I went to a former friend’s funeral a few weeks ago. Pals since childhood, I was the best man at his wedding; he was the best man at mine.
Over the years, we had simply drifted apart. Granted his drinking had played a role in the estrangement: embarrassed by his addiction, he had stopped reaching out. I grew tired of always being the one to call. So I waited for him to reciprocate. He never did.
A decade later, the phone did ring. He’d died in a fatal car crash on Interstate 5, just outside of Mount Shasta, California.
Life lessons from death
I drove the 450 miles north to attend my friend’s memorial service, and it was a bit like going to the funeral of a total stranger.
Scriptures were read, tears flowed, and family and friends, including yours truly, said nice things about him, but for the most part they talked about a man and a life I no longer recognized.
Not that I expected the service to reveal or dwell on any ugliness of my friend’s life, particularly not his alcoholism, but having been out of his life the last 10 years, I had so many unanswered questions. A few hours later, at a post-service reception, I worked up the courage to pull my friend’s widow aside and ask her to clear up a few things for me.
His widow told me that my friend, who worked for over 25 years as an executive in the wine industry, had been drummed out of the business for his drinking and hadn’t been gainfully employed in over three years. As someone who once worked in that same industry (thanks to my friend’s string-pulling), I understood how severe his drinking must’ve been to get run out of an industry that was tolerant, if not lenient, about drinking. It was, after all, part of their culture — at least it had been when I worked in the business, in the form of countless free bottles of wine, mandatory tastings and vineyard visits, and long work dinners where the wine flowed freely with each and every course.
I also learned that my friend’s widow had moved out of their beautiful home and had been living in a 400-square-foot apartment for over a year and a half.
She could no longer stand to see him, with no job to go to, spend his days drinking — or even worse, lie to her about his drinking. She told me the last straw had been when he crashed their car and then called her to pick him up; reeking of alcohol, he’d lied to her face, insisting he hadn’t had anything to drink before getting behind the wheel and totaling the car.
Don’t blame yourself for a loved one’s addiction
She told me that, despite everything, she’d never given up on him and that she wished she could’ve loved him enough to convince him to stop drinking.
Knowing what I know about addiction, I told her that no amount of love from her would’ve been sufficient to get him to quit drinking, and I assured her it was simply not her fault.
Then I let her know that, 25 years earlier, when my friend and I shared an apartment and he was just starting out in the wine business, he used to drink a bottle of wine every night while he did paperwork…sometimes two. I made it clear that his alcoholism had been a problem that had begun to take over his life long before she became his wife. In hindsight, my friend had entered perhaps the worst possible business for someone with his addictive personality.
Then my friend’s widow told me the saddest part of the whole tragic story: that only a couple of months before his fatal crash, their two adult children had done an intervention and convinced my friend to go to rehab. He did and apparently made great progress, telling his wife that he actually enjoyed the experience because it felt good to be surrounded by others with similar problems rather than be isolated and all alone in their house.
When he completed rehab, my friend headed to the Oregon Coast to spend a few weeks with his parents before returning home to start his new sober life. That was where he was headed when he collided with the concrete divider on I-5 that took his life.
Never give up
I don’t know why my friend crashed or if alcohol was involved. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know. After all that he went through, I want to think the best of him. I want to believe he was on the verge of turning things around and living a productive, fulfilling life of sobriety — a life where he was working toward reuniting with a loving wife and family that never, ever gave up on him.
If you’ve got a friend or loved one battling alcohol or drug addiction, don’t give up on him or her, either. And don’t ever give up on yourself if you’re an addict. There’s always hope, and it’s never too late to get help.