A Skeleton in the Closet
Our annual membership to the Chicago Science Museum was due to expire.
With the clock ticking, I feverishly worked the math on my pocket abacus and calculated that with one last visit, we’d triple our return on the cost of the family pass.
My wife and I knew exactly what to do: We performed the forever cool Fist-Bump-4-Value, packed the minivan with generic soft drinks and healthy snacks and informed our teen daughters we were all taking a trip to a new store in the mall called Puppies and Cheesecake.
For the sake of context and sympathy, understand our household budget doesn’t include an entertainment line due to building our American dream on middle-American quicksand. When opportunity for a cheap outing pops up — no matter how much the girls revolt — we pounce on it like a puppy on cheesecake.
Read my sentence fragments: We. Were. Going.
Midway through the drive, the girls stopped tuck-’n-roll escape attempts and surrendered to a day of wholesome draconian fun. I cheerily steered us into the city while their mom jammed to Juice Newton on her Cracker Barrel harmonica.
Poor kids . Sullen faces registered pure misery as they gnawed their rutabagas.
Pulling into the parking garage, I made an announcement sure to put joker grins on their faces: We were going to the one exhibit in the museum we hadn’t seen yet: The Human Anatomy!
Just as I thought, the girls were positively aglow once they caught their first glimpse of preserved organs under glass.
Hearts, lungs, brains, spleens — enchanting!
Big-screen monitors provided life-size, virtual bodies that could be maneuvered 360-degrees and dissected via touchscreen. (Any notion I’d held of a future surgeon in the family went night-night as the girls raced to see who would be first to turbo-spin their patient into oblivion.)
In a secluded corner, I discovered an arcade-style game displaying the effects of organic chemicals on the nervous system. I accepted the challenge, cracked my knuckles and assumed the Asteroids Galactic Master Stance™ I patented back in ‘81.
Fresh from her malpractice suit, one daughter sidled up to watch her mad scientist father use mad skillz to launch digitized molecules into neural pathways. Chain reactions popped on screen in brilliant bursts of color.
“Ah, now let’s see what dopamine does,” I fiendishly whispered to my lab assistant.
“I know what it does,” she said. “You told us.”
Her words got my attention. I knew what she meant.
I dropped the act and looked at my daughter.
“Yes I did.”
Our kids learned about dopamine when we taught them about my alcoholism.
My name is Roy, and I’m a closet drinker.
It’s an appropriate label since the closet is where most of my secretive drinking occurred, although the dark corner in our garage worked just as well. Frankly any secluded area of the house that provided enough space for me to tip my head back was good.
It’s not a terribly marketable skill but it’s one in which I excel. Not that I sought a double-major in deception and intoxication, but when you’re motivated to practice and hone something for over 20 years, you’re bound to become talented.
I’ve remained gainfully employed, always perform my duties as husband and father, walk the dog and pay my bills, but I don’t consider myself a high-functioning alcoholic. I believe that idea, at least in my case, is a myth.
I’ve wanted to stop and have tried.
My first true-blue effort was Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2006, nearly two years after we were blessed with our triplet girls.
I’d been sneaking to our bedroom closet throughout the evening.
We’d just finished dinner. I was washing dishes while my wife played with the kids on the carpet when I began to cry.
I admitted everything.
Within two-hours, two invited strangers, men from A.A., were seated across from us in our living room.
I went to my first meeting that night, exchanging phone numbers with another member so we could keep in touch during tough spells.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have screened work voicemails on the speakerphone in the first place. (Tom was good folk, but I think he took the A in A.A. with a grain of salt.)
I attended several meetings over the next few weeks, listening to the stories of others but never speaking up. How could I possibly bring any substance or value to a room filled with so many who could speak firsthand about true loss and despair?
After a couple months of sobriety, I stopped going to meetings, convinced I had my problem under control.
Easy as that.
I was sober for three years.
On Christmas 2008, I began drinking again, vowing to myself I’d moderate.
My MO — sneak drinks after work up until dinner — was consistent, but the intake in that short period escalated gradually year after year. A quick swig became a chug and eventually developed into what I can only describe as a cascade of liquor down my throat.
In 2012, after my first visit to a popular destination in the addiction community known a rock-bottom, I maintained my drinking habit while applying myself to alternate methods of cessation:
- SMART Recovery
- music therapy
- online support groups
- counseling again
- Celebrate Recovery
- creating my own health improvement plan
(Couldn’t hold a straight face typing that last one.)
Nothing had the lasting effect I’d experienced with A.A., so I returned determined to work the program in earnest.
All members, newbies and vets, told me if I truly wanted to be successful, I needed a sponsor. After several meetings, I found the courage to ask someone I’d heard speak. He’d been sober 10 years and I held him in high regard.
When he accepted, I nearly wept, letting him know how much I appreciated his mentorship. We scheduled a meeting at the local library the next day.
I arrived early for our appointment so I could reserve a study room. I was also sure to bring my Big Book.
Fifteen minutes after our start time, I called and left him a message to check if he was on his way. Thirty minutes after, I called again.
He never showed and never returned my calls.
I saw him at a meeting a week later. When he spotted me, I thought he’d take me aside and offer an explanation, but I was never approached.
Rather than confront him, I left the meeting and bought a fifth of vodka.
I haven’t attended an A.A. meeting since.
My name is Roy, and I’m the son of an alcoholic.
My dad was that ’70s guy who threw big weekend parties with cheese and meat on toothpicks and cigarettes and Aqua-Net and turtlenecks and comb-overs and blue eye shadow and explosive laughter and free drinks for anyone in polyester.
