I’m fortunate enough to have led a pretty healthy life in my first 57+ years on this earth. I have had back surgery, skin cancer and numerous broken bones over the years but nothing major to complain about. My wife Lisa has also been relatively healthy over her 56 years, although she was hospitalized for staph infections twice. Typing these first few sentences was easy. No one will judge me or Lisa for having an infection or a broken bone.
Oh, I almost forgot: Lisa also has been hospitalized for alcoholism. Why do I feel society judging her already? Why is one disease so much more difficult to discuss than others? Let me come back to this point later. Allow me to start at the beginning of our story together.
Lisa and I met in Boston in the fall of 1979, fresh out of college and working together for a major department store. Our first date involved a couple of drinks together after work. We hit it off very quickly, fell in love and married three years later in the fall of 1982. We both enjoyed the nightlife of Boston with old college and new work friends. I moved to New York City after a job change, and our last year of dating before we married was long distance with weekends spent enjoying the nightlife of New York and Boston. Alcohol was always present, but drinking was not out of the norm among our social circles.
In October 1982 we married. Nine months later our first child was born. We had our first five children in less than six years and had seven children total. I have been in sales for over 30 years and traveled non-stop, so Lisa had the responsibility of raising our children, helping them with homework and getting them fed and off to school. When I returned, usually on a Thursday or Friday night after a week out of town, it was time to unwind together. Alcohol was the ever present “relaxer” for both of us. From time to time, Lisa and I would overindulge. As the months turned to years, I now see how the frequency of Lisa’s “overindulgences” (sounds so much better the “drunkenness” doesn’t it?) increased over the years. That’s the thing about alcoholism. It doesn’t boldly arrive with a marching band to announce its presence. It sneaks quietly and gradually up on you!
Her first hospitalization was about 14 years ago and was for depression (God forbid either of us spoke the “alcoholism” word to each other!). I cleared all alcohol out of the house before Lisa came home. As the weeks went by, Lisa suggested she could handle “an occasional glass of wine” but would stay away from vodka. We all know how this story progresses, as we have heard it many times. There were periods of abstinence followed by periods of heavy drinking. I alternated between being the “prohibitionist” and the “enabler,” trying to find a way to put the genie back in the bottle. Our children suffered through the dark moments, but thank God those dark moments were far outweighed by the days of love and laughter that Lisa showered on us all!
October 10, 2011, was the first day of the rest of Lisa’s life! After hitting that “rock bottom” that I’ve heard alcoholics must hit, I drove Lisa to a hospital where she was admitted with nearly lethal blood alcohol levels. Again God was watching over our family. Lisa went from several days in a hospital ward to several weeks in a rehabilitation facility. Lisa came home to a husband and children that harbored every feeling imaginable. Anger, frustration, relief, love, understanding, resentment, lack of understanding, love, alienation, detachment, love, distrust, love, love, love.
Lisa is strong, very strong. She fights every day to overcome this insidious disease that killed her father when she was nine years old. She battles every day to kick this disease to the curb, this disease that her mother and six brothers and sisters fought or were impacted by in one form or another. Through it all she managed to raise seven of the most beautiful, loving children on this planet. She has been sober for almost three years now. Lisa and I became grandparents three weeks ago. I spent many a tearful night horrified at the prospect of not having Lisa alive and at my side for this amazing grandparent experience. Through Lisa’s strength, her fighting spirit and the grace of God, we have an amazing future to look forward to with grandchildren to spoil! She often worries that I will struggle with our “new life” that is no longer centered on alcohol. Lisa is concerned that I will resent the fact we have made conscious changes in our social life and circle of friends so we can engage in healthier activities and not be exposed to drinking settings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having Lisa by my side to hold our first grandchild and having our children look to her with admiration for her refusal to give up are the moments to be treasured!
A key component of Lisa’s continued recovery is her desire to help others like she was helped in her time of need. While I’m sure the support of her family was critical, she also needed a support system from others who had been in her shoes. Lisa needed to see that there are people who can live long, happy lives sober. We ran some road races over the years, and several of our children were involved in track in school. Early in Lisa’s recovery, she learned about an organization that is dedicated to helping those suffering from the diseases of depression and addiction. This organization gave Lisa a voice and showed it is okay to talk about a disease that so many want to keep in the shadows. It named Lisa one of its ambassadors, and I am so proud of her for this accomplishment.
You know what else? My wife is going to run in this year’s New York City Marathon! Are you kidding me? The New York City Marathon! For the entire 26.2 miles, she can scream, “I’m running for all the alcoholics who are sober, surviving and thriving!” She can do so with as much pride as the survivors of any other disease. Thanks to organizations promoting recovery, shame and anonymity no longer have to go hand in hand with mental illness and/or alcoholism. We don’t have to wait for someone famous to tragically die too young before the press can speak of these diseases for a brief news cycle. Thanks to my wife and a growing number of other heroes, the walls of shame and silence are tumbling down like the Berlin Wall. In closing, to adapt Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr. Society, tear down that wall of silence!” Lisa and all the other recovery ambassadors won’t stop until every brick of silence is smashed. So many depend on you, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart!