My father was given to long drunken binges that coincided with his depression. Even as a young boy, I knew something was wrong with him. When I was seven years old, I remember approaching his slightly ajar bedroom door. He was sitting on the edge of the bed with his silver-black-haired head in his hands and a cigarette protruding from his fingers, the fading blue snake tattoo on his bicep and the smoke trailing into the slants of light coming through the shuttered window. There was a half-gallon of rotgut whiskey by his side. He didn’t notice me. I left as noiselessly as possible so he wouldn’t.
In the euphemistic parlance of our family, my father was “down.” Down was bad; down was drunk; and down was dangerous. From “down” would come verbal abuse and sometimes violent rages, also euphemistically referred to as “tsunamis.”
In one tsunami while no one was home, he smashed most of the furniture in the living room, including the television and the stereo. I walked in with a friend and found my dad sitting on the floor flinging wedding dishes against the wall like Frisbees.
For 17 years, my mother did the best she could with him. In the beginning, Dad was able to function. He was a writer, good enough to be the outdoor editor at Sports Illustrated back in the late ‘50s. He went on to do freelance work and even wrote a book about sharks, first published in the early ‘70s. He was well-loved by the community, generous, gregarious and drop-dead funny when the mood struck him.
Dad saved all his worst behavior for his family. As his alcoholism, depression and anxiety worsened, his ability to function diminished. Work dried up and my mother had to pick up the financial slack by opening a printing business. She eventually left my father and found another man.
His drinking continued mostly unabated. At age 56 while on his second honeymoon in Ireland, he caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. His liver failed; he went into respiratory failure due to his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and died. On hearing of his death, the large hole within me widened still further.
I was very much my father’s son. I started smoking cigarettes when I was twelve, and began drinking and smoking weed at thirteen. I tried cocaine in my middle teens and fell in love. I was self-destructive like my father, full of anger and prone to long bouts of debilitating depression. I also started to drink just like he had. By the time I was in my late teens, I was drinking to the point of blacking out. My moods were unpredictable, and I had no means by which to talk about my feelings. My grief, shame and low self-esteem roiled within me.
During my early 20s, someone showed me how to smoke cocaine. It scared and attracted me all at the same time. The rush was unlike anything I had ever felt before. When I took a hit, I felt no pain – no sadness, no grief, no anxiety. As soon as I took one hit, all I could think about was the next one. Everything became meaningless – money, time and the people I loved. The only thing that mattered was my next hit.
I started going on extended binges. I wouldn’t eat, work or interact with people. I drank, smoked cocaine and cigarettes around the clock for days on end, until I ran out. I would crash, sleep for ten or twelve hours, wake up and eat something, then head out the door to do it again. By the time I was 28, my life was in tatters. My wife left me, taking my beautiful baby daughter with her. I was broke and full of even more anguish. Cocaine had denuded me.
Then I received a serendipitous break. In the middle of the turmoil surrounding the breakup of my marriage, my father-in-law handed me a slip of paper. On it were the names of three therapists. The idea of therapy – share your feelings, admit your problems – was an anathema to me. However, I was desperate; and so I chose the middle name on the list for no particular reason. It turned out to be one of the best choices of my life.
Elaine was a deeply spiritual woman with a thorough understanding of alcoholic family systems and the addictive personality. She radiated warmth and, more importantly to me, a nonjudgmental acceptance that slowly allowed me to open up to her. Week by week I began to unburden my soul. Elaine persuaded me to attend Twelve Step meetings where I found acceptance and support. After a wrenching relapse when I lost faith in myself, she encouraged me to go into treatment. She never lost faith in me. One day at a time, I got better.
Today I am 30 years sober. During that time I remarried, reunited with my daughter and had another child. I also went back to college, ultimately earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology. My passion was to help others fight their addictions. Recovery has been a long, steep climb; but I can say beyond reservation that I am happy.
Elaine passed away years ago, much too soon, taken after a long battle with breast cancer. I imagine another therapist could have helped me, but I feel Elaine was just the right person at just the right time. All these years later, I think of her often; her wisdom continues to resonate within me, guiding me like a benevolent angel. When I’m struggling and losing faith, I think of what she would say or have me do in that situation. Before long I feel the strength to carry on. I thank my Higher Power for Elaine. Because of my recovery, I am sober, happy and grateful today.