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Losing the war doesn’t mean he didn’t fight

Remembering a neighbor who lost the battle against alcoholism that we fought together.

My neighbor Michael in 2011. He passed away in October after a long struggle against alcoholism.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

“To have a problem in common is much like love and that kind of love was often the bread that we broke among us. And some of us survived and some of us didn’t, and it was sometimes a matter of what’s called luck.”

—Tennessee Williams, Memoirs

Only one friend stopped by that first week after I was allowed to come home. Then again, Michael didn’t have very far to go: out his front door, turn left, walk a few steps, knock on mine. Bearing two cans of raspberry soda water and a bag of potato chips.

We sat on the porch and talked. Which is what you most want to do when you first go into recovery: talk and talk and talk, trying to sort out how the greatest thing in your life has suddenly become the worst. And how now you have to give it up, somehow.

It was October 2005. I don’t remember anything we said. But I do remember, when we were done, Michael hugged me. He was much taller, a good four inches, and I got a face full of plaid flannel. Geez, I thought, not only do I have to give up booze, but now I gotta hug guys, too?

We started going to meetings together. Sometimes walking to the church around the corner in the warm autumn evening. Sometimes he would pick me up in that big old Cadillac he inherited. An inverted echo of high school, but instead of a buddy with a car coming to get me so we could hang out and drink beer, we were two 40ish men on our way to sobriety meetings in the northwest suburbs.

Meetings, meetings, meetings. I hated them. Michael liked them. He had a sponsor and worked the 12 Steps, an eager advocate of How It Works.

Only it didn’t work. Not for him. Not long term. For some reason, sobriety didn’t stick with Michael the way it has stuck with me, so far. Who knows why? Genetics, luck, something else.

Michael certainly was the stronger man. He had discipline, drive, integrity. Qualities that fluttered to mind when I heard he was in the hospital: failing liver, kidneys. Alcoholics can fool others. They certainly fool themselves. But the body isn’t fooled.

“Maybe this will be a wake-up call,” I told my wife.

“The divorce was the wake-up call,” she replied, grimly.

A wake-up call that he let ring and ring. Now it was too late. Michael died a few days later.

What’s there to say? He lived next door for 17 years. When I heard the news, I remembered only what he was like before: a good neighbor, considerate, friendly, a runner who took care of himself and adored his kids. A guy who’d hurry over to your house during a rainstorm and pump out your flooded basement. Who helped clean your dryer vents. Michael didn’t end this way because he was a bad person, but because he was a person, a person who fell into a hole and couldn’t get out.

The thing about alcoholism is, it’s a disease disguised as a decision. To the unfamiliar it can seem that Michael faced a choice: Hmm, stay in my nice suburban home with my beautiful wife and three great kids and see them off to college? Or go hide at my mother’s house and drink myself to death? It might seem he pondered his options, then made the wrong choice. But that isn’t a choice, not one any rational man makes.

Looking back, I keep remembering the happy times — disposing of that hornets’ nest together — and not those last years, when everyone tried to help him but couldn’t. I hope his wife and children do the same. I hope the kids realize that how well they all turned out is a reflection of the man he was, at heart, before the disease took him.

And if his memory has to be a scar, then it should be a scar worn with pride. Because he certainly fought the thing, hard, for many years before it overwhelmed him. I was there. I saw him fight. He fought hard but lost, that’s all. Remembering him should inspire us all to confidently walk our own rocky paths, and in that way, Michael is still being the helpful friend that he always was.