Witnessing those convivial soirées through stairwell balusters, I vowed my future home would include two things: Batman poles and a well-stocked bar in the basement.
At 14, when I was handed my first beer at a friend’s party, I seized it. Plenty of just-one sips from Dad’s Budweiser groomed me for the occasion. I guzzled the can with zeal and my life improved instantly. Fear, apprehension and second guesses melted out of me. The time had come for the real me to show everyone the scientifically sound way of descending from a rooftop with an umbrella.
In my teens, just as acquiring Coors was becoming integral to my academic career, my father was taking steps to stop his drinking for good.
But we kept our missions secret from each other.
I graduated college, and life came at me full-force: work, marriage, moving, work, moving, kids, work, moving, mortgage, work, work. Three decades gone in a flipbook flash, each year of it bringing more challenges than the last.
Through it all, alcohol was my coping mechanism.
When I found myself having to cope on a daily basis, I knew my drinking could no longer be classified as recreational. Could I be an alcoholic? How would I know?
I called my father who was nearing retirement in Florida. He’d quit, never once relapsing.
I revealed my problem, shared my fears, acknowledged my failures trying to quit and detailed the extent I’d gone to continue drinking against all logic.
He didn’t process very long.
“You’ve got a lot to figure out.”
He told me he’d mail me some addiction brochures. The conversation ended soon after that.
I don’t know what I expected, but I do remember thinking there would be more.
Maybe because he works as a substance abuse counselor.
Mostly because he’s my dad.
My name is Roy. I don’t know that other guy.
Instead of exploring new ways to fight it, I went with a bold new strategy and recruited alcohol as a permanent physiological need. In return, it soured on me. The euphoria it used to provide proved only to be a limited-time new user incentive that had long expired.
As with any contractual arrangement, all I was left with were feelings of frustration, resentment and hostility.
Maybe if I increase my consumption, I’ll get the rush back. More will make it better. That’s the sane thing to do.
My wife was now enduring constant visits from an unwelcome loud-mouthed degenerate resembling her husband who’d endear himself with an overplayed routine of dinner prep and mindless bitching.
The asshole would rail at everyone and everything his bleary frontal lobe could target: the boss, co-workers, the librarian, the lawnmower, the bagboy, the utensil drawer, God, the neighbors, the dishwasher, the car, his sister, social media.
The tirade carried on until bedtime.
My wife began confronting me each morning concerned about the recurring evening episodes of Roy vs World. I’d quickly toss her a preemptive apology blanket hoping to squelch a lengthy discussion and avoid having to explain any rants I couldn’t remember ranting.
(Did I mention the blackouts?)
And then she’d say, “But I don’t understand why you were mad at me.”
I was? No I wasn’t. Was I?
So I’d say, “I didn’t mean it. I was just mad about those other things.”
She’d warn me, “The kids are beginning to notice.”
No they aren’t. She’s overreacting.
“I’ll do better.” And absolutely nothing changed.
Why change? Change doesn’t work. You’ve tried. This is the way it’s meant to be. Ain’t so bad. Just reset, do your job, come home, claim your reward and repeat.
Yes — this was the way it was meant to be.
So another day began, both of us knowing exactly how it’d play out.
I readied myself for work, grabbed my satchel, my thermos, my keys…
a sheet of journal paper?
The note was tucked in the fold of my wallet.
You need to realize just how much we love you and how much we appreciate the work you do for us. I don’t like hearing you be so sad and angry. I’m sorry if the things you said to Mom is how you really feel. I’ll try to do better to show just how much you mean to me starting with this letter. You said I should tell you about how I feel things, and I want you to know you can do the same. Sorry for sounding over dramatic. We love you dad. I love you.
Can I ask you something: What type of father causes his daughter to even think about taking the time to write something like that?
I was nothing but an angry old drunk raging at a Twitter feed.
Quite the legacy.
“Every night, we were fighting more and more. I couldn’t remember what it was about most of the time, but I was loud. I’d get another drink, come back and make things worse. Finally she told me she had enough, that she was leaving. She didn’t want the kids growing up in a house like that.”
His name is Andy. It’s his first day.
The rest of us listen and nod.
When we take a break, I introduce myself. I congratulate him and his wife for sticking it out and thank him for sharing his story. I tell him he’s in a good place.
Recovery for me began a month earlier after accepting help from my wife.
She’d found the center online while researching programs in our area. She told me the staff used A.A. philosophy but applied it to small groups so each person could actively participate.
I called the number, met with the clinical director and was admitted into their intensive outpatient program. I go four times a week.
My wife attends family sessions on the weekend.
I’ve been learning a lot about behavioral patterns which make me susceptible to my disease. I know it thrives in isolation, so I expose it and share with others who understand and who can empathize.
Speaking for the first time in front of the group was hard.
Now, I can’t shut up and it pisses my alcoholism off.
As therapeutic as the program is, I find it just as empowering being open and honest with those close to me who offer compassion and support:
- I continue to teach my daughters about alcoholism and what I need to do to stay healthy. (They’re my pep squad!)
- I check in with my father from time to time to let him know when I’ve figured something out, like how I can only do this one day at a time.
- I sit down and talk with my wife every single day. (How could I have ever been upset with God when he brought me to her? Sorry, God!)
- And I post a story on a publishing website for my friends to read.
My name is Roy, and this is the start of my recovery.
Thanks for being a part.