I grew up with an alcoholic father.
He was physically, verbally, and spiritually abusive. I’m the youngest of six kids. If you interviewed all six of us, I believe you’d think we had six different sets of parents.
I got some pretty harmful messages from my dad. By example, he sent the message that a “man” is supposed to drink and to be loud. The only emotion a man can show is anger. Showing other emotions was a sign of weakness. I was always the emotional one in the family so I started to isolate myself. I would go down to a corner in the basement and read comic books. I remember hearing my dad rant and rave at my mom, and I can remember sitting there crying because it hurt.
Sundays was one of the few days my dad wouldn’t start drinking until the afternoon. I remember going to church–just my mom and me. When we came back, my dad was usually at the dining room table. His silence was deafening. The message I got from my father–from the man who was supposed to be my mentor–was that church and God were a waste of time.
My dad wasn’t the only one sending confusing messages. I’d gone to work for a woman in my community in the summer after sixth or seventh grade. Her grown son would spike my soda. I thought it was wonderful. I came home drunk. My mom called the woman, but she didn’t say, “Tell your son not to give him alcohol.” I think mom had given up fighting at that point. She told her that if I got drunk to at least give me some food. How bad could it be if my mom said it was okay?
As an adult, I struggled with my anger. A man asked me when I’d first felt that way. I immediately recalled my 13th birthday, and my whole body shook. My party had been canceled because my dad had been drunk. The same man asked me, “What lessons did you learn?” I realized I’d learned that I couldn’t depend on happy moments lasting because they never did. I’d learned to attack people before they could see how scared I was.
I pushed a lot of people away like that. It was better, I thought, to push people away because if they got to know me, they wouldn’t like me. I thought it was safer that way. If I let people in, I’d hurt them sooner or later or, worst of all, they would hurt me. Meanwhile, I was hurting myself by pushing away the people who could love me.
I had all these harmful messages—these strikes against me. As much as these messages were reinforced in my childhood, I knew there was something wrong–that they were not right. But I didn’t have anybody to tell me that.
These confusing messages started to play out in high school. I didn’t know where I belonged. I wanted to be accepted by everyone. I would do anything for that. In my head, drinking was the cool thing to do. I drank a lot–mostly beer. I’m not proud of it. It didn’t really matter what was going on. I could go for months without a drink, but if I had one drink I couldn’t stop.
I was president of Sigma Delta Pi, a boys’ service club, so I had to be careful not to get into trouble. Back then, I was afraid to ask for help, so I would try and do things myself. I would say yes to everything, and I dropped the ball all the time. This made me feel even more isolated and cemented my belief that I was a failure. When I drank, I didn’t have to think about all that. It was an escape.
That pattern—wanting people in my life and pushing them away at the same time—showed up continually. It showed up with my wife Carol. She and I dated in high school. I would let her start to get close, then I’d push her way. She married me for some reason anyway.
After high school, Carol and I stayed in town to take care of my parents. I worked landscaping jobs in the area. One of the companies would hold meetings at a restaurant with an open bar. I’d work all day and then put alcohol right into my system. That’s when I started drinking hard liquor.
My drinking started getting worse. I began to have blackouts. I would get to work the next day and someone would tell me how funny I’d been or that I’d cursed out the boss. I had no memory of these things.
My turning point came in June of 1988. My coworkers and I were hanging out after a meeting, drinking. It was 11 o’clock at night, but I didn’t have a clue what time it was. The man at the bar said there was a phone call for me and that it was urgent. It was Carol, and she was hysterical. She was seven months pregnant at the time. The meeting had been over hours ago, and she had no idea where I was.
Carol is not the type of person who raises her voice, but when I got back home, she stood there in our tiny kitchen and screamed at me. As we stood there, I was seeing my mom and dad arguing. I hit rock bottom when I saw Carol and heard my mom’s voice instead. I can tell you truthfully that in that moment, as drunk as I was, I said to myself, “My father will not raise our child.” My last drink was June 7, 1988, and I’ve been sober ever since. My daughter has never seen me drunk.
Like a lot of people, I thought I could quit by myself. Soon, though, I realized I needed support. I tried Alcoholics Anonymous, but for me there was something missing. When our daughter Justine was born, we started going to church services. I joined men’s religious organizations, and they have helped very much.
Several years ago, I was having a spiritual battle. I prayed to the Lord, saying, “Please help me understand what’s keeping me from loving You.” I said that prayer for months. I went on a weekend church retreat for men, and I was asked to role-play the part of a boy getting beaten by his father. In that instant I was not playing a part. I was a child again, and my dad was beating me with a belt. One of the leaders of the weekend had to grab me and take me outside. I was surrounded by a bunch of men who watched over me.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. I did 44 years of anger work that Saturday afternoon. On Monday, I stayed home from work. Carol was out, and my daughter Justine was at school. I had been journaling about what had happened on Saturday, and I believe the Lord opened my spiritual eyes. I saw the events on Saturday happening again, and this time I saw what was really going on. I had been on the ground, yelling at my dad, “How could a loving father treat his son like that?” I had really been asking, “How could a loving God let this to happen to a little boy?”
My anger with the Lord had been keeping me from loving Him. The truth was, He had never left me. He had always been with me, He is with me now, and He’ll always be with me. On Saturday, I’d been able to write at the end of the entry, “I love you, Dad.” When I wrote in my journal on Monday, I was able to sign, “I love you, Lord.”
Since then, I’ve been making peace with my past. My dad was a retired Air Force serviceman. He fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I have been blessed to be a part of Vets Journey Home, an organization formed for veterans of combat. Hearing stories of the hell these men and women experienced has given me compassion for my dad.
I’ve tried to teach my daughter the messages I never received: God and religion are necessary and important; my “yes” means nothing until I can say “no”; I’m loved for who I am, not for the number of things I can do.
I am one drink away from being an alcoholic, and that’s after 21 years of being sober. My hope in telling this story is that perhaps someone dealing with addiction—any addiction—can have hope that with God’s help anything is possible.
I’m happiest when I’m conscious, and I’m most conscious when I’m connected to the Lord.