****Warning: heavy stuff ahead.**** Seriously though, if you are in love with alcohol then stop reading. ****
As I walked with my husband into the Oteen VA Hospital in Asheville, NC I came face to face with the Paradox of Alcohol.
It was a warm May day in 2006 when we got the phone call. We had been waiting and wondering for almost two months. We hadn’t heard from Kirk’s dad in over two months and knew that wasn’t a good sign. He wasn’t at his old residence any longer and had moved himself over to a group home on the other side of town. Then we got the call from the VA hospital saying he had been admitted after a small car accident and was declining rapidly. He was incoherent and they were telling us we needed to come because “it wouldn’t be long”. Somewhat in denial at first, I just thought we were going to take care of some his personal effects and check in on him. I didn’t realize that I was going with my fiance just four months shy of our wedding to say goodbye to his father.
For the next few days we were like private investigators. Piecing the last few weeks of his together. The owner of the home that he rented wanted us to come get some of personal belongings and the rest would be thrown away. He had a few vintage tennis racquets, some faded yellow newspaper clippings from his youth, favorite books and black and white photos from Vietnam where he served 3 tours. He, like many others in that bloody time, witnessed the bleakest moments. He was stationed on the naval ships that would carry thousands upon thousands of bodies of our military in body bags from Vietnam back to the United States.
So this was the end of his life. A whole life lived and we had a two black trash bags full.
The rest was shocking to us both. Dirty dishes everywhere, cigarette smoke still hovering thick penetrating every fiber, clear glass bottles strewn around that graduated from the high-end fancy labels to the cheap swill you need just to get a buzz. Scribbled messages on post it notes and bills stacked up. One check book and one file folder. We tried to figure out what his life might have looked like in the end. It was a crushing moment to stand there in the quiet, move through his belongings and feel the weight of his life. Meanwhile this man lay in the hospital without the ability to survive the alcohol withdrawl unlike all the other times. This was it. His body gave up and shut down.
I remember the first time I met him. We arrived into Black Mountain and my husband (boyfriend at the time) followed the protocol his dad required: call ahead and see if we could stop to say hello. He said to give him an hour so we rode around town and then called again to see if he was ready. I didn’t get why he needed an hour. I didn’t understand yet what was happening. My husband hadn’t informed that his father was a reclusive alcoholic. He had mentioned that he had a problem but I had never seen it like this. We went into his dark apartment, heavy with the cigarette smoke, and met this man. He looked like a much older version of my husband which was surreal. His hair was the whitest white. His face was puffy, eyes were red and glassy, but he seemed in good spirits. He was a gentleman. Soft spoken. Kind to his son. He loved him, I could tell. He was proud of his son. I could see the smile in his eyes. He looked at him maybe remembering fonder days when the world around him didn’t seem so dark and hope abounded. Perhaps even thinking of days before the war. We made light conversation and didn’t stay very long. I could see he was starting to getting edgy. His place was very tidy. Dishes stacked neatly. Bed made. Probably an outcome of a strict childhood and life in the military. And just like that we left. That was the last time I would see this man like this. A year and a half later we were in this same dark apartment dumping his belongings into black trash bags, cleaning up some of the mounting trash and witnessing the shell of man dying in a VA hospital.
In front of me was The Paradox of Alcohol.
It was aweful to witness. It wasn’t a picture of a couple sitting on a deck at sunset, toasting with wine glasses. It wasn’t the jovial image of friends cheering on their favorite team at a football game. These are images of people who can handle their alcohol…or so we are to believe. No, this picture was a cautionary tale of a chemical that hadn’t treated people equally. We cannot blame the chemical. The chemical doesn’t inexplicably leap into people’s mouths. But we can look at a societal image that we never see. People die from alcohol. Just like they die from overdosing on hard drugs. Alcohol can ravage the body, steal your life and your joy. And we don’t talk about it. Somehow we hear it but we don’t really believe it because we are afraid to face our lives without it. We eagerly await the latest study that reveals how its good for our health to drink one glass of wine a day. Or we secretly feel like a stronger human being when hearing about someone who is suffering from alcohol addiction because “we can handle our alcohol”.
