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As the son of a (now deceased) physician who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years and drank a quart of Scotch a day for the last 20 years of his life, and who was just one of many generations of alcoholics — I am more than happy to share my path out of that dark, sad, and not-so-secret family secret.
Until I was about 40, I was well on my way following in my father's steps. Actually I was probably on my way to not only following in them, but making those steps much bigger and more self-destructive, I think. Actually, I have no doubt.
With the exception of a glorious five-year stretch starting in my early 30s, my self-destructive habits were consistent, and I was at no time overly motivated to clean up my life or my bad habits. I knew what I was doing to myself, and I knew it was not good. And I did it anyway.
For much of my early life, I ran. I have always said that I would rather run than eat. It was, and is, my passion. But my running, especially since it seemed to go in phases, did not transport me far enough away from my idiocy and my pending crash-and-burn life destination. It simply delayed my arrival.
Around age 35, I started swimming. For close to five years, I swam on average five times a week, and on the days that I did not swim, I ran. Frequently I did both. This regimen developed into a habit, and the habit developed into a near obsession. "Anything worth doing is worth doing in the extreme" seems to be a family motto, and as usual, my version was the extreme "extreme" version.
My obsession with swimming controlled much of my life, and I was okay with that. I looked great and felt great. It became so important that it dictated when I went to bed, how well I ate, and what I did or did not put in my body. In order to get up at 4 a.m. and get ready to swim, I had to take care of myself, and the siren call of my morning swim pulled me strongly through every detour and distraction in my way. This lasted until I injured my back running — and my regimen quickly fell apart.
Before I knew it, a month passed by and then six months, and then years without running or swimming. And, of course, the bad habits returned.
Fast forward to 2011 — I am close to swimming and running every day again. I have lost about 25 pounds, and am back to my high school weight. I eat a lot of whey-based protein shakes. I feel good — really good. I also know that this time my dedication is forever. Really.
It's obvious that my history dictates that while my sports — running and swimming, or whatever — are paths that allow me to be healthy, it's also clear that athletics are not enough to keep me healthy.
I think that the explanation is fairly simple, and it is this: My motivation to be healthy in the past was a self-serving one. I wanted to be healthy to please myself, and to make myself feel better. Though it was a powerful force, it was a temporary one.
About 15 years ago at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, in my dear friends Ivan and Susie's living room, I was in mid-chug of a bottle of Scotch. My head was tilted back and the bottom of the bottle was pointed up at the ceiling. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a motion — an object close by. I focused and saw my eight-year-old son staring, watching me chug. I froze.
That moment parked itself and stopped time briefly. Into my brain came a simple and past-reflective truth: "If he has a father who drinks alcohol, then he is hopelessly destined to ruin his life, and sooner or later become an alcoholic like all the preceding generations." Not "if," not "maybe," but "for sure."
I have not touched a single drop of alcohol since. My abstinence has allowed me to go through my phases in training like before; but this time, my obsession has not been driven by that dark place. My children have an adult important in their lives who will model a clean life. Yes, you can grow up and not drink. I have given them this gift.
It is also an amazingly precious gift that I have given myself, a healthy life.
My father gave me a gift, too, another driving force that has been responsible for my change. He had destroyed so much and so many with his alcoholism. The legacy that he left had rendered a hole in my heart that would not and could not heal, and could only cause me pain, anger, and sadness. His gift? Well, simply, he gave me an example of what I needed to avoid in my life; in doing so, may have saved the lives of my children. While his sacrifice may not have been deliberate, it is there — his gift to me and to my children. He cast in steel my resolve to abstain from alcohol and drugs, and flushed away much of the reason that I fell into that darkness in the past.
Honoring that gift by not drinking is amazingly easy. If I drink I lose the single — the only — redeeming idea that I have found in my loss of my father. Choosing to keep that single shining light, as opposed to embracing the darkness is a choice he has given me.