The greater our honesty, the more life is worth
Alcohol has never been de-throned in my family. Throughout his life, my father clung persistently to the conviction that alcohol opened a portal to happiness. As the big book says, “For most folks, drinking means conviviality, companionship, and colorful imagination. It means release from care, boredom, and worry. It is joyous intimacy with friends and a feeling that life is good.”
That and much more, for the early alcoholic. Because for us, drinking means release not only from those factors, but from ourselves. We live constantly tormented by the thousand stinging wasps of envy, self-criticism, frustrated desires, and the injustice of being misunderstood even though we know best. Drinking sedates these irritants, and we feel free. The trouble is, they all come back with twice the venom when we sober up. So we need more alcohol to regain peace. We don’t want to examine our consciousness itself and recognize that the bees are all generated by our own sickness.
Like my father, I clung to this pro-booze view as long as I could. The more painful and screwed up my life became, the more convinced I was that I needed alcohol in my corner as my only true friend. When that path led me close enough to meeting death or tragedy – meaning that I regularly drove drunk almost wishing to die and too selfish to consider the threat I posed to others, and that an otherworldly voice actually told me it could no longer help me if I continued to lie to myself – the day came when I finally turned on it.
I’d known for ages that I was alcoholic; I’d resolved a thousand times to drink less. But this time was different. This was a resolve to take action, and it entailed a shift of means that felt almost like murder. I would open the trap door beneath my buddy, alcohol, who unsuspectingly assumed we were still a team. I would go to AA, that anathema of self-reliance, and I would check out surrender. While I drove to my first meeting, that part of me – my addict – pleaded for me to wake up, say fuck it all, and just down a goddam drink.
Over the nearly 20 years since, as told in my addiction memoir, my sobriety has progressed as slowly as a receding tide that gradually reveals all kinds of submerged skeletons and rusting old junk on a beach. Every corpse, every dysfunctional mechanism has had to be dealt with through awareness, acceptance, and action. It’s a process that continues today through the 12 steps.
What I’m remembering this morning is how astonished I felt each time my father voiced the old belief that alcohol was the goodness of living. One night around Christmas a few years before he died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, he showed me the strings of Christmas lights in a three-tiered arch over the front door entrance. “Do you know why we have it like that?” he joked. “So our guests will leave thinking they’ve had a good time!”
Though I loved my father for joking with me, which he rarely did in his last years, I could barely fathom the mindset involved. Every doctor he’d seen in 30 years had pronounced him an alcoholic with an enlarged liver and advancing wet brain. I’m sure he was warned about his thinning heart walls as well. Mom would confide these medical concerns to me when the mood came over her; more often, she pretended along with Dad that they simply didn’t exist. Despite the thousands of mornings he’d awoken with killer hangovers, Dad’s thinking around alcohol had changed not an iota since the fabulous cocktail parties thrown in my childhood. My father was a brilliant man. How could something so obvious be walled out from his reality?
He was a star in his career, raised his children lovingly, and remained married to my mom for 59 years. He was also successful at continuing to drink all his life. Before retirement, he drank only on evenings and weekends. After retirement, he drank all day, pouring wine into his coffee cup an hour or so after breakfast. Did he get DUIs? Never. Did he get in fights or become obnoxious? Not even potentially. This is something many drunks wish they could pull off.
The toll was all on himself. He endured endless self-loathing, judged his life irritably as having fallen short, and lived in emotional isolation from those closest to him. There was so much we couldn’t talk about! Resentments flared at the mere mention of certain names. Yes, wine dulled these pains somewhat, but less and less as years went on. He became bitter and snappish.
I am like my father in so many ways besides alcoholism! Sometimes I almost feel I am him as I prune things or cook pancakes or do any of the chores I remember doing with him. When he was dying, I had dreams I would swear were his. As described in my memoir, I’ve had a Near Death Experience, and I often pick up energies/thoughts that are not mine. In these dreams, I was the one dying and looking back on my life.
Approaching death, my father’s consciousness overflowed with anguished regret for having been duped all his life. He felt he had wasted his chance to meet life head-on with honesty and honor. The old mechanism of self-loathing still had him in its grip, as he felt that by having rejected the Catholic church at a young age, he had angered god. I woke filled with these feelings at 4:00 AM and drove across town to tell him, before the dawn of his last day, that god loved him, that he had done beautifully, and that there was nothing to regret. By then he could not speak, but I like to think he could hear.
My own greatest regret is that I couldn’t get my father sober. I couldn’t even speak to him about his alcoholism or AA. Deeply codependent, I felt overpowered by the intensity of denial in our family: admittedly Dad was an alcoholic, but hey, a healthy one! While my family continues that legacy by toasting Dad’s memory and reflecting how much he’d love to be drinking right now, I’ve recently, after a few years in Al-Anon, decided on a shift. I’ll no longer attend such functions. If my family wants to see me, we can meet for alcohol free events.
There was also no way I could ever speak to my father, even on his deathbed, about the greatest gift he gave me, though I think he knows it now. In a sense, he helped me to find sobriety – a chance to live in the immediacy of life, working to hide nothing from myself and god. In the end, his example of painful denial, of remaining loyal to an illusion, taught me honesty. The greater our honesty, the more life is worth. I wish I could have shared that with him, but it was not to be.