I am always interested in people’s response to me, knowing my story. “We don’t drink that often”, “we really monitor ourselves”, “we are social drinkers”. I have heard all of these and I don’t quite understand why people need to tell me these things. And my thought is this: I don’t need to know what you do about alcohol in your life. That is your decision. You telling me about what you do concerning alcohol tells me that you need justification. Like the insecure person I was, I did it myself. I justified everything away…”he is too stressed”, “we need to relax”, “he needed to blow off some steam”, “we need to celebrate”….then you get to the point where you don’t need a reason. You just do it to do it: as long as it is at least noon because drinking at 10am might be a problem. But what about when it starts being ok around 10 am. And why is a 2 hour time difference ok? Is there some kind of invisible line that marks a problem. So the guy drinking at lunchtime doesn’t have a problem compared to the guy drinking at 10 am? We make up our own rules and markers in our lives to keep ourselves in check. Then we start to bend them, change them,justify them. Now the rules or markers have shifted…again. The glasses get bigger. The alcohol percentage gets higher but you self talk to remind yourself you are ok because you are only having two glasses. One or two days a week starts to be 3 or 4 bottles. And so it goes. The downward spiral starts. I’ve been down this road myself with my husband. I was right there beside him when we were heavy social drinkers. We started out just on the weekends and we thought we were ok.
I am aware that plenty of people won’t enjoy this post. They will think I am coming down too hard on drinking. Fine. So be it. But really what I am trying to do is give the other side to alcohol. The one where people end up in the VA hospital. The image where we can’t control it anymore despite all efforts. The one where friends call you about your husband or wife drunk at a local restaurant and you have to go pick them up and the secrets out and people start to talk. People start confronting you about your drinking or your spouses. Or the image of the young teenage girl who died in a basement bathroom after celebrating over at a”alcohol is welcome as long as parents are present” home. Her whole life ahead of her and she was doing what she believed to be was fun…what teenagers do. Or the 11 year-old son that goes into the liquor cabinet then ends up in the ER because they wanted to be a grown up. Then you wonder how he got the idea and you remember the picture he drew a few weeks ago of you holding a glass of wine saying “mommys milk”…and you laughed.
We send mixed messages to our children when we know our family history of alcohol dependence. We are basically throwing gasoline onto the fire of genetics thinking “it won’t happen to me”. Ask anyone who has been through addiction and I can guarantee they will say, “I never thought it would happen to me.” Ask the mother who is shattered because their college age daughter is addicted to alcohol if she ever thought it would happen to her. Ask the successful father who finds himself in a treatment program because he was on the brink of losing his family if he thought it would happen to him. Ask the 39 year-old mother of two who is now in treatment after being in denial for many years if she ever thought it would happen to her. Ask the children of alcoholics that have had to say goodbye to their parents if they ever thought it would happen to them.
Ask the son who just left his fathers hospital bedside after saying goodbye to him if he ever thought it would happen to him. The son that had his own battle to fight with alcohol just two years after. Someone might question that image and believe that seeing it for himself should set him straight. They forget about the fact that alcohol is accepted, loved, adored, celebrated, commercialized, BIG (and I mean HUGE) business and stitched into dish towels with witty one liners. It’s in our face all the time on billboards, in print ads, at EVERY event, at EVERY celebration. You can order it from a menu. You buy it at the grocery store. It’s accessibility is literally everywhere. You don’t have to go into a dark alley or an abandoned parking lot.
Call me preachy but I just want us to be honest about the outcome of alcohol. Do we tell our children the fact that alcohol can kill you or are we afraid that sounds too harsh and contradictory because we know the childlike question would be: if it can kill then why do you do it? This is the question we have to consider and be prepared to give an answer for. It’s not a fun conversation to have but it’s not happening enough. There is an addiction epidemic in our country and our children are on the line. Everyday we hear of friends, family, celebrities dying from addiction to alcohol, opioids, heroin and we think…”thats sad”. Then life goes on again until the next person falls victim. We see the commercial of the lady putting a corsage on her daughter while she is in her coffin and we glaze over. We think we are covered in just saying “don’t do it until your 21” but I have very inquisitive children who will not accept “dont’s” without the “why”. I am going to have to give them an answer. I have thought many times about what we will say. I am determined to be blunt and honest. I will tell them that we enjoyed it for a while. That is was very appealing but that we had a to make a decision, based on many bad outcomes and genetics, that it wasn’t right for our family. I will have to tell them about their grandfather and why they don’t know him and his cause of death. My husband will have to tell them about his own struggle through addiction. I am prepared for this. I welcome this. I want my children to know both sides.
