most part, I thought I had them all snowed. I’m now convinced they kept their opinions to themselves for a variety of reasons.
Many of my one-off overindulgences stunned my friends into stigmatized silence. We don’t talk about alcoholism. We just don’t. Since none of my friends joined me for a night on the town prepared to launch into an intervention, ignoring the obvious seemed the most prudent course of action. The most reaction I ever received was a follow-up, “Wow, you really had a good time the other night.” Really? I don’t remember.
Of course, there is the popular sentiment in the recovery community that our drunken behavior forces our friends to look in the mirror and consider the consequences of their drinking. I don’t dismiss this as untrue. It’s just a little hard for me to be proud of my sloppiness because it made someone else feel sloppy, too. It’s true. I know for a fact that my introspection has caused introspection in others. But at the time when I was drinking far beyond my capacity to remain upright and logical, it just caused my hard-drinking friends to laugh at my expense and be glad they weren’t the drunkest drinkers in the room.
Let’s not leave out natural human self-centeredness. Many people who noticed my compulsive drinking kept their opinions to themselves because they just didn’t care. I was driving down a busy street a couple of weeks ago, and I noticed a man shuffling down the sidewalk in a hospital gown that was untied in the back. He was carrying a duffle bag and repeatedly looking over his shoulder. Unless hospital discharge policies have changed since my wife was released after the birth of our last son, this guy was making a pathetically slow break for it. I thought to myself, someone should call someone. Someone should help that guy. As for me, I was busy and had someplace to go. I was too worried about me to worry about him. I’m certain that sentiment crossed the consciousness of many a friend or acquaintance of mine as they watched me shuffle toward oblivion.
As a side note, I feel really bad about not helping the guy who was exposing his keister as he straggled down Colfax Avenue. I might be sober now, but I’m still at least part selfish asshole.
We all are, really, to varying degrees. This isn’t about the need for others to speak out when they notice we’re drinking too much. That would be nice, but we’ll have to crush the stigma associated with alcoholism before we can expect anyone to tap us on the shoulder and tell us what they’ve observed. Crushing the stigma is hard work, and I’m afraid claiming victory is still a long way off.
This is about us realizing that we aren’t as stealthy as we think we are. There are a bunch of reasons no one is saying anything when they notice we’re drinking too much. Our successful stealthiness isn’t often one of them. If we’re lucky enough to have a tired, disgusted, fed-up spouse, we should consider that a huge blessing.
Your spouse isn’t a nag. Your spouse is right. Of course, if you’ve read my story all the way to this point, you already know that, don’t you.
If you’re ready for support from people who know all about it, too, please consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.