For a man of 88 years, my grandfather is pretty healthy.
Besides being confined to a wheelchair, he doesn’t have cancer or heart disease. His diabetes is under control. Mentally, he is still pretty sharp.
However, my grandfather suffers from a disease, a sickness, that will plague him until death. . .
My grandfather is an alcoholic.
My extended family wallows in denial. Speaking of the unpleasant past is taboo. To do so earns you a harsh scolding about the crime of dwelling on negative things.
Thankfully (as we all well know) as long as problems aren’t brought up in conversation, they disappear, ceasing to exist all on their own.
My father’s sisters are especially quiet about the things of the past. While they are experts at putting on a good face at family functions, beneath the surface they harbor resentment and bitterness over issues that have never been fully resolved.
Could it have been that my grandfather was physically or emotionally abusive when they were children? Did he abuse my grandmother? I can only guess what may have happened in those early years of his disease of alcoholism.
My father told me that when work piled up, my grandfather would go on binges that lasted for weeks.
An extremely successful CPA, grandfather claimed he worked better drunk than sober. You could definitely say my grandfather was a high-functioning alcoholic.
When his mother died, my grandfather arrived at the funeral completely drunk. He consistently turned to alcohol to solve stress and alleviate sorrow.
When he wasn’t drinking, he was a loving husband, father and grandfather. I remember long boat rides with grandpa and walks down to the country store for ice cream. I remember him taking us to play tennis, teaching me chess on the back porch, and thousands of other wonderful memories.
But I also remember some of the binges. My mother going over to his house to try to calm him down, to convince him to go with her to the hospital. The horrible things he would say to her, dark words—betraying thoughts of suicide. My grandmother staying with us for days, just to get out of the house and away from the violent moods. Visiting him in the hospital when he was detoxing from a binge, hoping he would pull through.
After detox, though, he would always return home, back to life before the binge.
Sometimes he attended A.A. meetings with his friends. And sometimes years would pass without even a drop of alcohol passing his lips, only to be followed by even more intense binges.
What my extended family—and my grandfather—failed to understand was that the alcohol was not my grandfather’s problem.
While my grandfather got caught in the cycle of binging and detoxing, the true issues that caused his alcoholism went untouched.
I wish that my grandfather would have been given that chance for lasting change—that he would have gone to rehab and faced the issues that caused him to reach for the bottle. His relationship with his wife and children could have vastly improved; maybe a counselor could have broken through to those unpleasant topics no one talks about and helped my grandfather reach the core of the problem. But he never went.
In contrast, my own father began binge drinking in high school. If not for a spiritual awakening in his late teens, he may very well have traveled down the same road as his father. But since that time, dad hasn’t had a drink.
Now that my grandfather lives in a nursing home, he hasn’t consumed a drink in years. In fact, he’ll likely never drink a drop of alcohol again.
But does the lack of a mood-altering substance make my grandfather any less of an alcoholic? He never gave his alcoholism over to God, nor did he tackle the underlying issues that led him to drink.
Did alcoholism kill my grandfather? No.
Did his disease take away his family? No.
But does he have deep relationships with those closest to him? Is he free from the issues that led him to drink? Has he led a truly happy and satisfying life?
If tears were an answer, I know what that answer would be.