I’ve been wrestling with a thorny issue recently: “Why do some people persist in snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory?”
It’s a question raised by our son-in-law Jason’s recent passing. He died at the age of 43, and the cause of death was acute alcoholism. He left behind a loving wife and 7-year-old daughter, a two-story house that he paid cash for, and more money than was frankly good for him. He always said that he wouldn’t live past 45, and that became a reality this past Nov. 18.
In short, he had everything to live for, but he chose to die alone with a bottle.
At his memorial service last week in a big Catholic church in Stratford, Conn., Father Tom discarded the usual platitudes and surprised the mourners by wondering aloud why Jason couldn’t win his battle with the bottle.
While there’s undoubtedly a big genetic component to alcoholism, Father Tom said most people drink to numb the pain of abusive childhoods or conflict/wounded soul as adults. While there are avenues for their love to shine through, they’re in so much pain that it’s rare, and directed at the “innocent” – typically kids. Numb and guilt-ridden due to repeated failures, they isolate themselves and push others away.
That pretty much described our son-in-law.
He wasn’t a vet, but he was raised by alcoholic parents who neglected him. He often talked of being abused as a child, a situation later confirmed by a cousin who lived nearby. And a therapist confirmed a couple of years ago that Jason had PTSD levels that were off the chart.
After the memorial service, I visited the rectory to talk with Father Tom, who explained that men cannot fight this illness alone, but need God’s help and strength. He said we all have God’s love inside us, but that some people are in such pain that they can’t allow it to show through them.
Finally, Father Tom invited me to sit in at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that evening at the parish school. I did, and several of the men talked about relatives who needed help but wouldn’t admit that they were alcoholics.
That didn’t fit Jason. He’d been in and out of 21-day rehab programs for the past couple of years, and he admitted being an alcoholic. He also said he could quit drinking … but never wanted to.
Several people at the AA meeting mentioned that they only quit drinking when they hit the end of the line and were afraid that they would die if they continued drinking. But Jason had already been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and had had a seizure. His doctors had advised him to quit drinking because, with a heart so severely damaged by alcohol, he would not survive the next heart attack. Did he not care, did he not believe he would actually die, or was he just powerless over this disease?
Others at the AA meeting talked about enablers who always picked up the pieces and shielded the alcoholic from the consequences of his own actions. That fit in some ways because his father had always bought Jason’s way out of trouble. For a long time, it fit with our daughter as well, until she was forced to leave because she couldn’t watch the way alcohol was destroying him and she knew she needed to protect their daughter from witnessing the devastating and ultimately terminal effects alcohol was having on her father.
For a 43 year old man who had everything to live for, was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was it that he didn’t feel that he deserved to be happy?
That comes close to the homeostasis theory, which holds that hormones in the body are most comfortable in the state that they’re used to. A happy person looks for reasons to be happy because his hormones are comfortable there. Ditto a depressed person. It’s possible to break out of that cycle, but it takes energy and determination to break out of a depressive cycle and people in pain usually lack that energy. It’s kind of like a chicken raised in a coop that is afraid to venture outside the barn doors when they’re suddenly opened? Was Jason so familiar with failure that he couldn’t venture out to face true happiness?
I don’t know the answer (nor does my daughter, Sarah, who helped me write this). We’d welcome any thoughts you might have.