‘Tis the season for spirited parties, and endlessly flowing eggnog and champagne toasts can lead to exuberance and excess. It can also make the most wonderful time of the year a tough one for the some 17 million Americans who are alcoholics – that’s 7 percent of the adult population.
In his book, “Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery,” Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg shares his own advice, commentary and favorite quotes.
Below, an excerpt from the book.
Chapter 7: Shakespeare’s Child Family and Friends
“I remember once, it was just before my birthday and I knew that Pappy was getting ready to start on one of these bouts. I went to him—the only time I ever did—and said, ‘Please don’t start drinking.’ And he was already well on his way, and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, no one remembers Shakespeare’s child.’ I never asked him again.”—Jill Faulkner Summers
They give us the strength to live our lives; more, they give us life itself. They are the runway that we race along, furiously flapping, until we are suddenly airborne, only then thinking to look back, with gratitude and regret, as they dwindle below our feet.
Unless they don’t dwindle. Unless they try to pull back the gift they gave. Unless they’re hanging from our ankles, keeping us earthbound, watching everybody else soar away, the wound that won’t heal, the injury we have to nurse forever because in its infliction we were also denied the ability to make it better.
Usually it’s some blend of both, of lift and burden, help and hurt, a hall of mirrors, of passages and obstacles, comfort and contradiction. Family is eternity and today, a century ago and tomorrow. It is the fresh faces of our grandparents, gazing out at us from sepia, scallop-edged photographs. Our parents as newlyweds, his hair slicked back, her lipstick bright red, then, a few snapshots later, holding a tiny bundle of us, we the vessels, we the current model, whether baby birds who flee the nest at a touch or marionettes who linger, dangling, wondering whether we ever dare cut our strings.
Family is permanence that keeps changing. Before we have figured out our parents we are often parents ourselves, a new generation for us to look at with breathless wonder, while they return our stare, in mutual puzzlement and fascination, bound by a knot of infinite complexity, tangled together in an intricate way that blesses and damns, loves and hates, remembers and forgets.
As if this weren’t complicated enough, there is not only your unique family but how you react to it as well. You can have the best family in the world—loving, generous, fun—yet it can make this struggle somehow worse. You resent them for being so nice. Or you could have some monster family, who hurt you at every turn and you still run to them, arms wide, awash in love, surprised every time.
Whatever the case, no clan is too tight or too loose, too loving or too cold, to be visited by the woes of addiction.
Nowhere can the damage of drinking or drugs be more clearly seen—if you can bear to look— than in the impact on your loved ones: your parents, children, spouses, relatives, friends. They have been there from the start, and the same pernicious monster that altered you has also altered them, as witnesses, bystanders, victims, dupes, co-conspirators, inspirations, or some tortured combination.
They will probably play an important role in the process you’re going through. Rare is the solitary person who sheds addiction without having caught the attention of others; rarer still is the person who becomes sober alone, unprompted and unassisted by outside influence. Indeed, typically it is our loved ones who tell us first, long before we are willing to hear what they say, our family whose faces mirror our addictions so starkly that our initial impulse is to turn away.
Thus isolation becomes a central quality of substance abuse. You hide how much you drink. You go off by yourself to take your drugs. It isn’t something you advertise. No one says, “I’ll be right back mom—I’m going to guzzle some vodka in the bathroom.”
Now, as you build your new life, you return to find the family and friends right where you left them. In AA, the eighth step is to make a list of all the persons you’ve harmed, and the ninth step is to apologize to them, provided that doing so won’t hurt them further.
Who you apologize to or don’t apologize to—or whose apology you accept or reject—is your business. While words can help you on your road to sobriety, this journey also underscores the limits of language. The most eloquent apology is to live your life without having to drink or take drugs all the time. You don’t even have to tell anyone—they’ll figure it out for themselves. Just as your problem probably wasn’t the big secret you thought it was, so your recovery won’t be secret either.
Your family will know. They will see you taking the hard way, making the right choices. And family can be a powerful motivation. Even if you aren’t doing this for yourself, you can start by doing it for your loved ones, your children, your spouse. How has it affected them to have a drunk dad, a drug- abusing wife? How much better would their lives be if you could stay on the road to recovery? Getting sober for your family’s benefit isn’t the ideal reason, but it’s enough, for starters, and you’ll figure out later, when your judgment is no longer skewed, that you have been doing this for yourself, too.
Benefits will come, though probably not immediately, because your loved ones may be dubious—and rightly so. Remember: most recovering addicts climb up and slip back and must try again and again until they get it right. That isn’t pretty to watch and inspires skepticism. You’ve said you’ve changed before but you didn’t change. You promised to be different but you were the same. Now you’re saying that you’ve changed. Again. That you are well intentioned and sincere might take the edge off the lie, should it turn out to be another lie, but it won’t take the edge off their disappointment. The only persuasive argument now is to make recovery stick and wait until your loved ones see that it’s real.
You can’t demand trust—someone has to give it willingly. It has to be earned. In Al- Anon your family is taught to disengage from you. To step back from your self-absorbed drama and constant crisis, to let the only person who can figure it out and make it work—you—figure it out and make it work.
Doing so will draw the people in your life back, gradually. Remember the value of time.
And remember the difference between trust and love. Love isn’t earned like trust; it’s given, even to the undeserving. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Robert Frost writes. But love can be abused away, can freeze up and become dormant. Living your life right will begin the slow thaw.
Reprinted with permission from Out of the Wreck I Rise by Neil Steinberg and Sara Bader published by the University of Chicago Press.
© 2016 by Neil Steinberg and Sara Bader. All rights reserved.
Dec. 21: Planning is underway to open Serenity Academy Chicago, a recovery-based high school designed specifically for students dealing with substance abuse disorders, in 2017.
Dec. 15: Abuse of opioid-based prescription pain killers, heroin and synthetic substitutes are killing more Americans than ever before.
Dec. 1: Binge drinking as a teen could affect the brain function of your future children, according to a recent Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine study.