I’ve heard people talking about a healthy relationship with alcohol but that doesn’t add up. I’ve read reports on health benefits of “just one glass a day”…but guess what that does? It keeps pushing our boundaries further out so we don’t feel bad about it and justifies unhealthy behavior. This is how this starts. Next thing you know we are drinking out of fish bowls but still ok with it because in our easily influential minds that is still technically “one glass”. We create slippery slopes built on excuses for ourselves. Addiction is BUILT on excuses. Have you ever spoken with anyone who is in denial with their addiction? It is the FOUNDATION of their self talk: But “I’m stressed”, “I’m tired”, “I’m sad”, “I’m mad”, “this didn’t work out in my life”, “I didn’t get the job”, “my wife is giving me a hard time”…it is endless! All that’s needed is one more reason like “it’s good for me”. My issue with excuses is that there will always be one.
We are responsible for our own health and we need to take charge of that. The alcohol business doesn’t care about your health. The list of health issues because of moderate consistant drinking is endless: links to cancer, high blood pressure, chronic disease like liver cirrhosis and pancreatitis, memory loss and brain functions, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. My husband personally experienced panic attacks because of alcohol abuse.
So lets do some educating….I remember at one point in my life when I was drinking heavily I had a tendency to lean towards the celebratory excuses for drinking. A great day, a good report, a nice check…etc And then after celebrating too much I ended up in tears. Every time! I see this on TV a lot of too. People getting together to celebrate something or have a party and someone ends up fighting or in tears. Why is that? The answer is pretty simple. Alcohol is depressant. We hear that but do we really understand what that means? The relaxed feeling you can get when you have the first drink is due to chemical changes alcohol causes in your brain. It helps us feel more confident and less anxious because it’s depressing the part of the brain associated with inhibition. As you continue to drink though more of your brain is affected and what was initially a positive affect can turn into a negative emotion EVEN if you started out in a great mood. You then can become angry, depressed, aggressive or anxious. When I finally realized this after going through all the trauma of my husbands addiction and what could have been an addiction for myself, I was relieved to have answers, to understand what was really happening. We need to know and understand how these chemicals affect our bodies. We know that they initially make us feel good but we know that it can go south real fast. We have to do the research. We are so careful about the foods we eat but less so about the other chemicals we put into our bodies because of one thing: we don’t want to know. Because then we’d be accountable to that information.
Look, I know we are determined to have the nice kids. And as much as I want my kids to be the nice kids, I am sincerely more concerned about the drug generation being breaded. If they don’t grow up with transparent parents who can answer the why’s then they will not fully know the consequence of their choices and that “healthy relationship” with alcohol you dreamed up for them quickly turns into a serious problem. I know my kids will make their own mind up about alcohol but they will do this with full knowledge of why they grew up without it in our home. It will not be some big mystery.
The paradox of alcohol. We like one of the images. We hate the other. But you cannot have one without acknowledging that the other exists. We have a responsibility to our children to give them the right message about alcohol. This is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility to take care of the message. To be honest and thorough but also to let our lives be the example. “Don’t do as I do” or wait until your “of age” stuff doesn’t work. We want our kids to be nice, but the nice kids have problems with drugs and alcohol too. I’ve read far too many obituaries lately of young people which start with “was a good kid and loved by so many people in the community”.
There is so little in life that we can actually control, but we can control that message. We can share our real experiences in life with alcohol and how quickly things can change to bad when we aren’t sober. I pray we will all take control of the message and live it out for them. This next generation depends on it.