I first told this story at an Al-Anon meeting last year, with my young and recovering alcoholic son, Billy, sat supportively beside me.
The meeting was taking place in a little hall off one of the local churches near our area, a semi-rural community not far from the Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. Maybe you’d laugh (if I told you the place) at my use of the word “rural,” but I’ve been to downtown Seattle on a wild Saturday night, and believe me… this place is nothing like that.
Anyway, after my nervously-given little public speech, someone else’s story and closing thoughts, with the meeting then drawing to a close, another parent, a mother, came up to me and thanked me and my son for joining them that evening. She told me that the story was very inspirational, and full of hope for her, as she was at the beginning of a similar journey with her own son, though his drugs of choice were cocaine and opioid painkillers.
“F E A R…F**k Everything and Run” – Old AA Saying
We had a short conversation, wished each other well, and, as we turned to leave, she said, “Put it online. Anywhere. Local newspapers or magazines. Get it out there. You’ll help others, other parents, other young addicts.” I smiled, thanked her again, and we left.
Two weeks or so later, I ran into a writer-friend of mine, and asked casually if he’d help me do what the lady had said – to write it all down, like a kind of recovery story, and, to use her words, “Get it out there.”
He gave me a similar smile to her bright-eyed and beaming one that night, and said he’d gladly help me for the chance to help, in some small way, a kid like my Billy. Yes, anything for a kid like my Billy.
And that is exactly how this story of a teenage boy (a dangerously alcoholic one, and often, a downright lying, cheating and thieving one) and his confused and scared old man (who’d never, ever felt so out of their depth as a parent) set out to find recovery together. You know what? Even I still don’t know if this story will have a happy ending. But we’re getting there.
Billy was 14 when his mother passed away – he’s 19 now. The woman who I met in high school, fell hopelessly in love with, and who thankfully became my wife – the very bedrock of our small family – was broadsided by a pickup driving home from visiting friends. One moment there, the next – gone.
Neither she nor the pickup driver were DUI or anything like that. An accident, plain and simple. Sadly, devastatingly… a fatal one. All we could do was watch as the framework of our existence and our family fell away. Our lives changed forever. Do I wish the pickup driver had died in her place? I’ll be honest. Every single day. For Billy’s sake, more than my own.
I hate thinking about the funeral – her funeral. Together, Billy and I, we bore that day. I do remember thinking that if we stayed this way – together – maybe, we’d be ok.
In the days that followed, Billy began to drift away, both physically and mentally. Our connection, our relationship, suffered. I tried to bring him back, but, pretty soon, he began to lock himself in his room come the evening. We’d talk about his mother, my wife, recalling the good stuff, but it seemed that without her, something had fundamentally changed for Billy.
Through everything, the funeral, the days after, that became weeks, then months, I thought we’d be ok. When Billy, supposedly at a friend’s house one night, was brought home by the cops, as drunk as a barfly, I still thought we’d be ok. Even when Billy, drunk again, only worse than ever, feebly tried to jack a car (yes, for sure, and in his words, “Because I can, Dad – just watch me…”), and the cops simply called me to come down the police station, and “you best bring a lawyer, sir” – yes, even then, I still thought we’d be ok.
But we weren’t. It was only when I finally realized that my son, in reality, was slowly killing himself, whatever else he thought he might be doing, that I knew I had to start learning all I could about his illness. I was surprised when our family doctor (my first port of call in this new learning curve) told me that that was exactly what it was – an illness. More precisely, alcohol use disorder (AUD). He also informed me there was a high chance Billy was clinically depressed too. Both disorders should be treated together, at the same time.
I spoke to addiction specialists, people at Al-Anon meetings in Seattle and all over, private therapists, but most of all I spoke to Billy, even when I was damned sure he didn’t want to listen. In essence, I told him I would forgive everything – the cops, the money he stole from me and others, the angry parents at my doorstep, the constant lies, and the neighbors who disowned us from our community. All of it – gone, and forgotten. One proviso – “Get well, Billy. I’ll help all I can, but, in the end, you either die or you don’t. Because it’s your choice, son.”
Within a year, after a 10-day alcohol detox, then intensive outpatient rehab that treated both his depression and his alcoholism, specialized therapies, and countless AA and Al-Anon meetings (I’d wait in the car for the AA ones), Billy got better. He attends a Bereaved support group every week now too. He has remained sober since the detox, of which I’m eternally proud of him.
So here’s what I learned. This is what I really want to share with you. I call these “The Bridges To Cross” (a kind of homage to my wife’s favorite song):
- Look After Yourself: With trying to be as involved with Billy as I could, I stopped looking after myself. I neglected work too (fortunately, my boss had been there herself, years ago). I soon realized this was no way to help my son. I returned to the gym every day (nothing strenuous, just to stay fit), and I made sure I ate well too.
- It’s Not Your Fault: Of course, like any parent in this situation, I questioned everything I had done. Doctors and specialists told me it wasn’t my fault. It was only when I heard another father tell his story in a meeting that it finally hit home.
- Stop Enabling: Maybe, if I was honest, I let Billy blow off steam, hang out with his friends, just gave him some slack. Trouble was, with alcohol, he was running with it – big-time. I stopped his allowance, put boundaries in place, and told him if I caught him drinking in the house, he’d be gone. Hard to do for me, but he respected it.
- Destroy Their Isolation: Alcoholism isolates you, from good friends, family, the world outside. Billy was always telling me he felt alone in class, in a crowded mall, everywhere. When we were together, we started doing new stuff – hiking and cycling, mostly. It certainly helped him.
- Help & Support (with Conditions): I told Billy when the doc officially diagnosed him with AUD that I would do everything in my power to help and support him. But it came at a cost. Never say “No” to treatment of any kind. Give it a try first. Let’s see what works – together.
- Seek Professional Treatment: I have never met so many dedicated professionals, all working together to bring Billy back from the dark place he was in. After his detox, Billy began his intensive outpatient program straight away. Seamless, professional care. I was so thankful to all of them. Billy often attends a group support meeting at the same place, even now.
- It’s Your Journey Too: It was important for me to be there for Billy 100%. However, if he asked me to back off, I did. It was like we learned to respect each other again. Often, he was down, as the medication for his depression took time to work fully. However, I was always, always there, in the background somewhere – sometimes out of sight, but there nonetheless. I never wanted him to try to deal with seemingly impossible stuff (like his mother’s death) alone again.
So that’s Billy’s and my story. He’s told his version now in a few AA and Al-Anon meetings, and he cries unashamedly when he needs to. I love him for that. Billy is now 15 months sober, getting his education back on track (for some reason, he wants to be a paramedic when he’s older, and I think I know why), and, perhaps the best thing of all (for me, anyway), he has learned to laugh again. My son. I love you, Billy.