Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Last week my friend lost his battle to alcoholism when he took his own life. I've spent the last week reflecting and thinking about the impact that disease has on so many. My family and I drove 400 miles one way to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to celebrate his life. It was the most genuine service I've ever attended. I laughed, I cried, and I forgot about the way in which John lost his life. He was an alcoholic, but that was only a part of a wonderful human who touched so many lives. It's a disease we don't discuss or we discuss with shame, and so many people are affected by it. It forces those suffering to hide.

My dad, Rick Jones, was an alcoholic. I talked to my mom before writing this blog because there is a stigma. It's hard to say those words out loud let alone see them on the screen. But alcoholism affected every member of my family in different ways. My mom bore the brunt of it, but this is not her story. My sister is six years older and had a different experience with my dad. Their stories are not mine to tell. I think we each have a different story, and honestly mine isn't that bad. My dad was an alcoholic, and it played a role in how he ultimately died. But while he was living we pretended like it wasn't a thing. We joked about it or didn't talk about it at all because it was hard. 

As a child my dad was larger than life. He worked in the coal mines and worked a lot. When he was home he was often drinking a beer, but it's not something I thought much about. We'd go hiking and my dad would climb the tallest rock. It was a special challenge if there was a sign that said "Do Not Climb". If we were swimming he would dive from the highest point possible. He never stopped moving. He was invincible, a sentiment I believed until the day he died a year and a half ago.

Love this photo of Dad pulling m car out of the mud nine years ago. He was in his element.
We'd go on trips and my dad often had a six-pack (or what was left of it) on the floor as he drove. It was the 80s. That's what people did right? In fairness we never wore seat belts, and as a kid who got car sick I often sat in the front in the middle sans seat belt. I obviously escaped unscathed.

I don't really have negative memories of my dad drinking. But when he was home, he was drinking. He smoked and chewed tobacco when I was a kid too. They were all things he just did. I do, however, remember the day my dad stopped drinking. I was nine, so my memories of actual events may be skewed. But I recall my dad playing with me and my brother probably more roughly than he should've. He had my eight-year-old brother on his shoulders and was spinning him around. My mom was mad and kept telling him to stop. It culminated in a serious adult moment where my mom took me and my brothers (the youngest of whom was an infant at the time) upstairs and locked us in one of the bedrooms with her. My dad was knocking on the door, and she told him if he drank again she'd leave.

To my knowledge my dad didn't drink again for 13 years. Life continued much the same way as it had when dad was drinking: he worked a lot, he was a daredevil, and he adored his family. Not much changed from my childhood perspective.

I acutely remember the day my dad started drinking again: May 19, 2001. I looked across the room, saw my dad with a beer in his hand and was shocked. But I was away in law school, and a year later moved to Texas. My dad was drinking again, but I wasn't around to see it or how it affected life at home.

With my parents at my law school graduation
I was living in Texas in November of 2003 when my dad had his heart attack. At that point I often joked that Dad was like the Keith Richards of regular people: he smoked for years (he quit at some point when I was in high school maybe? I honestly don't remember), was in the Chemical Corps in Vietnam with constant exposure to Agent Orange, worked in the coal mines and was an alcoholic. We'd say Dad was a heart attack waiting to happen, and once it did happen we all figured we could stop waiting.

I drove from Texas back to West Virginia. It took two days, and because I wasn't working at the time I stayed home for a few weeks and helped. I drove Dad insane. He was lucky to survive the heart attack, but he had congestive heart failure. We were told his heart would continue to get weaker. He was forced to retire from the coal mines at the young age of 54.

Over the next 13 years he had numerous procedures and a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted. His heart grew weaker, but his status as invincible didn't change. When I moved to Michigan in 2006 he helped move furniture into my second floor apartment. He pushed and pushed (wonder where I get it?) despite having less oxygen because of his weakened heart. He received full disability from the VA because of his significant exposure to Agent Orange. They sought him out and pushed for him to get disability. Dad was to proud to ever consider that there was anything wrong.

Throughout the last dozen years of his life my dad drank. Every day. When I picture Dad it's often on his recliner at home with a Michelob Ultra in his hand. It's easy to pretend like Dad didn't have a problem with alcohol. He would say "I don't get drunk. I just like the taste of beer." He never appeared drunk. He was never belligerent or angry or difficult. He always had a smile on his face.

