“There is a time in life when you have to change the way you drink. I think it is about age 26. You have to move from drinking like Animal House to drinking like James Bond,” Bill said.
When Bill, who is in his mid-thirties, said this to me, it got me thinking. I love it when someone captures a stream of thought with a simple sentence. It is usually an obvious comparison which immediately makes sense. It is an inescapable truth. You hear it and you accept it.
But this thought does not come from a social drinker. This is the thought of a heavy drinker. Someone who has adopted alcohol as a necessary part of their life. Someone who sees themselves as a drinker. Someone who has made alcohol an integral part of their identity, as it was mine.
This conversation brought back a flood of memories.
Memories are a big part of the first half of my life story. Memories I could do without. Like Bill, I had these thoughts about my alcohol consumption. I knew it was a problem, so I thought about it a lot. These thoughts came more frequently as I approached my thirties. With more responsibilities came more exposure, more influence, more accountability, stiffer consequences.
In fact, my drinking was becoming a problem.
I knew I had to address it. But I thought, “Everybody drinks. It is an important part of all relationships. It is the lubricant to help us all relax, drop our guards a bit, and enjoy each other’s company.” In other words, I deemed alcohol absolutely necessary in my life. There were so many “good times.”
But in those moments when I was honest with myself, my thinking would move from rationalizing to objectivity. The “everybody drinks” is a rationalizing thought. Here are three objective thoughts on my drinking which I just couldn’t help thinking about.
There are alcoholics in my family history.
My father was an alcoholic. I grew up with this. I was a child of a man who abused alcohol. A man who loved his family but was a slave to alcohol. He wanted to make his family come first, but he couldn’t help himself. Alcohol had to come first, then family. This made for a tortured existence for him and me.
He was always trying to do the right thing, but it is hard to do the right thing when under the influence of alcohol. I learned as an adult alcoholic, if you can think it sober, you’ll do it loaded. This makes for a messed up life caused by messed up decisions that make for messed up relationships.
And because he was my dad, I wanted to be like him. In spite of all the pain I experienced because of his drinking, I believed this was what it meant to be a man. I know this sounds crazy, but this was the “normal” in my family.
Interestingly, I knew the pain of being raised by an alcoholic, so I didn’t want that for my kids.
I wanted to be like my father. But I didn’t want to be the father he was to me.
I was different. I could control my drinking.
I planned my social life around alcohol.
I remember Kathy asking me to go with her to a neighbor’s dinner party. This was early in our marriage. We had two little girls who played with this neighbor’s children. Kathy became friends with the mom, and they wanted to take the next step and have us over.
But I knew these people. They were church people who didn’t drink alcohol.
I told Kathy, “No. I am not going to their house for dinner. They are not my kind of people.”
As I look back on stories like this, I realized how irrational my thinking was. I actually viewed people as drinkers or nondrinkers. It was important for me to know. If they were drinkers, then I could be friends with them. If not, there was just no way.
Should I apologize?
When Kathy and I were moving from our first house, I ran across a box of letters. These were love letters from my father to my mother when they were dating.
As I read those letters, I realized what a hopeless romantic my father was. He poured out his heart to my mother. He adored her and expressed it passionately. But every letter ended with an apology—every letter.
He was apologizing for something he’d said or did. He apologized but laid the blame on having drunk too much alcohol. It wasn’t him. It was the booze.
As I got older and my drinking progressed, I realized I was doing the same thing. When I would wake up in the morning, my first thought went to, “What did I do? Was I cruel or rude to anyone? Did I say something offensive? Was I too boisterous and loud? Why did I have an argument which got so far out of hand again?”
There is nothing worse than having to call people the next morning and apologize.
This is stage 1 of alcohol abuse.
I knew I needed to apologize and did it. As I progressed to stage 2, I hoped my behavior under the influence didn’t cause problems, but I knew it did. But instead of apologizing, I would ask people if I needed to apologize.
When I finally got to stage 3, I never called or apologized because I knew I wasn’t going to change. The alcohol was my priority and people just needed to accept me for who I was. After all, they knew I loved them. Right?
It’s amazing how that one comment from Bill kicked off all this thinking about my past. Yes. I wanted to be James Bond and not Animal House. As I got older and had more responsibilities with my family and in business, I worked really hard to be James Bond.
But in the end, the alcohol won out.
My addiction made me into the man I didn’t want to become. I became my father. Alcoholism is in my family. And now, “I’m it.”