When Dennis finished reading my short story, he looked up at me with welling tears in his eyes, and in an outpouring of naked thanks asked me: “This is about me, isn’t it? How’d you know?”
I told him I didn’t. I had no idea. I said I was glad it spoke to him, though, and helped him realize he wasn’t alone. I shared with him it was about my grandpa.
Dennis Rogers was a friend of mine. Dennis was a member of the Ramona Band of Cahuilla, a Native American tribe indigenous to Riverside County. And he said he had been an alcoholic as long as he could remember.1
Alcohol Use Disorder, otherwise known as “alcoholism,” is the most severe form of alcohol abuse and involves the increasing inability to control a growing drinking habit. The disorder is grouped into three categories, including mild, moderate, and severe. Left untreated, any of the three could lead to a degree of abuse that threatens to be forever out of control, not to mention the possible health complications that could result.2
15.1 million adults, aged 18 and older, have Alcoholism Use Disorder (AUD), including 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women. Youths, aged 12-17, who abuse alcohol number an estimated 623, 000. Sadly, only about 6.7% of adults and 5.2% of youths received treatment. That’s a whopping 1,011,700 adults and 509,600 youths. That means more than 23 million persons with AUD wandering around the U.S. looking for their next drink.3
The last time I saw my grandpa was Christmas of ’75. I figured he’d been hitting the bottle all night, because of the slur in his speech and the sweat on his brow early that morning. Everyone in the family looked the other way, putting up with his obvious condition until he began to pour a jar of fresh blood-red crab-apple syrup on my mom’s new white carpet.
“…until he began to pour a jar of fresh blood-red-crab-apple syrup on my mom’s new white carpet.”
Just days after he died, I was looking through a box of photos in the family attic and came upon a snapshot of “Champ,” that’s what he told us grandkids to call him, standing alone in an open field, wearing boxing gloves and trunks, as if ready for a fight…but with no one you could see.
The photo sadly seemed typical of the life he led…muscles without definition but taut and ready, a facial expression that screamed all bark but no bite, and boxing gear, baggy, worn threadbare and faded.
A close family member confided Champ was unerrably dogged, almost blindly so. He was a battler, and long and hard to beat down.
“He was a battler, and long and hard to beat down.”
What I noticed most about the photo was my grandpa had no corner from which to fight, just a vast void, an endless emptiness behind him. There wasn’t even a weed to stand for him, just dirt for as long as the eye could see.
As I drew the picture closer to look at his face, I sensed from the wrinkles above his eyes a kind of hell that had etched them deeply. And I sensed from the faux determined glare that he really didn’t have a clue what he was up against, only that he seemed more than willing to keep on fighting.
Champ’s brown gloves were patched and crumbling. His royal blue trunks hung loosely just above his bony knees. And his black high tops were untied, the laces angling for any opportunity to trip him up. He was a battler, I was told, and long and hard to beat down.
“…only that he seemed more than willing to keep on fighting.”
The gymnasium was smoky, chokingly so. It was hotter than most could stand, but no one was going anywhere. The bout seemed to take forever. Round after round wound down so slow. It was like we all knew what was coming, but we just had to stay anyway if for no other reason than to see this thing to the end.
Hope for Untreated Alcoholics
It’s you. You and me. We. We are the best hope for America’s more than 23 million-strong untreated alcoholics.
There are alcoholism-awareness weeks and months, and those are great, but it’s really going to take making every day an alcoholism-awareness day. We have to participate in our own twelve-step programs and say to ourselves: “Today, I will make at least one more person aware of the plague of alcoholism in America, and let them know how someone they know with AUD can get the help they so need.”
The first round had been grueling. Early on it looked like Champ wouldn’t make it. He felt not only the sting left by many punches but also the numbing thuds of so many heavy blows. The fight had been billed as the “Fight of a Lifetime,” and it surely was. The only question left was just how long that life was going to last.
When the bell rang to end round one, Champ turned to his corner, but there was no one there, not even a stool to sit on. One of the punches he received swelled an eye shut, and sweat streamed down his face, stinging the eye that remained open, making it difficult to find his way even to the corner ropes. The coda echoed in his already fuzzed head was, “I am a fighter of the street, and street rules say, you fight alone.” When he finally made it, stumbling all alone, the bell rang to start round two, never giving him a chance to catch his breath.
