The Proud Owner of a New Life

By Kathy Ketcham

  My husband Pat, a kind and gentle man who likes nothing better than spending the day at home in his bonsai garden or fly-fishing with barbless hooks in one of our valley’s streams, is a recovering alcoholic.

He’s been sober for 35 years.

Pat and I were married in 1979 when I was researching my first book, “Under the Influence.”  I was reading all the literature on heredity and at the same time listening to Pat’s stories about alcoholic relatives on both sides of his family.  We often talked about the genetic and metabolic aspects of alcoholism and the early-stage symptoms that could serve as warning signs.

Pat never had any obvious problems with alcohol; in fact, he had an unusually high tolerance and he rarely suffered from hangovers.  He loved to drink ─ he used to say that it made him feel on top of the world ─ and his friends enjoyed watching this normally quiet, introverted man loosen up and become the life of the party after a few beers.

I knew, however, that high tolerance and preoccupation with drinking were signs of early-stage addiction, and I was concerned.

One evening, when Pat was 33 years old and our children were still toddlers, we went to t a party at a neighbor’s house.  Pat had a lot of fun and drank a lot of beer.  Walking home, he stumbled a few times and on our front lawn, he staggered and almost fell.  I remember that we stopped and just looked at each other.

For several moments neither of us said a word.  “Okay, that’s it,” he said after a long pause.  “I’m not drinking anymore.”

The next morning when Pat woke up, he said, “I meant what I said last night.”  That day marked the beginning of what he calls “his new life.”

Pat often tells me that of all the accomplishments in his life, he is most proud of the fact that he gave up alcohol.  When we go to a party and someone asks him why he doesn’t drink, he says, simply, confidently, “Because I’m an alcoholic.”

That’s my short version of Pat’s story.  Now I’ll turn the column over to him, so he can tell you in his own words about the rewards and challenges of recovery from addiction.

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When I quit drinking, I became the proud owner of a new life.  I reveled in it. No longer did I have hangovers in the morning.  No longer did I waste a day feeling lousy or sitting in front of the TV with a beer, so I could feel better.

Instead of spending the time before and after dinner with wine or beer, I spent the time with my family.  My patience increased, and my moodiness decreased. I didn’t have to wonder the day after a party if I said something to someone that I would regret.

My health, both mental and physical, improved.

Yet some people were reluctant to accept this new me.  When I first told my father that I quit drinking, his response was, “What are you trying to prove?” (My father’s side of the family is filled with alcoholics who drank until they died.)

Responses from other relatives and friends have ranged widely.  

One close friend lectured me about the value of moderation.  “What’s wrong with having a drink now and then in a social context?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “It’s just not for me.”

Others tell me they don’t understand how someone with free will and a working conscience could ever drink to excess.  Obviously, they have never experienced the pain of addiction.

Several times a year people ask me if I want a beer or glass of wine.  When I say, “No, thanks,” it is often pushed on me.  A good friend who has known me the entire time I’ve been sober handed me a glass of wine at a dinner party and urged me to try it because he made it himself.

I don’t force broccoli on my guests, just because I happen to like it. My nephew is allergic to peanuts – I don’t insist that he eat nuts in moderation, because I know they could kill him.  A good friend is diabetic – I don’t push sugar on her when she visits.

I wonder: Why do people have difficulty understanding that for alcoholics drinking in moderation is a deadly trial?
I don’t particularly mind that most social events, especially around the holiday season, revolve around consumption of alcohol.  Alcohol is an effective social lubricant. I’m not much of a talker, but in my drinking days, I could hold my own in a conversation with someone I just met in a room where the decibel level drowned out normal conversation.

Many people find it difficult to attend social functions without alcohol.  I certainly find it somewhat less inviting since I quit.

But having quit, I ask only for understanding. I want people to understand that recovering alcoholics cannot drink without risking everything.  

I want them to understand that we are not alcoholics because we are weak-willed or psychologically flawed, nor do we abstain to “prove” something.  We have a chronic, neurological, genetically-influenced disease for which the solution is abstinence, plain and simple.

Help us to help ourselves by understanding, and accepting, those simple, undeniable facts.