Recently, my eight year old son asked me if I'd ever been in jail. We were talking after dinner about what happened to "bad guys," how society dealt with them, where they ended up. He had been allowed some cable TV, and this is, apparently, what he learned.
My wife was in the room at the time, and I can see her now, staring at me, willing me to keep my mouth shut.
I did think hard about keeping my mouth shut. My son got uncomfortable with how long it took me to answer. I'm usually pretty agile with answering his questions -- this time not so much. And then a principle appeared in my daddy brain, one that I couldn't argue with: he's your precious son -- don't ever lie to him. And I just waded in.
"Yes. I've been to jail," I said. "A few times."
"For what?" he said, incredulously.
"For driving recklessly," I said. "Do you know what 'reckless' means? It means without thinking about anyone else's safety. I was drinking too much and driving crazy." I wanted to tell him the complete truth, but I don't think he understood the part about drinking. The driving crazy part I think he understood.
"What was jail like?"
"It was scary."
"What was scary about it?"
"I didn't know when I was going to get out. I sat in a cell for that whole night not knowing if I was going home the next morning."
"Did you go home the next morning?"
"Yeah," I said. "I was very lucky. They could have kept me a lot longer and I would have deserved it." I actually went to jail three times for drunken driving over the course of six months. This was in California, almost three decades ago when I was 24 years old. Two of the arrests were in the same week. I got sober a few weeks after the third time, and I haven't had a drink since.
My wife thinks it's simple: I was a bad guy then, but I'm a good guy now. Why talk about the bad guy? Why confuse my son with information that he doesn't really need?
When my son sat there in our kitchen asking his little boy question, though, there suddenly seemed much more at stake than lying to protect him from my bad old days. Shame, even over something as straightforwardly shameful as driving drunk, is a funny deal. It tends to perpetuate the thing that you're shameful of. I know this both as a Catholic and an alcoholic. Being ashamed of your actions implies you were in control of them in the first place. And self-control was the great illusion of my alcoholism. In order to stop, I had to admit I had no control. When I admitted I had no control, there was no need for shame. I've met thousands of alcoholics who despise themselves for their weakness, and I've met thousands of alcoholics who forgave themselves for their weakness. I will bet on forgiveness every time.
So I'm glad I told my son the truth when he asked. It felt good, like I was building a foundation for telling him more truth in the future. And in the days afterward I began to wonder why I wasn't telling everyone about my alcoholism and my arrests. This thinking was amplified by the fact that my novel, The Next Right Thing, released on March 6th, displays such intimate knowledge of recovery that it's going to beg the question of how I know all this stuff. I'm going to be outed as an alcoholic.
I've decided that I'm no longer going to hide the most important fact of my life. Because I don't want to be even a little bit ashamed of who I am. It used to be that I was cagey with people. I'd tell you if you were my close friend. Maybe I'd even tell you if you asked more than twice about the Diet Coke in my hand. But I wouldn't just come out and say it. Now, sometimes, I will. What can they do to me? Make me stop drinking?
Now, of course, my son isn't even that worried about the jail thing. He's much more concerned about the detentions I served in high school. He brings that up nearly every day as evidence that I may not know what I'm doing when it comes to helping him with his homework. I remind him that I am now a college professor, a writer of books, a well-adjusted member of my community - all of these things the gifts of those arrests and the sobriety that followed them. I remind him, too, that most of those detentions were from skipping Algebra Two so that I could have lunch with my English teacher. He's still not buying it.