“Champ turned to his corner, but there was no one there, not even a stool to sit on.”
Round after round passed. It was unbelievable how Champ hung in there. He knees wobbled and his gloved-hands trembled. He hadn’t thrown a punch since round seven, and it was now twelve. The energy had been sucked out of his body, punch by punch. He hadn’t any refreshment, and wipe down, any pep talk, any help at all, except for a mildewed towel from the bowels of the locker room toilet squeezed once over his head.
Then someone, a fan from the cheering throng, rushed up to Champ’s corner as the bell to end round twelve and shoved a bottle into his hands as he hung over the ropes, facing the crowd, gasping for air. Whatever was inside was cool, and the bottle slippery. Champ gulped it down. It tasted snappy and gave him courage. The bell rang to start round thirteen and without a thought about his new help, Champ raced back into the center of the ring.
“It tasted snappy and gave him courage.”
The bell rang to end round thirteen. Champ stood blankly in the middle of the ring. The fan with the great drink, ran out and guided him back to his corner, giving him more to drink. At long last, Champ had corner help. Still no stool, but all he wanted to drink. Again, he seemed to come to life, awake, just not alertly so, as if madly moved.
Champ looked across the ring to his dancing opponent, out to the screaming crowd, and then back to his newly-found corner attendant. He snatched feverishly at the bottle in his attendant’s hand, nearly draining it to the last drop. The bell rang to begin round fourteen, and with a shove by his attendant, Champ rose once again and bounded into the ring.
The bell rang to end round fourteen. Champ’s attendant helped him back to the corner, gave him all that was left in the bottle, and then turned him around and pointed him toward the center of the ring one last time. Champ begged for the bottle. But there was no more.
“Champ begged for the bottle. But there was no more.”
Before the bell could ring to start round fifteen, Champ bolted up and galloped across the ring toward his opponent still sitting on his stool. His opponents and his attendants scattered, leaving Champ to slam into the corner post, cutting his swollen face wide open.
Stupefied, stepping backward, stepping sideways, and stepping forward, Champ made his way to the middle of the ring and dropped to his knees. The fan, who had been attending him with those inspiring bottles of drink, was gone. And as if in great agony, Champ wailed and cried out for help, then blanked, finally falling forward, dumping his blood-spattered body onto the white canvas deck.
It can be scary helping an alcoholic. At least it was for me. After he made such a scene that Christmas morning, I tried to help my grandpa. No matter what I did, he more than resisted. He cursed me. He took a taxi and tried to lose me in traffic. Then he told the cops he had no grandson. I was hurt, and I left him where he checked himself into a hotel room. I didn’t want to see him ever again.
That was the wrong thing to do. I most needed to not take his actions personally and to remain calm. I most needed to stay in tune with how he was thinking and feeling. I got lost in all of that about me.
I also had no idea what I was doing. I had no training and no support net. I wish I had had CRAFT training back then (Community Reinforcement and Family Training). I would have also consulted a counselor or physician so I had support, someone professional to hand off to.
Getting a loved one into a treatment program sooner than later is critical. And therein lies the secret…love, a loving and trusting relationship…the best basis for a person with AUD to make the foundational decision to get help. He or she has to make such a decision themselves.4
“As a concerned family member, friend, or co-worker, you are in a position to positively affect change in your loved one’s life.”
Patrick Condron, MSc, MAC
That was the last time I saw Dennis. He handed my story back to me, gathered up his things, gave me a hug, and headed for the front door. Before he opened the door, he wiped his sleeve across his eyes. As he stepped out of the doorway, before closing the door between us forever, Dennis looked back and mouthed the words “Thank you.” Then he was gone.
I smiled, because I knew he was a battler too, and long and hard to beat down. Like with my grandpa, I knew what was coming, I just didn’t know how long a fight he had left. My guess was he too would hang in there until the end.
1 “Champ,” an original short story by J Alan R.
2 “What is Alcoholism?”Alcohol Rehab Guide.
3 “Alcohol Facts and Statistics,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
4 “How to Help an Alcoholic,” Patrick Condrun, Drug Abuse.