The first time I got drunk, I was in the eighth grade. On a Thursday evening, a gallon of Carlo Rossi Chianti sat in its usual place on our kitchen table. While my family lounged in the living room mesmerized by the television set, I pilfered sips from this seemingly endless supply. I still have the image of the red vomit stained wall next to my bed in the early morning hours.
Even though it made me sick, I didn’t stop getting drunk until I was 41, when my middle-aged body started to rebel in a language I could finally understand. Torrential night sweats and heart palpitations made it clear that this stuff would kill me. The mother of a five-year-old daughter at the time, I couldn’t let that happen.
Fast-forward three years and I’m feeling grounded in my sobriety, smug in the perception that I had narrowly escaped disaster when the phone call came. My beloved 20-year-old nephew was killed in a car crash at one in the morning. When I heard the time of the crash, I instinctively asked, “Was he drinking?” The answer was yes.
Ironically, I spent the next four months battling the urge to numb the unbearable pain of grief with alcohol. Not only had our family lost this beautiful child, but I also nursed the guilt that my own example of alcoholic indulgence and carelessness had helped put Daniel on that rural road at 1 a.m.
He and his family had been experiencing hard times and his mother told me that a few months before Daniel’s death, she said to him, “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” Until Daniel died, I didn’t pay much attention to the first four words of that phrase. My assumption was that hard times would always lead to strength. Now I know that those words represent a choice. The way I choose to respond to pain, grief, boredom, and frustration—will put me on a road toward life or death. And the odds are 50-50
Minute by minute, I managed to fight the urge to drink through the first few months of my grief and emerged a more compassionate, more empathetic person. Now, when someone tells me they’ve had a loss, I ask what happened. I let them tell me all about the person they loved because that’s what grieving people want to do. I listen and smile and laugh and sometimes my eyes fill with tears. And I don’t try to hide it.
Daniel’s death has also strengthened my conviction to stay sober and be a different example for the children who remain in my life. Every once in awhile, I have the good fortune to catch a glimpse of Daniel in my now 10-year-old daughter’s face and I remember, “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” This I believe.
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