THOUGHTS ON DISEASE AND RECOVERY
I have been a pretty healthy guy for my first 60 plus years on this earth. I have had back surgery, skin cancer and numerous hockey related broken bones over the years, but nothing major to complain about. I now am awaiting surgery, in two weeks, too remove my prostate after recently being diagnosed with cancer, in its early stages thank God. I have been telling everyone I know about my cancer to emphasize the importance of regular physicals to provide the opportunity for early diagnosis of health issues, before they get serious. It is easy for me to talk about my cancer and I’m confident I’ll be fine. I am disappointed that I will miss running a 5K with The Herren Project in the city of my birth up in Boston 2 days before the Boston Marathon.
My wife Lisa has also been relatively healthy over her less than 60 years (that’s as much as I’ll divulge on the age topic!) although she was hospitalized for staph infections twice, and another seven times to deliver our 4 daughters and 3 sons. Typing these first few sentences were also easy. No one will judge me or Lisa for having an infection, a couple broken bones, or cancer. Oh, I almost forgot, Lisa also has been hospitalized for Alcoholism. Why do I feel society judging her already? Why is one disease so much more difficult to discuss than others? I will come back to this point later but first please allow me to start at the beginning of our story together.
Lisa and I met in Boston in the fall of 1979, fresh out of college and working together for a major department store in Boston, MA. Our first date was a couple drinks together after work. We hit it off together very quickly and fell in love almost instantly. We both enjoyed the nightlife of Boston together with old college and new work friends. I moved to New York City after a job change and our last year of dating before we married was long distance, hooking up on the weekends alternating between New York and Boston. Both cities had vibrant nightlife environments and alcohol was always present, but not out of the norm among our social circles.
In October of 1982 we married. Our wedding was beautiful, with the reception at a beautiful old hotel in Falmouth, MA, high on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in the distance. I swore if I looked long enough I could see the shores of Ireland from where my grandmother boarded a ship alone, headed for Boston, at the age of 16. 9 months after our wedding our first child was born. We had our first 5 children in less than 6 years and 7 children total. I have been in sales for over 37 years and traveled non-stop, so Lisa had the responsibility of raising our children, helping them with homework, getting them fed and off to school while I traveled most weeks. Throw in the added pressure of being relocated from Boston to New York to New Jersey back to Boston again, all in 3 ½ years, and Lisa had her hands more than full! When I returned, usually on a Thursday or Friday night after a week out of town, it was time to unwind together and alcohol was the ever present “relaxer” for both of us. From time to time Lisa and I would overindulge. As the months turned to years, in retrospect, I now see how the frequency of Lisa’s “overindulgences” (sounds so much better than “drunkenness” doesn’t it?) increased over the years. That’s the thing about Alcoholism, it’s doesn’t boldly arrive with a marching band to announce its presence, it sneaks quietly and gradually up on you!
Hospitalization # 1 was about 18 years ago for Depression (God forbid either of us spoke the “Alcoholism” word to each other!). I cleared all alcohol out of the house before Lisa came home. As the weeks went by, Lisa suggested she could handle “an occasional glass of wine” but would stay away from Vodka. We all know how this story progresses as we have heard it many times. There were periods of abstinence followed by periods of heavy drinking. I alternated between the “Prohibitionist” and the “Enabler” trying to find a way to put the genie back in the bottle. Our children suffered through the dark moments, but thank God those dark moments were far outweighed by the much higher percentage of days of love and laughter that Lisa showered on us all!
October 10, 2011. The first day of the rest of Lisa’s life! After hitting that “rock bottom” that I’ve heard alcoholics must hit the day before, I drove Lisa from New England where we were visiting for one of our daughter’s bridal shower straight to a Richmond, VA hospital where she was admitted with near lethal blood alcohol levels. Again God was watching over our family. Lisa went from several days locked in a hospital detoxification ward to a rehabilitation facility for several more weeks. Lisa came home to a husband and children that harbored every feeling imaginable. Anger, frustration, relief, love, understanding, resentment, lack of understanding, love, alienation, detachment, love, distrust, love, love, love. You see, Lisa is strong, very strong. She fights every day to overcome this insidious disease that killed her father when she was but nine years old. She battles every day to kick this disease to the curb, a disease that her mother and 6 brothers and sisters fought or were impacted by in one form or another. And through it all, she managed to raise 7 of the most beautiful, loving children on this planet. Sober for over 6 years now, Lisa and I are now the proud grandparents of 3 beautiful children, with #4 on the way in August! During Lisa’s drinking days I spent many a tearful night horrified at the prospect of not having Lisa alive and at my side for this amazing Grandparent experience. But through Lisa’s strength, her fighting spirit and the grace of God we have an amazing future to look forward to with grandchildren to spoil! In the early days of Lisa’s healthy, sober life she often worried that I would struggle with our “new life” that is no longer centered on alcohol. Lisa was concerned that I would resent the fact we have made conscious changes in our social life, circle of friends, etc. so we can engage in healthier activities and not be exposed to heavy drinking settings. Lisa’s fears could not be further from the truth. Having Lisa by my side to hold our grandchildren, to have our children and their significant others look to her with admiration for her refusal to give up, those are the moments to be treasured!
Individuals struggling with addiction to alcohol and/or drugs seldom know how to take the first step towards getting help. While I’m sure the support of our family was critical, Lisa also needed a support system from others who had been in her shoes. Lisa needed to see that there are people who can live long happy sober lives. Along with our children we had run some road races over the years and several of our children were involved in track in school. Early in Lisa’s recovery she was fortunate enough to meet others with a love for running that are also dedicated to helping those suffering from the often-related diseases of depression and addiction. Four years ago, one of these individuals, Pam Rickard, introduced Lisa to The Herren Project. The Herren Project was formed in 2011 to increase education and public awareness on the dangers of substance abuse and to assist one person, one family at a time through a combination of treatment navigation, educational initiatives, mentoring, and public awareness. Outreach efforts have moved individuals from all ages, walks of life and socio-economic conditions, out from behind the cloak of guilt, shame and denial, to the light of treatment. The Herren Project’s programs and initiatives are a direct response to the increasing number of young people across the United States that are experimenting, using and suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol; or are at risk for such abuse. (Visit theherrenproject.org to learn more about Chris Herren and this amazing organization.)
A key component of Lisa’s continued recovery is her desire to assist others as she was helped in her time of need. Because Lisa has been so open, so willing to share her story she has become the first point of contact for dozens of friends and relatives in need of help. Lisa has turned to The Herren Project for each individual that has reached out for that cry for help. Every time, without hesitation, THP has stepped in and helped get these people the help they need, fast! They have literally saved lives.
Lisa and many others have shown it is okay to talk about a disease that so many want to keep in the shadows. Thanks to The Herren Project and other organizations like it, shame and anonymity no longer go hand in hand with mental illness and/or alcoholism. Thanks to my wife and a growing number of other heroes, the walls of shame and silence are tumbling down like the Berlin Wall. In closing, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr. Society, tear down that wall of silence!” Lisa and all our friends involved in The Herren Project, don’t stop till every brick in the wall of stigma and silence is smashed.
Cancer and Addiction; 2 diseases. Lisa and I, 2 people who can proudly say, without shame, we beat our respective diseases. This message to all of you, “WE DO RECOVER!”
John M McNamara