I'm so grateful that we went on a number of vacations with my parents in the last 5-6 years of Dad's life. As we drove out west to Montana, the only state at that time my dad had never visited, he would crack a beer in the back seat by noon as my husband or I drove. He would open a beer at 11 am and say, "I'm on vacation!" I'd say "No Dad, you're retired." But even then I loved and laughed at his fun life outlook.

Mount Rushmore 2010
With Dad at the Badlands in South Dakota

Following the Knoxville Half Marathon in 2011

This photo sits on my desk. My favorite. After the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in 2013.
As he got older Dad didn't drive as often anymore, happy to relinquish driving duties to one of his kids. I was often relieved because even though Dad didn't appear drunk, it was not at all unusual for him to drink a six-pack in a single sitting every day. We'd go out to dinner and Dad would down 2-3 beers before the food came. He didn't seem drunk, and it's just how it was.

In the fall of 2015 my dad was scheduled to have a routine heart catheterization,  and my mom found out she needed one the same week. My husband and I drove to West Virginia with our ten month old son to help my parents, neither of whom could drive for a week following their procedures that were two days apart.

My dad's cath revealed 100 percent blockage of his main artery, and they recommended bypass surgery as soon as possible. Dad was scared, but his cardiologist, whom he respected and trusted, told him he'd die for sure without the surgery. It was only a question of when. 

My dad's cath was on a Wednesday, and they admitted him to the hospital after the procedure. On Saturday evening my son went down, and I headed to the hospital late in the evening to watch college football with my dad. I scored coffee from the nurse (just like him I can drink regular coffee at any hour without it affecting my sleep), and we watched TV and talked. At this point he hadn't had a drink in four days, and he seemed fine. I asked him if he noticed the effects of not having alcohol, and he said he did not.

The last photo of Dad with Will. I cherish it.
The next morning we visited him before we left town. The plan was for us to drive back to Michigan, and then I would fly back two days later on the day of my dad's surgery. As I got in the car I sobbed for the first half hour of the drive. I genuinely thought he'd be okay, but I was still scared. I was worried that my dad didn't know how much I loved him.

My dad's heart was too weak to beat on its own after surgery, and he was in a medically induced coma for several days. They air lifted him to Pittsburgh where he did wake up for a few days. But he wasn't himself. He was irritable. He was confused. The doctors told us he was detoxing from the alcohol which seemed weird because at this point it had been over a week since he'd had a drink. While the doctors had tested his liver function before surgery, in Pittsburgh they told us his liver was too weak. His heart was weak, but combined with the weak liver it would be very difficult for him to pull through.

I didn't tell people about my dad's weak liver. I felt embarrassed. Maybe he was predisposed to have a weak liver anyway, but he wasn't kind to his body. Obviously drinking wasn't the only hazardous factor, but it was the longest and most consistent. It was hard to reconcile.

My dad was the epitome of the functioning alcoholic. You never would've known he was drinking regularly if you didn't see it. He didn't try to hide his drinking, and I never saw him out of control. While his story is different than my friend John's, my dad's drinking was something that was always there as a worry. I remember being in the hospital in 2014,  and my mom tearfully telling me she was going home because my dad was drinking so heavily she wasn't comfortable leaving him there alone. My dad's alcoholism was a constant in my family to the point that in large part we didn't even realize it.

I did not party in high school. My dad wasn't drinking then, and drinking was a taboo subject in my house. Even after Dad started drinking again it was years before I drank in front of my parents. I certainly have my fair share of crazy party stories, but my fear of inheriting my family's alcoholism (my dad's dad was also an alcoholic) is always in my mind. I'll give myself little rules about drinking and make myself abstain at random times just to prove I can. Addiction is a terrifying prospect, and it's something I force myself to check on a regular basis.

My dad was incredible. He was a great dad, and even though he's gone I still think of him as invincible. Being an alcoholic was part of who he was, but it did not define him. I tell his story because if you know someone struggling with alcoholism, don't be ashamed to discuss it or confront it. It shouldn't be something we discuss with shame. It's a disease, and we should help those we love get the help they need. 


  1. Samantha, thank you so much for sharing your story. I know first hand how hard it is to admit that our lives have become unmanagable by addiction and that our white picket fences aren't as they appear.


    1. Nobody's fences are as they appear. It takes courage and support to deal with addiction and everything life throws at you!