Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Book Review)

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post Books site as "A Blackout Drinker Untangles the Mystery of Her Alcoholism.")


It's not too often that I feel compelled to tell you about a book via my blog. I think the only other books I've gushed about in my blog are David Sheff's Beautiful Boy, Kristen Johnston's GUTS, and the Center for Motivation and Change's Beyond Addiction. Just three books in more than six years of blogging.

Today I present number four.

-----------------------------------

When I was offered an advance reading copy of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, I jumped at the chance.

As the father of a son in long-term recovery, I have read more than my fair share of books about addiction. In fact, the shelves in my bedroom are filled with addiction-related books. Books about the science of addiction. Twelve-step books. Guides to helping loved ones get clean and sober. Memoirs written by people in recovery. Etc. (If you're looking for a book on addiction, come on over. Chances are it's on my shelf and you're welcome to borrow it.)

Reading about people's struggles with--and triumphs over--addiction is especially fascinating to me. In the world of drug and alcohol abuse, everyone's story is so similar; but at the same time, everyone's story is so unique. When someone is brave enough to put their temporary train wreck of a life down on paper for the world to see, I can't help but get sucked in.

Sarah Hepola started drinking at an early age and fell in love with alcohol. This object of her affection eventually took control of her life, and for years she would drink to the point of blacking out. As you can probably guess from the title, that is the focus of much of this book. And Hepola holds nothing back.
"A blackout is the untangling of a mystery. It's detective work on your own life. A blackout is: What happened last night? Who are you, and why are we fucking?"
In reality, as Hepola explains, a blackout happens when your blood becomes so saturated with alcohol that the part of your brain responsible for long-term memory--the hippocampus--shuts down. Your short-term memory still works, but with the long-term variety on strike, remembering what you did when you were blackout drunk becomes impossible.
"It's such a savage thing to lose your memory, but the crazy thing is, it doesn't hurt one bit. A blackout doesn't sting, or stab, or leave a scar when it robs you. Close your eyes and open them again. That's what a blackout feels like."
To say Blackout is a brutally honest memoir would be a bit of an understatement. Kind of like saying Taylor Swift has sold a few records. In her book, Hepola details--to the best of her recollection--numerous incidents from her drinking past, several of which end with her lying next to a stranger in bed.
"As I lie in the crook of his arm, I have so many questions. But one is louder than the others. In literature, it's the question that launches grand journeys, because heroes are often dropped into deep, dark jungles and forced to machete their way out. But for the blackout drinker, it's the question that launches another shitty Saturday. How did I get here?"
Blackout is not all about Hepola sleeping with strangers, though. It's so much more than that. It's a poignant and revealing look into the mind of an alcoholic that lets the reader experience all of the raw emotions the author feels during her struggles. It's a tale of friendships and how they evolve--and devolve--over the years. Best of all, though, it's a success story.

The second part of the book is about Hepola's sobriety and the realizations that come along with it. "I finally understood alcohol was not a cure for pain; it was merely a postponement," she writes. It may have taken her years to get to that point, and there were many stops along the way; but recovery is a journey, and Hepola found her way.

The new sober life that she is living is challenging, but Hepola is happy. "Maybe at some advanced age, we get the gift of being happy where we are," she says. "Or maybe where I am right now got a whole lot easier to take."

Blackout is one of the best memoirs I've read. Like Kristen Johnston's GUTS: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, it treats a sensitive subject with unbridled honesty and humor. Yes, Blackout is a touching and, at times, heartbreaking story. It will likely make you cry. But it will also make you laugh out loud. (One of the things you can do in a blackout? "You can sing the shit out of 'Little Red Corvette' on a karaoke stage.")

Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon.com and has written for numerous other publications. But I have no doubt that Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is her tour de force. At least for now.

Read this book. You won't be disappointed.

"The nights I can't remember are the nights I can never forget." --Sarah Hepola

(Note: Excerpts from Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget are Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Hepola. All rights reserved.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mother's Day / Father's Day

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "Why Father's Day Is So Difficult for Me.")


I didn't write a blog post this past Mother's Day. As I explained on my Facebook page, I started to write a blog post that Sunday morning; then I realized that the Mother's Day post I wrote in 2014 still applied. So I saved myself some keystrokes.

But after the day was over, I felt like I needed to document it in some way. I also started having some thoughts about Father's Day, which is right around the corner. And this is the result: A post-Mother's Day/pre-Father's Day post from my crazy mind.

Mother's Day was spectacular in every way. It started off with me making my amazing wife an omelette for breakfast, and ended with me cooking burgers and brisket for my amazing wife, two sons, all but one of my siblings, and my amazing mom. The day was perfect. To have all of those people who are so special to me at the dining room table at the same time just felt so good.

The happy face omelette I made my wife for breakfast on Mother's Day.

It really was the best Mother's Day celebration--as low key as it was--that I can remember. My wife and mom were both so happy. And they deserved to be happy, because they are both such loving, caring, unselfish people. Without a doubt, they are the two most incredible women I have ever known.

Me and my mom on Mother's Day.

