Hello, my name is Mark and I am a recovering alcoholic, addict, and adult child of alcoholics – which surprises a lot of people, so I’m sure it does you, as well. I know it certainly surprised me.
I drank because I liked the effect. Plain and simple. Like most addicts, alcohol fixed things for me and seemed to do for me what nothing else, including my best thinking, could do. It erased what I call a low-level hum of fear and pain that I have had as far back as I can remember. Once I started drinking, I couldn’t imagine going through life without it.
I want to pause here for a second to tell you something. On November 30th of 2010 I picked up my three-year sobriety coin. On that same morning, I buried my sister from this disease. After the funeral, nobody could handle keeping the urn, and so I strapped her urn in my front seat so it wouldn’t fall forward and we drove in silence up I-70, my hand on the top of her urn. Almost one year to the day prior, I had strapped her in that very same seat, so she wouldn’t fall out of it due to her drunkenness, and I drove her to rehab.
My sister was 48 years young. She was the most compassionate, big-hearted woman – you all would have loved her and rooted for her. The disease of addiction I’m going to tell you about does not care about any of that. It doesn’t care about good intentions and it doesn’t negotiate. I am not fucking with you when I tell you this will take your life. So, please try to feel what I’m saying because words are very inadequate.
Like most things, this starts early. And in no way do I mean for this to be a sad story – because it isn’t. Alcohol is really just a symptom of the problem and there’s an underlying piece to all this that may help explain why I drank.
When I was five, my father died of a heart attack at the age of 39. I don’t have many memories of my childhood – even into high school – but I have a very strong recollection of waking up, walking into his room and finding him dead. (I even remember trying to revive him with a heating pad). I don’t remember much else of the next year or so but my mother, a widow in her early thirties with three small children, remarried an alcoholic named Jerry (Jerry Dale to be specific – the same first and middle name as my dead father) and we immediately moved from Kansas City, Kansas to Leawood. So like I said, I don’t have many memories of that time, but within a year, my father died, I got a new one and we uprooted. I have always been told my father loved me very much. Now that I have a five year old son, I don’t doubt this. I assume I loved him very much, too.
About this time, my sister started running away (she was just 12). One time, she was found curled up in a ball in the closet. When I was about 6 or 7, my sister began running away repeatedly and the cops were constantly at our house.
“You were emotionally abandoned when you were six or seven,” my mom told me. There was just too much going on with my sister, my alcoholic stepfather and her own growing alcoholism After my sister was sent away to a girl’s home, my brother developed Lymphoma. I was 9 and my mother “cannot tell” me what my reactions were to all this. She has no recollection, either. She had “no idea who was watching me and “I was fending for myself.”
Shortly after that, my stepfather and mother divorced (finally!) after years of drunken fights; “knock down, drag-out fights.”
My brother beat the cancer and was in remission when he got involved in drugs. More cops at the house on a regular basis. One time, and I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, he was handcuffed and taken away in front of me and sent to a boy’s home in Salina, Kansas.
By now, my mom a full time nurse, had entered Alcoholics Anonymous – going to meetings constantly. She says “we just sort of passed in the kitchen.”
Early, a seed of “difference” was planted. And that seed, nurtured by fear, grew. I think I inherently knew what had happened wasn’t “normal” and that I was different than other kids. What was going on in my life didn’t seem to sync up with what I saw in my friends’ lives. (And so began a habit of comparing my insides to others outsides that I still have to watch out for to this day).
But that sense of unease and difference just continued to grow and I learned to put on any mask I thought would make me at least appear to be normal – to be a part of things. I became good at it, actually. Then, when I was 16, I started to lose my hair. Now I had physical proof that I was in fact different. There was no disputing it now. I was one of only two kids in the entire high school of 900 that was going bald. (The other guy, Mike S., seemed to wear it better…). So there I was, an overly independent, bald, weird kid who was quietly white knuckling this low level pain – the pain of not being a “part of” which I think is all we really want anyway – to be a part of something, to not be separated from other people or even God.
So I white knuckle this and search in every book possible for the answer but no luck whatsoever. And you wouldn’t necessarily know I was going through this. Like I said, I became very good at hiding.
So what does this have to do with my alcoholism? Well, alcohol isn’t the problem for an alcoholic. It’s the underlying reasons. If alcohol had been my only problem, I could simply get it out of me and be done. But the effect on me, I would learn later, was to enter adulthood with a pattern of suppressing emotions and putting on masks; an inability to love or be loved; no sense of security or emotional guidance and structure. I very much felt early a level of fear and sadness. And alcohol and drugs made me comfortable in my skin.
So after the Marines and college, circumstances took me to Chicago and it was there I believe, on a Saturday morning at 9 a.m., that I became an alcoholic. I was having an anxiety attack – a rapid heartbeat which because of my father’s death, scared me tremendously. I reached for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and I swear to God, that drink instantly killed years of low-level of fear and pain. It wasn’t my first drink – not by a long shot – but for some reason, for the first time, it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.
