My wife’s new novel is about a recovering alcoholic, so she asked me to write about my favorite recovery stories on her website. But here I wanted to write about my own tale — which is also one of my favorite recovery stories.
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Two major events happened during my senior year of college: George Lucas released special editions of the original STAR WARS trilogy and my high-school girlfriend tried to commit suicide.
For a college student in the '90s there was a lot of anticipation for the STAR WARS prequels. After all, the first three films played a significant part of our childhood. Like most kids I knew, I'd memorized dialogue from the movies, played with STAR WARS action figures, slept on EMPIRE STRIKES BACK sheets — I even defended RETURN OF THE JEDI to cynical adults who hated the Ewoks. (If they only knew what the prequels held in store!)
So I was genuinely excited to revisit this part of my past and look ahead to the future of STAR WARS movies. Which, maybe, in some way, was tied to the hope for my own future since I’d be graduating college and starting the next chapter in my life. (Of course the STAR WARS stories were anything but futuristic, they took place “a long time ago” -- and the very nature of prequels meant they took place even earlier. But still!)
Before I would get a chance to see any of these refurbished films, I found out my ex-girlfriend had tried to kill herself.
It was an awful phone call to receive and it was one of those things that came as a real shock but also it was rather un-surprising. (Let me know if that makes sense.)
The good news was she was still alive. She was committed to a group home, living with other at-risk patients in their late-teens/early-twenties. I got to visit a few times and she said that it was so nice to see me because I didn’t treat her like she was some broken glass figurine. I wasn’t afraid of her. We could really talk to each other. She was still my close friend, she was my first love and we still understood each other. (Looking back at those visits, I cringe thinking about how I talked when I should’ve listened. I was clumsy with emotions and I wish I could do it differently. But that’s not the point of this story.)
During my visits she’d tell me about her day-to-day at the home: she was in counseling, she was in group therapy, she was made to watch videos about topics like depression, rage and co-dependency. And that led to a very difficult conversation.
(Man, this is hard to write….)
Having learned a lot about Alcoholism, my ex-girlfriend hesitantly told me that I had all the signs of an Adult Child of Alcoholics.
At this point, I all but put my fingers in my ears and sang out a list of reasons she was wrong:
- my family’s hang-ups come from being Catholic.
- we’re working-class.
- my Dad does shift-work so he has meals at different times of day.
- my parents grew up in a different era.
- I have dozens of reasons why I never drink alcohol, let's not bring my family into it.
I refused to hear about my family's problems. After all, I was there to support a suicidal friend, not to get diagnosed.
Despite my best efforts, I heard her that day. My denial was a sinking ship and my excuses were spaghetti strainers trying to bail it out. And like when I first heard that she’d tried to kill herself, the mention of my family's disease came as a shock but not a surprise. Even if I didn’t understand all the symptoms, I knew something was up. Hell, I'd spent enough time with other kids' families to know they didn’t behave the way mine did. And since my ex-girlfriend had spent so much time at my house, she knew what she was talking about. She wasn’t some outsider looking in.
Probably my biggest resistance to the ACoA label was that it oversimplified me. I hated the idea that some boring cliche would erase all the fascinating details about Kevin Maher. For the past four years, I was seeing myself as a working class outcast at an affluent college. Before that I was a funny guy taking writing courses among serious poets. There were so many explanations about who I was – and why I was that way. The Alcoholism thing seemed too simple. But it also made too much sense.
A few months later I got pretty depressed myself. I was overworked at my job, I was overwhelmed with school work and I was having anxiety about leaving college and starting a new life. And I was blaming myself for playing a role (even an absentee role) in my ex-girlfriend's near-death experience.
I took a leave from work and started seeing a therapist. When I arrived at the first appointment I got into my background and my current state. I talked a lot about alcoholism, but still wasn’t sure that was my family's problem. Over the next few weeks I read more and more about the disease and practically memorized a pamphlet about “Adult Children of Alcoholics.” I started going to Al-Anon meetings (for families of Alcoholics.) And everything sort of fit into place. Instead of feeling like my personality was oversimplified, I felt a huge relief that I wasn’t alone.
Something I’ve heard about Alcoholic personalities is that when they stop drinking they’ll find something new to replace drinking. In some cases it’s even a deep-dive into 12-step recovery. Even if the person never drank (i.e. me.) So I became obsessed with reading about the disease, the patterns, the history, the philosophy. I applied some of the 12-Step concepts to what I was studying in school. I even titled my Senior thesis “Adult Children of Viet Nam”. (It wasn’t a traditional written thesis, but a multi-media lecture-performance, with autobiographical elements -- basically a template for the kinds of shows I do today.)
On Spring Break when other college seniors were getting drunk in Fort Lauderdale, I flew to Los Angeles and considered moving there after graduation. On the last day of my visit, I went to Grauman’s Chinese Theater and bought a ticket for RETURN OF THE JEDI: SPECIAL EDITION.
I was excited to see one of my favorite movies from my childhood (and, believe it or not, my favorite STAR WARS film.)
But I ended up seeing a very different JEDI – and not because of the newly-added musical number by the Max Rebo Band.
This time JEDI was not about rebels battling the Empire. No, it was clearly a story about a young man who's afraid he'll become an alcoholic. So much of the dialogue about the dark side seemed to be about the power of this disease. Yoda talks about “anger, fear, aggression” and warns Luke Skywalker that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Luke is freaked out that Darth Vader is his father and scared that he might end up just like his Dad.
This shit was hitting close to home. When Luke was on the Death Star, having a light-saber duel with his Dad, I might’ve actually turned to the strangers sitting next to me, as if to say “Are you seeing this? This movie is about the family disease. It was there all along!"
At the end of the movie Luke (more or less) kills his Dad. That’s not a valid option for most Adult Children. But the important thing is he seeks help from a therapist figure (Yoda), he talks with his sister about his feelings and he gains some control of his destiny. That meant a lot to 22-year-old me.
Nearly 20 years later, I find the above-outlined interpretation to be pretty far-fetched. (I’ll file it next to my college reading of GHOSTBUSTERS as a metaphor for Reagan suppressing the memories of Viet Nam.) But that particular viewing of JEDI was exactly what I needed at the time. And recovery stories help us move forward, whether you’re hearing someone’s share in a 12-step meeting, or watching an addiciton-themed movie like THE FIGHTER or THE WORLD'S END.
I had a hard time sharing this, but I’m doing it because there’s a chance it will offer someone the strength she or he needs today. And maybe it will help give readers the courage to share their own stories.
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Again, here’s the original list of My 5 Favorite Recovery Stories, which prompted me to write this entry.
related posts: The Silver Surfer and The Sober Surfer