A few days after Mother's Day passed, I started thinking a bit about Father's Day, which is coming up on June 21st. (The longest day of the year. Coincidence? I think not.)

Father's Day has always been an uncomfortable "holiday" for me. For most of my life, I struggled with it so much because my dad and I didn't have a very good relationship. In fact, for many years the only relationship we had was the standard biological one. Yes, he was my father. But I never felt the things that a kid should feel about his father: love, respect, gratitude, etc.

That's what happens when your dad's an alcoholic.

I remember countless Father's Days when I wouldn't even want to pick up the phone to call my dad, because saying "Happy Father's Day" to him was just me going through the motions. I got through those calls somehow, but it was not without a lot of anguish.

Then, in February of 2012, my dad passed away, just a few months after he and I reconciled.

As I wrote in my Father's Day post in 2013:

It's funny how things work out. I went 40+ years despising Father's Day because I didn't want to make that phony phone call or give the obligatory card and gift because I felt like I had to. Today, I wish I could make that phone call and give that card and gift...because I want to.

This Father's Day will no doubt be the same. I'll be missing my dad and wishing I had just one more Father's Day to spend with him so I could give him a hug and tell him I love him--and actually mean it.

Father's Day is also a stressor for me because I constantly struggle with a question I ask myself almost every single day:

Have I been a good father to my boys?


My younger son made this for me years ago.
Because of the relationship I had--or didn't have--with my dad while I was growing up, I would constantly tell myself that the one thing I was bound and determined to do in my lifetime, more than anything else, was to be a better father to my kids than my father was to me. Not just a better father, but a damn good father. Someone my kids would look up to and aspire to be like.

Given the fact that my father was an alcoholic/workaholic who put his whiskey and business ahead of everything else in his life, you'd think that meeting that goal I set for myself would be a slam dunk. I mean, how could I not be a better father? I should be able to do that blindfolded, with both hands tied behind my back. And how hard could it be to be a damn good father? Love your kids, say and do the right things, set good examples, teach your boys to be good men, etc. It all sounds so simple.

But you know what? It's not. And I'm not sure I've succeeded.

This really hit me hard over the last 36 hours or so. Yesterday, I had an email conversation with a younger friend--and by younger, I mean I'm old enough to be her father--and she said something that should have been very flattering to me. She said: "You are so awesome. Seriously. You're like the dad I always wanted!!!"

Wow. What a great compliment, right?

Except that the night before, something happened between me and my younger son that made me feel like I was anything but a good father, let alone the type of dad someone would actually want.

Over the years, my family has gone through some difficult situations, and we've all said and done things that we didn't really mean or ended up regretting. In life, when we're angry, we sometimes do some inexplicable things. But when I replay certain events in my mind, I feel like I've done way more than my fair share of these things. I've said things--hurtful things--to my boys in anger that I could never have imagined saying. Things that my dad, as shitty as he was for so many years, never said to me.

So I have to ask myself whether or not I am a good father.

Yes, my boys regularly tell me that they love me. And, over the years, both of them have also told me, on more than one occasion, that they hate me. (That's what teenagers do, right? RIGHT???!) But I often wonder how they really feel, deep down inside. I guess I think this way because I know that I put up a facade with my dad for all those years. I said one thing, but I felt another. It was just the easiest thing to do.

Nobody ever knows exactly how another person feels. That superpower does not exist. At least not on this planet. People tell us things and we have to take them at their word, because that's all we have to go by. If you spend your time second guessing what someone says, you'll drive yourself crazy; which is exactly what I've been doing to myself lately.

Someone I work with in my addiction/recovery advocacy work said something during a conference call a few months ago that I thought was brilliant. It was said in the context of parents dealing with an addicted child, but I think it applies to pretty much every aspect of life.

"You do the best that you can with what you know at the time. You learn as you go along, and you try to do better. And you can never go wrong with love."

That's some pretty great stuff, isn't it?

As parents, I think we're constantly learning. After all, parenting is one of the most challenging things in life. So I will continue to learn as I go along, and I will most definitely try to do better. Because no matter how good you are--or think you are--at something, there's always room for improvement.

Most importantly, though, I will continue to throw an abundance of love in my boys' direction. Because I love them more than life itself.

When Father's Day arrives in a few weeks, I will no doubt sit and ponder about all this stuff yet again. But until then, I'll try to clear my head and not be so hard on myself.

Damn. I like Mother's Day so much better.

"One of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one's secret insanity and brokenness and rage." --Anne Lamott

The awesome bookmark my older son gave my wife for Mother's Day.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Today is my mom's birthday.

My mom is an amazing human, and she has a heart as big as the biggest thing you can imagine. (Maybe bigger?) She is always there for anything anyone needs help with. She has also been a constant source of support for me for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, my dad and I had issues because of his alcoholism. Whereas a lot of boys look to their father as a role model while they're growing up, I didn't have that luxury. My mom was my role model. She showed me how to live life, how to be kind, how to love unconditionally, and how to be grateful. In short, she made me who I am today.