From that drink until 14 years later, I never went one day without alcohol. I was now free from my pain and fear and went to work on doing the normal things everybody else was doing. My career took off, I got married, had a beautiful boy, built a house and developed a close circle of good friends.
But at some point along the way, I crossed an invisible line into addiction. I don’t know exactly when, but it happened. And now my drinking began to progress in its frequency (around the clock) and amount (a fifth of vodka daily). Then came the ultimatums, the crumbling marriage and the struggles of fatherhood all while I was spiraling downward.
Nothing in my life was what it appeared to be. Beautiful, lovely wife – unhappy marriage. Great career – a job I hated. Beautiful son – responsibility I resented. Non-drinker – raging alcoholic. Outwardly, I had it altogether but on the inside – spiritually dead.
Alcohol used to do things for me. It really did. Now it was doing things to me. I remember one time my ex-wife told me I needed to stop drinking or she would divorce me. I, of course, promised I would (which, along with a heart that beats, is the second most common trait of an addict). But I never tried to stop. Not one time. No way in hell was I going to go back to the white knuckling scared kid I left behind years ago. I knew I had a drinking problem, but I just needed to be more disciplined about it.
But alcoholism is progressive and eventually, it administered a terrific beating. I had poured so much of this crap into my body, that my body now needed it. Saying I wasn’t going to drink was like saying I wasn’t going to be hungry. And let me just be clear – my problems were no different than any other human being but how I was reacting to them was destroying me and I was running out of time
So, cutting through a lot of tragically comical stories, I eventually sought help and entered treatment. My wife, true to her word (she was no enabler) kicked me out of the house and divorced me. I got fired from my job, got a DUI and lost the ability to see my son on my terms. This took place all in three months.
Treatment didn’t do it – I wasn’t quite ready yet. But eventually, and after many trips to the hospital and even the psych ward, I became willing to admit defeat and so I surrendered and jumped head first into Alcoholics Anonymous. I can’t describe recovery. It’s impossible to describe God’s grace and redemption in my life and to bear witness to it in others. That low-level hum of fear and pain still exists to a degree (I continue to be a work in progress) but it’s not my reality anymore.
Every aspect of my life is better and I now have a reasonable amount of happiness and serenity in my life. Following some common sense principles (don’t drink, trust some form of higher power, don’t be destructive to other people, apologize if you are and help some other alcoholics along the way), has made all the difference. I’m finally the father I wanted to be and I sleep well at night.
Listen, I didn’t want to be an alcoholic. But acceptance turned out to be the answer to my alcoholism and life in general. Everything that I thought would bring me happiness didn’t. Everything I feared turned out to be a blessing. So I don’t really know what’s good for me. And if I don’t know what’s good for me, then I don’t know what’s good for you and I ought not judge you or others. Because I have found that we are all struggling and if I look closely, then there are a lot of ways to help other people and receive the help I need in return. And then, without seeking it, happiness and serenity (which I incorrectly sought as a pursuit unto themselves) really did come into my life.
I can’t explain really, without hours of conversation, how AA works and what it has done for me. It took me two years to get one year of sobriety, but I’m now in my fifth year of sobriety and recovery. Keeping sober is my number one priority – even in front of fatherhood. Because without it, I’m a dying man.
I get asked from time to time if I can have just one drink – would one drink “kill” me? The answer is yes, it will. Because I take that drink, and I die emotionally from shame because I know where I’m headed. And then I die spiritually because it’s not God’s will for an alcoholic to drink. And without God, I lose hope – and when I lose hope, then there is no point and I am drinking dangerous amounts to reach oblivion. I know this because I lived it. It’s not a theory – it’s my track record. My last two BACs were .28 and .38 (.45 being coma). Like I told you at the beginning – I am not fucking around.
So, anyway, I’m a decent ex-husband to a lovely ex-wife (the marriage had its own problems, exasperated of course by my drinking). I am finally the father I want to be, my career is good (but in perspective) and I genuinely try my best every day to improve myself. It’s impossible to see yourself all by yourself. But I think, based on my reasonable serenity, that I’m getting there. I am 42 and I’m armed with some experience and knowledge and am truly looking forward to the second half of my life. I’ve outlived my father now so this is all “Bonus Round” to me.
I get asked a lot about whether being around alcohol bothers me. Not in the least. I am not anti-alcohol. I have bought it several times for gifts (as long as they weren’t alcoholics!) and I’ve dated women who drink. I have absolutely no emotion to it. It’s a miracle really – and one I can’t explain other than to say, if you work recovery, that desire to change how you feel just disappears. I like how I feel.
Remember, I said that I never felt a part of anything because I was 100% convinced I was “different.” And being separated, not being a “part of’ things is a killer. And I’m pretty sure I mean that literally. So I walk up the stairs to AA one day and there is a man sitting there – his name is Bob W., he’s got gray hair and a gray beard and he’s kind of professorially looking. And he looks right into my eyes and he can see the pain on my face. So I’m crying and I tell him I’m lost, that I’m a dying alcoholic and that I didn’t feel like living anymore.
And he looks right into me and says “Well hi there, Mark. We’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long?” And that is all I had wanted to hear my whole life.