This post was originally published on January 6, 2016.
I never aspired to be a father. But then I didn’t aspire to be as helpless as my young children, either. Thanks to my drinking, that’s what I became—another child for someone to take care of. I spent as much time hiding out in bed from daylight as I did pretending to be involved in my kids’ lives. You could fill the Grand Canyon with the number of parental obligations I’ve been “too sick” to attend: school functions, playdates, birthday parties. I have two young sons and my memories of them are muddy and pixelated, almost like slow-buffering videos. Whenever I was sober enough (or drunk enough) to read books at bedtime, I was only reading words—never paying attention to the stories. That’s exactly how I was living my life. I could tell you what was being said, but I couldn’t pass a comprehension quiz to save my life.
As a drinker, I made excuses, I played dumb and I barely told the truth when I was caught. When I forgot to throw out all the little bottles of pinot grigio rolling around in my car’s backseat, I’d blame it on an imaginary passenger. I also treated everything and everyone as if they’d evaporate the second I walked away, just like my kids do when they leave a playground. All those close friends they just made? Forgotten. I hurricaned from one bad decision to the next and I had no object permanence in my life, including my job. I quit that job because I felt like it—just like a child would. Weeks later, I still couldn’t rationalize why the bills were piling up and a new job hadn’t appeared.
Four days after my final drink, I nervously paced our house. My brain was on fire—a rat’s nest of frayed wires and jangled nerves—and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be. (Spoiler alert: nowhere.) For years, my mind had been a ball held underwater. Now, all at once, every single emotion, thought and impulse was rushing forward. I wanted to simultaneously listen to Spotify, enjoy complete silence, cook every ingredient in the kitchen, never eat again, call my parents, hide from the phone, jog around the block, lie on the couch, Facebook all my feelings and chuck my MacBook across the room. I wandered from room to room to room, unemployed and untethered. I had the single worst thing an alcoholic can have in their first sober days—time to think.
I wandered into the living room where my oldest son was parked in front of PBS Kids. Becoming sober isn’t unlike one of his cartoon characters who’s running so fast that they zoom off a cliff and keep going in a straight line. They get fifteen steps out into the sky and stop, suddenly realizing they’re in mid-air. I was seconds from freefall. Something inside me cracked when I saw my son sitting there. Before I knew it, I was geysering apologies. “I’m sorry,” I heard myself telling him, as if a five-year-old kid can actually process his father crying, let alone a freak apology out of nowhere. To him, I was a thunderbolt on a cloudless day.
I’d sincerely never felt so ashamed—ashamed of my drinking, ashamed that we’d have to sell our house, ashamed that I was apologizing. Just weeks earlier, I’d disappeared to a treatment center to get sober. It didn’t work. To this day, I don’t know how much my son understood about where I’d gone, but all that mattered to him was that I wasn’t there for his kindergarten Halloween party.
He just blinked while I stood there, crying. He didn’t even say, “It’s okay, Daddy,” which is all I was selfishly seeking. That’s right, I actually wanted validation from a five-year-old. I wanted to hear that all my bottle-hiding and endless happy hours and constantly telling him “Not now” was okay. He didn’t understand why a realtor was hammering a “For Sale” sign into our front yard and yet, for entirely different reasons, neither did I. This can’t be my fault. This stuff happens all the time to people, right?
Alcoholism didn’t suddenly come sweeping in and change things. It was corrosive and patient, working its way through the walls of my life like water damage. Drinking slowly ate away at my ability to function as an adult. Maybe we’re all just pretending to be adults, but if you slam a tall boy of Labatt Blue at 8 am before taking your son to kindergarten, you’re not even trying.
There’s a lot to be said about waking up in the middle of your life, wondering how you’ve arrived there. I wasn’t willing to let another Monday morning come where I’d wince, hungover, as the recycling crew loudly emptied out my bins out front of my house—the previous week’s damage echoing through the neighborhood. It was time to grow up. For me, that was my first step into sobriety—accepting adulthood.
One of my very first thoughts was, “Great. Now I’m eventually going to have to explain why Daddy doesn’t drink.” In AA rooms, we talk about rigorous honesty, but it’s not the kind of thing you really want your kid sharing at recess. That shit gets around real quick. But the older I get, the less I fear it. Like anything in life, things only have the gravity we give them. I have the power to shape my children’s reality about drinking. They’ll be exposed to alcohol in all the same ways I am, like when the Kroger wine section feels as big as the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The last thing I want is to be perceived as some old dude pedaling around on a sober scooter, constantly honking the Don’t-Drink horn. If I avoid the “how” and “why” of my alcoholism, my kids won’t grasp what any of it means. All of my suffering (and theirs, having watched their father stumble, slur and sleep) won’t have mattered. I want them to respect alcohol in all the ways I eventually did.
In the last two years, I’ve learned to be genuinely in the moment. I’ve learned to listen when my children speak, even when that’s like jamming a fork into an electrical socket. Patience is sometimes still beyond me, but serenity isn’t. When you put family photos on your desk in your cube, it helps remind you why you’re on that three-hour conference call from hell. Being in the moment with my kids reminds me that I can’t just disconnect and disappear again. Drinking wouldn’t just mean I’d given up on sobriety—it’d mean I’d given up on them.
I have a newborn girl now. Whenever she opens her eyes, she tracks and imprints every sight, sound and smile around her. It’s amazing to watch. And while I can’t get that missing time back with my sons, I know this is the universe giving me another chance—a final shot at not just pretending to be a parent. In sobriety, I’m no longer acting like a child, but I’m just like my newborn daughter in many ways. I’m looking around at life with peace, trust and, most of all, wonder.