He was in his 50s when he died. We put all of his earthly possessions into three banana boxes and placed them into the trunk of our '63 Chevy station wagon. The key to the single (twin bed) hotel room was returned to the front desk clerk. Ironically, this was the same job he once held before alcohol got him too pickled to keep his balance for longer than half an hour. They said it was too hard for him to stand up. By the time I met Uncle Ivan he had probably been drinking (heavily) for the previous four decades. There was a certain odor about him that smelled of piss vinegar and Old Spice. I remember the whiskers on his chin used to tickle my forehead when he bent down to kiss the top of my head.
"They think it was cirrhosis of the liver," his stringy-haired girlfriend said. No autopsy was performed. Everyone knew Ivan was an alcoholic, even the kids in the family. It's almost as if his fate had been sealed in the veiled comments made by his siblings.
"He'll never amount to much," I used to hear. "He could have been a good mechanic. Smart with his hands," they said, "And yet he chose the easy life; he never got married, kept a little desk job, and ended up drinking himself to death." The utter disgust directed at Uncle Ivan made him even dearer to me. In fact, I think it was him I used to think about every time I stepped up to the bat during seventh grade gym class. I pictured him as being bad at baseball too, and just bad at making good decisions, like me.
Even though my team mates tried to encourage me to hit the ball, every time that elusive sphere would pass home plate, my swing hit absolutely nothing day after day. I couldn't have tried harder to miss it, until something magical happened. One day (I remember it as being on a Friday) when I was up to bat, the pitcher gave me a break. The ball never came near home plate. Instead it flew behind me. The next ball went in front of me, but it was so far out of bounds, it almost went over the chain link fencing that surrounded the field. Then the next ball came, and another. Luckily, I never took a swing at any of them. I got to walk. Walk to first base! From there, everything was a breeze because I was better at running than anything else. It was just that taste of getting to first base that I needed to boost my confidence.
I'd like to say that I hit every ball that crossed home plate since that Friday, but that wouldn't be the truth. As life would have it, I continued to suck at baseball through adolescence and beyond, and obviously Uncle Ivan continued to drink. I tried though, and I don't think I ever gave up on wanting to hit that damn ball. I'm sure Uncle Ivan tried as well to quit drinking, because it just doesn't make sense to me that he wouldn't. He knew what alcohol was doing to him.
After Uncle Ivan died my eyes were opened yet again to one of our familial frailties. There are addiction (dependency) issues on both sides of the family tree. It's hard to tell where it all starts and even harder to determine the causes of it. Some say that it is a disease, a chemical imbalance. I buy that because I have my own issues with a lack of serotonin, the feel good chemical our body is supposed to make on its own. Studies also show that alcohol addiction (dependency) is caused from loneliness and isolation. I can see that too.
The first roadblock is getting the help. Many families, including mine, go through this, and it's very frustrating. Each program has its merits whether it's AA, prescription drug therapy, or psychological counseling. But then it always comes back to the individual. The alcoholics in my family sometimes want the help, but then it looks to us (on the outside) that they also sabotage themselves. I totally get that too. Out of frustration, sometimes I would swing at that ball and ask myself, "What's the use? I'm just a loser. I should go ahead and live my destiny." I found it easier to over ride success and accept failure.
What has made a difference is this. We are not only united in our joys as families, but also in our failures and our indiscretions. Our personal frailties level the playing field. We are the same, no greater, no less. So, you have to give a person as many chances as it takes to make it right. It doesn't matter whether they've gone to treatment one time or ten times. There is something that will work. That seventh grade pitcher made a decision to give me a chance to make it to first base instead of possibly winning the baseball game for his team. I believe he wanted me to get to first base as much as I did. He might have never given up on me either. After all, we all know how it feels to see someone do something they thought they never could have done before, and it's awesome.
For many of us who may struggle on a daily basis with anxiety, depression, addiction and self-worth, all we want to do is just get to first base. Sometimes, that's as far as we can go on any given day, month, or year. Hitting a home run isn't really something we are able to do just yet. But be patient with us. Give us the gift of time, and a maybe a little more than three strikes.
Sometime before our eternal rest we might be able to hit a home run.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.