Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

It was early in the morning and I was downloading the day’s papers on my iPad, waiting for my connecting train into the city, when I smelled something so familiar and so frightening that it brought me back 50 years and revived my childhood fears.

It was the nauseating smell of stale booze on someone’s breath, and it reminded me of those many nights when my father came home from work drunk, his breath reeking of whiskey. Melrose, Jack Daniels, Canadian Club or J&B – it could have been top-shelf whiskey or cheap whiskey. It didn’t matter, the effect was the same.

I associate that smell with everything troubling in the world, like emotional abuse, ridicule, swearing, anger, anxiety and beatings – all the things I want to forget but are never far away, always lying beneath the surface of my consciousness like a rotting chest filled with bad memories.

At 7 in the morning, some people need a drink just to start the day, and it’s all downhill from there. They drink so much that they pass out and have blackouts and can’t remember what they did or where they did it, where they parked the car or whom they insulted. And when they find out, they often fall into an abyss of regret and shame.

Substance abuse, whether it’s liquor, prescription medication or cocaine, probably destroys more lives and families than anything else and leaves untold emotional wreckage in its wake.

The smell wouldn’t go away, and I wondered whether it was coming from the fellow beside me, who was about 20 years old, unshaven, in torn jeans and a T-shirt, and staring blankly into space. Even kids can be alcoholics, and before their lives have a chance to begin, they’re mired in addiction and despair.

The smell could also have been coming from the guy standing in front of me, who was dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, carrying a leather attaché and a cashmere overcoat.

Could a guy that successful, who probably made his fortune in finance or business, be hitting the bottle at 7 in the morning? The laws of success would suggest no, but the laws of addiction would suggest anything is possible because addiction can afflict everyone, men and women, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the lowly.

On my other side was a middle-aged guy in corduroys and a navy blue crew-neck sweater, holding a suitcase. He seemed like a regular family man on a business trip, and my first instinct was it couldn’t possibly be his breath, but I knew better.

Some pillars of the community suffer the worst addictions. They’re leaders in the church and in the corporate world, and they throw up on Oriental rugs and in their BMWs. No one, regardless of social status, race, religion, gender or age, is immune from substance abuse, not the rich and famous or the rich and infamous, like Charlie Sheen, not CEOs or Phi Beta Kappas, not laborers or lawyers.

In the end, I never figured out who had the booze problem; it could have been any of them. I do know, however, that when you hit the bottle at 7 in the morning, it’s going to be a long, hard day, and you need help.

And that help is available. You just have to ask for it. After 50 years of drinking, my father finally made his way into Alcoholics Anonymous, which helped him stay sober one day at a time through the assistance of a caring network of people who suffered from the same addiction.

The priest who took my father to his first meetings gave him some simple advice like "Don’t drink and go to meetings" and "If you don’t drink, you can’t get drunk." And the longer he stayed in the AA program, the more his life changed, until he developed a spiritual dimension that he never had before.

During his drinking days, he would sit in his recliner with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a bottle of Budweiser in the other. After he found AA, he would sit in his recliner with a collection of prayer books that he read every day and a regimen of novenas that he said for his family members and friends and the still-suffering alcoholic.

He believed it was the grace of God and the people in AA that got him sober, and he spent the rest of his life in gratitude for the gift that he had been given. It’s a gift that’s available to all addicts, men and women, rich and poor, young and old. All you have to do is want it.

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.