We don't get to pick our parents--that would be weird--but I couldn't have special ordered a better mother. I appreciate her so much every single day.

My mom turns 84 today. That seems strange to me, because even though she may be 84 chronologically, she acts more like 44. I don't know where she gets her energy from, but maybe it's an indicator of what may be to come for me. I sure hope I got her 84-going-on-44 genes!

Happy birthday, mom. I love you. Puno puno. :)

Mother and son. Then and now.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Scholarship Contest Update

It's been three weeks since the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest officially got underway. So far, we've received four entries, which, to be honest, is a couple more than I expected to have at this point. With the deadline being July 3rd, my calendar tells me we still have seven weeks to go. Hopefully there are kids out there who are working on their essays, or maybe plotting their essay strategy. I would love to get a bunch of entries submitted as the deadline date approaches.

The entries submitted thus far have come from California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Delaware. If nothing else, this shows that the thing we call the Internet reaches from coast-to-coast. Apparently, it reaches around the world, too, because I received inquiries from people in Canada and South Africa who wanted to know if they could enter the contest. (They can't. It's only open to students in the U.S.)

Reading the first four essays was pretty emotional for me. All of these kids who have been affected by their sibling's addiction have such similar stories and experiences; yet, at the same time, each story is unique. I found things in all of them that resonated with me as things that my younger son experienced during his older brother's struggle.

While reading these courageous stories, two thoughts kept popping into my head:

1.) I'm so glad I decided to do this.

2.) I wish I could give money to everyone who enters.

I know $1,200.00 isn't the largest scholarship anyone's ever given away. But I also know that when it comes to paying college tuition, every little bit helps. I'm thrilled that this scholarship will be that "little bit" for someone.

As far as wanting to give money to everyone who enters goes, I think that's only natural. In my mind, every young person affected by their brother or sister's addiction deserves a little something. Lord knows it's going to be incredibly tough to choose just one person as our winner.

If by chance you or someone you know would like to contribute to this scholarship fund, the GoFundMe campaign is still up and running. Feel free to head over there and make a donation. If more money is contributed, we can consider giving scholarships to more than one student. Maybe a runner-up prize, or second and third place.

Here's the link to the GoFundMe page:

http://www.gofundme.com/college4asibling

If you've ever been affected by addiction, either directly or indirectly, please consider making a donation, even if it's just a few bucks.

Siblings of those who suffer from addiction go through so much that they didn't ask for. A lot of times, the shit hits the fan for them at a very young age, too. They grow up seeing and hearing awful things, and wondering if the person they love is going to live or die. Sharing their stories is one way for them to get rid of some of those negative feelings they have.

Be sure to share the details of this essay contest with anyone who might be interested. Everything they need to know should be at these two links:

(NOTE: These links are to Microsoft Word documents saved to Google Docs.)

My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest: Rules

My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest: Application/Entry Form

If you have any questions about the scholarship, or if you have any problems with the documents, please contact us at:

siblingscholarship@gmail.com

Peace.

"Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows. It consumes us. We need to share our experience . . . . Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared." --BrenĂ© Brown

Who doesn't love SpongeBob?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Latest Heroes in Recovery Blog: Siblings and the Ripple Effect of Addiction

Greetings, blog readers.

Just stopping by to let you know that my newest blog for Heroes in Recovery posted this morning. It's called "Siblings and the Ripple Effect of Addiction." As you probably already know, I'm a big advocate for siblings who have been affected by their brother's or sister's addiction, and this is just another way of raising awareness.

You can do me a solid by heading over to the newly redesigned Heroes site and reading my new blog. While you're there, please consider giving it a "Like" and sharing it. Also, if you left a comment on the blog after you read it, that would be way cool.

And while we're on the subject of siblings affected by addiction, here's a reminder: The My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest is going on now. It gives a young person the chance to take a negative and turn it into a positive. So if you know any young people who will be attending college this fall and might be interested in a shot at a $1,200.00 scholarship, make sure you let them know about the contest. (Here's a selling point: It's likely the only scholarship contest they'll enter that has an Emmy Award-winning actress--Kristen Johnston--as a judge!)

Here are some direct links for you:

My new Heroes in Recovery Blog:
http://heroesinrecovery.com/blog/2015/05/13/siblings-and-the-ripple-effect-of-addiction/

My blog post with all the information on the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest:
http://mylifeas3d.blogspot.com/2015/04/my-life-as-3d-scholarship-essay-contest.html

The scholarship contest rules:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tsmZXWQeDs9UywXH3CG5Jhdn_0uG6DmqqPM1cGc9T8Y/edit

The scholarship contest application/entry form:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bZ40K4LTvEl4Bq53eD_x28xh4t43UVhD05Wow2Ik5kQ/edit

As always, thank you so much for your continued support.

I hope to be back here sooner rather than later with a post that talks about this past Mother's Day and the rapidly approaching Father's Day.

Peace.

"First and foremost, we have to love them. Just like parents of addicts, siblings of addicts have been thrown into a firestorm they didn’t ask for or anticipate." --From my new Heroes in Recovery blog