As told to Sarah Miller
The day I almost lost my son to anger, I stopped drinking. A good boy, that one, curly head, always with a smile; who knows why he smiled with a Dad like me. I had been a heavy drinker for years now, avoiding anyone who tried to tell me I was an addict.
My son had passed his driving test a couple weeks prior, only I was too busy escaping life to notice. Mike didn’t even bother to tell me; he knew I couldn’t care less. However, my wife Shelly made me promise I would attend the party she threw in his honor. I didn’t. I ended up arrested for drunk driving instead. Shelly didn’t let me hear the end of it. She’d had enough. She was about to leave, when Mike stepped in.
Taking advantage of the moment, he asked, “Dad, can I borrow your car?”
Shelly’s mouth fell open. Nobody borrows my car, ever. But taking hold of the opportunity to calm her anger, I silently held out my keys.
Mike grinned, “Thanks Dad!” he called, and by time I had a chance to digest that he had just gone off in my new car, both he and Shelly were gone.
I knew my alcohol was getting me into trouble, but I couldn’t help it. The need I experienced was so powerful, I knew if I didn’t drink I would die. I knew I was ruining my life by drinking; I just couldn’t imagine living without it. With Shelly out of sight, I pulled the vodka I always carried with me out of my bag.
The next thing I knew, my son was in front of me, trembling. I’m not sure what made him shake me awake; perhaps he thought I would be even angrier if he hadn’t. I was groggy, hungover, and just wanted to continue sleeping. I didn’t even hear him out. I just heard the word, “car” and “scratched” and saw fire.
“You ruined my new car?” I screamed. “You dared to ask me for my new car and you ruined it?”
I didn’t see the fear in my son’s face, the tears and vulnerability of a child in his adult body. All I saw was anger and alcohol. Always alcohol. Attempting to stand in order to go find more alcohol, I gave my son a shove. I didn’t see the shock on his face, or on my wife’s, as she came running, and I just felt an urge to push him, hard, to the floor, shouting, slurring, “You ruined my car, you ruined my car.”
I don’t remember what happened the rest of the night, but my son ended up in the hospital and I, back at the police station. It was through some miracle that I ended up in Retorno’s rehabilitation center.
Retorno taught me a life beyond the bottle. I didn’t need to drink because I found other ways to deal with life instead. It was with simple things, really, like the day my coffee spilled, right on my new tie. I closed my eyes, drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. In my mind’s eye, I watched the guy I used to be: shouting, cursing, somehow it was Shelly’s fault. Emptying out my wardrobe, so piles of shirts and ties would lay strewn at my feet. I wouldn’t bother to pick it up, the cleaner could do that. Instead, I muttered the serenity prayer under my breath. I took off the tie and dropped it in the laundry hamper. I found an old, clean tie. I left the house, no door slammed.
Instead of unnecessary drama, I’d learnt to walk right through life, on life’s terms.
Later that week, the plumber showed up. Shelly and I were both on our way out. I knew Shelly was dying to go out, and we both knew it would be she that would stay behind.
I breathed in deeply, I closed my eyes. “It’s okay Shelly,” I found myself saying, “I’ll stay home.” She looked at me for a long moment, her bag already on the floor. She picked it up and left the house. She forgot to say goodbye.
But I knew right then that I was learning that life didn’t revolve all around me. I was beginning to see those around me; my wife, my family, my friends and the regular stranger on the street.
And I looked into the mirror and high fived myself. Way to go! Instead of self-hatred, I had found acceptance. Through Retorno and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step meetings, I was learning to live a life beyond alcohol.
About two years after I first began treatment and gave up trying to control what can’t be changed, life winked, perhaps just to show me how far I’d come.
“Dad?” It was Mike, “Do you think I could borrow your car?” It was the first time he had done that in the year I’d been living back at home, and I felt grateful that he felt able to ask me. This time, I noticed the slight shake beneath his cheery smile and I answered softly, “Sure, son, how about if we go for a spin together? You drive.”
I had an important business meeting the next hour, and in the past I would have been tense having to get back to it. The radio was playing music. I looked at the road ahead, marveling that I was able to allow my son to drive my expensive car. I turned to look at Mike, speeding along, singing loudly, clearly enjoying the luxury of my car. My face turned to a smile, soft at the edges.
He changed lanes. He was driving too quickly. The car swerved from the middle to the left, back to the middle, big, wild swerves. My eyes opened wide, “Mike, this isn’t you driving!” but before I could say that thought out loud, I watched my car speed along in the opposite direction, heading straight for the middle section barrier. I saw death coming as I screamed along with my son, watching pieces of the car fly all over and hearing the sickening sound of the tires screeching to a halt.
And finally, the darkness lifted and it was quiet. “Son, son, are you okay?” I cried as we both opened the car doors to the miracle of survival. My car was gone, but I didn’t mind. My son was okay and that was all that mattered.
This time, a year after rehabilitation, when I looked at my son, I saw the fear in his face and the tears and vulnerability of my child in an adult’s body, and as I hugged him I knew I had come full circle. No longer did I need alcohol to live; I had love and acceptance instead.