“If you did not write every day, the poison would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.”
~ Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer
Yesterday was officially the last day of summer, and I am grieving yet another passing of my favorite season while at the same time relishing the burst of productivity that will ensue now that the siren’s call of balmy weather can no longer be heard outdoors to make me fidget in my chair or lure me away from my desk. With the same uncanny timing that I have seen almost every Labor Day weekend for the past twelve years I have lived here in New England, summer’s calendrical ending has been punctuated today by grey skies and dreary rain that arrived like pre-ordained clockwork, just before dawn, and is forecast to continue throughout the week. You wouldn’t have guessed this to be possible, however, if you had looked out my window just twenty-four hours ago and seen a perfectly clear blue sky that was strewn with only a few wispy plumes of cumulus floating high up in the atmosphere. It is like a switch gets thrown on this day each year.
Metaphorically speaking, however, the sky has cleared and a very large and somber cloud that was hanging over me these past few months, whether I’ve been indoors or out, has finally lifted with the dénouement of my second divorce. While it was still overhead the past few months, the feeling often crept up on me that I had been cursed, and deservedly so. Usually, I was able to shake it off by reminding myself of the utmost necessity of our split, but sometimes it became unshakeable whenever I would think about the pain that this was causing the woman who I pledged to spend the rest of my life with. Of course, then I remind myself of the greater pain we would both endure if that promise could have been kept. I am at peace now, and I hope she is, too.
Our final separation seems like a lifetime ago. I had arrived at Tuff Decision Farm on the second day of November with my pillow tucked under an arm, carrying my shave kit in one hand and holding a battery-powered lantern with the other. The power was still out in most of Connecticut, and it would be eight more days before it would be restored there to that heavily wooded town that was the hardest hit in the state. I was grateful for this refuge, however, and I can’t begin to imagine where I would be right now if my friend had not taken me into his home. Little did either of us know that I would be there for nearly the entire winter – the winter that wasn’t. (https://dudesatmidlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/the-winter-that-wasnt/)
When I arrived there, I believed I had just one major decision to make, and I felt at the time that I had already made it. I had decided to end my marriage of 10-months and file for a divorce. As time went on, however, I grappled with this decision and went back and forth when my wife made it clear that she still wanted to work things out. God knows we had tried already, but I was willing to give it another shot while we were still living separated from one another. I was certainly in no hurry to get divorced a second time.
Anyone reading this must be asking the question that I’ll be asked for the rest of my life. Why did I marry her in the first place, and why did I marry her so soon after we met? The simple, basic truth is this: I married her because I’ve never met anyone with such sterling character as hers. The woman is incapable of telling a lie, much less cheating – at cards or anything else. She is also beautiful, in a way that is both stunning and natural, but that is the least of her qualities. She is a woman of the caliber that many men never get to find. (For a full elaboration of what I mean, see Proverbs 31:10-31.)
The deeper, God’s honest truth is, I married her because I thought that being married to such a good woman would help make me a better man. In turn, she married me for the better man who she envisioned I would soon become, instead of seeing past my flaws to accept me for the good man I already was. When both of our fallacies were exposed, I felt doomed, and completely robbed of the optimism and hope I so confidently felt on my wedding day. Worst of all, I lost all faith in myself.
Here is the bitter irony – the silly truth that I must now confess. Ever since my first divorce, I have had a dream of writing – and publishing – a book that tells men how to become better men by finding themselves, post divorce. If I could successfully impart this knowledge and wisdom, it could change the world and make it a better place. I knew it could be done, and I even knew how it could be done from studying the paths of others, but the real truth is that I had never done it myself. I had broken every rule I had written for getting on with one’s life, in my quest for love and the validation I was seeking that I am not unlovable. I was a fraud, I told myself, and so the writing came to a dead stop.
Then, my brief but odious stint as a generator salesman came to a very acrimonious and abrupt end. As I reeled from that ego crushing experience, there were other huge, daunting and pivotal decisions to be made, and they stared me in the face whenever I looked in a mirror. Bereft of a home to call my own, or a career, much less a job, I was at a terrifying crossroads. What the hell was I to do with the rest of my life, and where was I to go? My original family was far away, and the connection I felt to my second wife’s family was a tenuous strand at best that had been badly frayed by our many fracases. I felt helplessly adrift, with my anchor dragging loosely across the ocean bottom. Worst of all, I completely lost my courage to look out over the bowsprit, much less ascend to the crow’s nest to keep an eye out for rocks and shoals. I retreated below deck and fell into a state of putrid oblivion. The truth is, I became a drunk; in the truest sense of that term.
I have been a drinker my entire adult life, but I had crossed the dreaded, invisible line that so many folks talk about as they describe their alcoholism. I had gotten to the point where I no longer derived any real pleasure from drinking, and pleasure was the last thing that I was craving. For the first time ever, I craved nothing more than to immerse myself in stupefaction and nothingness, because the only something that I could feel otherwise was unbearable pain, self-pity, and self-loathing. And the more disgusted I felt with myself, the more disgusting I became. Please pardon the cliché, but I truly hit rock bottom, with little hope of getting back up. And so, when my second wife made it clear that she was not ready to give up on me or our marriage, I clung for a little while longer to the hope that she would somehow be able to finally rescue and redeem me.
It was the return of my children to Connecticut that truly rescued me, however. I had never gotten used to them living so far away, and my attempts to travel down to where they lived were foiled by impossibly expensive holiday plane fares and day-long itineraries with multiple connections and no direct flights. In the blink of an eye, that phone call from their mother gave me purpose and direction. My anchor immediately caught and held fast, since New England would still be the place I would call home – at least, for the foreseeable future. The minute I got off the phone, having agreed to go down there and move them all back up, the first thought that came into my mind was that I needed to get strong again, and of course this meant that I needed to get sober. My marriage had officially failed and I had now failed twice as a husband, but failure as a father simply wasn’t an option.
Older Apple computer owners are familiar with a peculiar form of maintenance for their computers known as “firmware updates” – downloadable algorithms that somehow update the circuitry of their machines, rather than the software or operating system. These updates are irreversible and unalterable, and this is the best metaphor I can find to describe what a man goes through when he first becomes a husband, and then a father. Once I became married and then had offspring, there was just no way of going back to being a swinging bachelor or a newlywed groom. First and foremost, I am a father. I am also a writer, and by holding fast to these truths, I am still here to write today. When I denied them, I nearly destroyed myself.
As to the extent of my drinking issues, I never received a clinical diagnosis. I just knew I was drinking too much. In the eyes of some, I was just a regular, steady drinker. In the eyes of others, I was a dangerously habitual, heavy drinker. Few people ever bothered to come right out and tell me that to my face. As long as someone said it with a drunken smile so that I knew it’s only in jest, I didn’t take offense at being called a drunk. The “A-word,” however, was something I was not willing to accept as long as there is so much disagreement over the definition of what and who is an alcoholic. According to the conventional wisdom of AA, alcoholics are genetically deficient and they’re born that way, you know – born with a disease and a defective liver. Alcohol is something that only “normal” grownups can enjoy, and the sooner an alcoholic discovers that he or she isn’t a “normal drinker” and can’t try to pretend to be by playing in the same sandbox as all the other normal grownups, the less miserable his or her life will be.
I have since discarded the notion that there is such a thing as “normal” drinking, and instead embraced the fact that it is perfectly normal to simply not drink. And by the way, anyone can become an alcoholic. For some, it just requires more practice than others. I also learned that it is not nearly as relevant to gauge one’s condition by how much or how often one drinks, but rather why one drinks. And I certainly knew that I had a problem on all three counts. Whether or not I fit the textbook definition was a moot point, though. I was ready to climb out of the grave I had begun digging for myself, and just stop drinking. At least, for as long as it would take to stop craving something that I no longer enjoyed and get myself completely healthy again.
I was to discover that giving up alcohol isn’t simply a matter of making a simple choice to quit drinking, however. In fact, I’ll postulate here that the real work of beating any addiction is to come to the decision about whether, when, and how to go about doing so. It’s a matter of examining the why’s, the what-if’s, and the what-could-be’s. Laying out all the pro’s and con’s, as silly as it may seem to suggest that there are any con’s to giving up a toxic substance. In an addict’s mind, there are serious con’s that are terrifying to consider until they are brought into the light of day and reason. In this sense, it can truly be likened to climbing a mountain. Coming to that presence of mind requires concentration and contemplation – two faculties of which the addict is robbed while indulging in using his or her drug of choice.
It is essential to get to the top of that mountain first, however, in order to clearly see the what lies on either side. Most of all, to be able to look out and see the promised land – the valley of endless possibilities and opportunities that is waiting if the mission is a success. The valley on the other side, the valley where you’ve been living, well, you only need to take a hard look at the certainties that exist if you make the choice to return there, because if you retreat to go back after standing on the mountaintop, that’s probably where you’re going to stay for the rest of your (shortened) life.
It helped tremendously that two stories appeared in the news while I was struggling with my decision. Josh Hamilton, the tremendously gifted outfielder for the Texas Rangers, suffered a very public and humiliating relapse that threatened to destroy his career and marriage. Less than a week later, exactly one day after I took my last drink, Randy Travis (one of the greatest songwriters in Country music) fell off the wagon after many years of sobriety. These two men who had so much to live for, and so much to lose, bore a powerful testimony to the awful, destructive power that alcohol has to rob a man of his self-control and everything he has worked for, every relationship he holds dear.
Once the question of if I wanted and needed to quit drinking had been answered, and then reinforced, it just became a matter of figuring out how and when. After all, of all the substances out there to which one can become addicted, including meth, heroine, crack cocaine, and ecstasy, alcohol alone can kill you if you detox from it too suddenly after years of heavy drinking. This is what killed Amy Whinehouse, and it can be a very non-sobering fact to consider. My dependency on alcohol was not advanced anywhere close to that degree, thank God, but it was essential to anticipate the pain of withdrawal that I would suffer, and brace myself to cope with it after first tapering off.
The fact that I am presently sitting here and writing this bears testimony to the fact that I succeeded at getting sober – for the present, at least. My drinking had gotten out of hand to the point where I completely lost my ability to form a coherent paragraph. So what has changed?
In a nutshell, I instilled in myself new cravings to replace my craving for inebriation, stupefaction, and numbness. Today, I crave lucidity. I crave clarity. I crave strength and power, and the ability to persevere. Most of all, I crave the ability to create that can only come from a sound mind, and the satisfaction that can only come with the accomplishment of set goals for my creativity. Just like everyone, of course, I also crave joy, affection, admiration, self-respect, good health, and an abundance of blessings in my impending old age, but it is not enough to just crave these things. Every day, I must coach myself and feed the hope that a happier future is not only possible, but it is within my grasp even still, after all my failings and missteps.
Of course, all of this is ultimately made possible by the fact that I am writing again…