For an alcoholic, sobriety doesn’t fix anything. When we remove alcohol from the situation, what is left is a quagmire of broken relationships and damaged lines of communication. Alcohol often serves as a bandage on a huge, gaping laceration. It doesn’t heal the wound, but it can in many ways hide its existence for a period of time. When the bandage is removed, the pain is exposed and the family is forced to take careful and precise steps to begin the healing process.
I received a text message from my sister this month. She asked me what we needed to do as a family to heal the resentment I feel toward our father that she senses in my writing. In spite of the accusation – in spite of the pain her words exposed – I was exceedingly grateful for her question. The bandage has been off for almost a year and a half. We have all been staring at the wound for a long time. Finally, my sister, Joey, was making the first careful step toward healing.
Joey is three years younger than me in age, but has seemingly always been a few steps ahead of me in maturity. We enjoyed a typical middle-class, midwestern upbringing. As kids, we transitioned effortlessly between being pals and pains in each others’ asses. We spent one year roaming the same halls in high school together, and I remember feeling protective and proud of my little sister. Then I was off to college, and we have lived hundreds or thousands of miles apart ever since.
Our adult relationship has always had a distance to it that can’t be measured with a map. Sure, we have both led very busy lives. Joey’s three boys are staggered between the ages of my four kids. She has a husband that I have long admired for his patience as a father, and Joey has a career in education that is admirable, too. Joey worked hard to earn her master’s degree without missing a beat on her career ascension, and has parlayed her education and experience into an assistant principalship in her husband’s home state of South Carolina. I am very proud of my sister and her accomplishments. I always have been. We have just never found a way to have a brother/sister relationship that brings me pride.
There are plenty of reasons for our distance. Our busy lives and our geographical proximity top the list of tangible explanations for our lack of closeness, but those could easily have been overcome with moderate effort. The truth is, I don’t think Joey liked the man I became with alcohol taking such a prominent role in my life. Some people think alcoholism is about drunkenness. While that is an unattractive part of the disease, the devastating effects carryover into the sober slices of life as well. Even when I wasn’t drinking…especially when I wasn’t drinking…alcohol made me anxious, controlling, opinionated, paranoid and inconsiderate. Alcohol changes our brains in ways that last months and years after the booze is out of our bloodstreams. In the case of my relationship with my sister, I think she kept her distance from the man that, with years of consistent alcohol consumption, her brother became.
As for my part, alcoholics are notoriously selfish. I didn’t care about the lack of relationship with my sister until I was about a year into my sobriety. It takes massive effort to hold our lives together when we are in the throws of addiction. Managing my relationship with my wife and continuing to nurture my kids was as much as I could possibly handle. I kept my parents and my sister and everyone else at a distance because closeness would have required an honesty that I was not capable of demonstrating. I’ve been a once-a-year uncle and holiday-phone-call brother. Until recently, that was how it had to be.
A few months ago, I started texting my sister every couple of weeks. I would scratch my head and struggle to come up with questions to ask about the life of her family that wouldn’t seem contrived or grasping at something that wasn’t there. Those text messages weren’t much, but they were something. I was trying to bridge the gap between us, but the divide was so wide. I hoped for more, but I simply couldn’t find the words or the courage to heal the wounds.
Then it happened. While I pondered what to do to establish a healthy relationship with my sister, she sent me the question that would carefully and cautiously start to mend the wound. In your writing, I sense the resentment you feel toward Dad. What do we need to do as a family to fix that? That text message took guts. Joey could not have know what my reaction might be, but surely she feared the worst. The brother she had know in adulthood was short-tempered and hard-headed. She knew a man who talked but rarely listened. She knew a brother who tried to hide his weaknesses and kept his feelings pushed way deep down inside.
But I am not that man. Just as regular and consistent alcohol consumption in any quantity changes us, a commitment to permanent sobriety changes us, too.
I was overjoyed that my darling little sister had found the words – she had found the strength and resilience – to start the healing process. The next day, some of the distance melted between us as we talked like we have never talked before. I have always known Joey loves me. Now I know how much she cares about me, too. We didn’t solve all of our family issues. We couldn’t possibly unravel a tangle two decades in the making on one conversation. But we carefully and lovingly started the process, and we agreed upon a path forward to include the rest of our immediate family.
Next week, we will all be together – my family of six, my sister’s family of five and our parents – and we are going to continue the healing process as a family. The adults are going to talk in a way we have never talked before. There will be lots of time during our week together for laughter and conversation. We will play with the kids and watch fireworks to celebrate the holiday. We will eat big, gluttonous meals, and the drinkers among us will drink.
But we will take an evening, and we will work together to heal the wound that is causing pain for us all. We will speak honestly, openly and lovingly. We will smile and hug, and we will cry without fear or remorse.
With alcoholism, sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It just clears the barrier out of the way, and lets the arduous and pain-filled work begin. Joey is ready to work. I am ready to work. It is time for our family to roll up our sleeves and shorten the distance between us.
I write thousands of words a week, but I couldn’t find the words to start this part of the recovery process. God put those words in Joey’s heart – my younger, more mature and soon-to-be very close, brave little sis.