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I was promoted, and the promotion involved moving to one of the far suburbs of Chicago. It was a big change, and my wife and I were excited. The move went smoothly. We found a four-bedroom house in a subdivision about twenty miles from my office. Sarah found a job right away, teaching in a school district West of us—which meant she didn’t have to brave Chicago traffic on her way to and from school. I had an administrative assistant, and a staff of five professionals to supervise. The house in Michigan sold for what we paid for it and I my former boss back there closed on it for us with power of attorney.
It seemed like life was good. Looking back on it now, I can see I wasn’t very happy. I didn’t enjoy the job as much as I thought I would, but I didn’t admit that to myself. I was swathed in a couple of layers of denial: I didn’t want to admit my drinking was getting out of control, and I didn’t want to admit I was losing my love of my chosen profession. The timing of the move was good. A couple of days after I started the new job, the first national convention of all BSA professionals started. It was a good chance to get to know my old team while spending some time with my old friends.
….Those things were the farthest things from my mind when we boarded the plane at O’Hare to head to Nashville.
It was a convention of Boy Scout professionals, held at the Opryland Hotel. If you’ve never been there, you go see it. It’s a glorious hotel. It’s huge. It’s enclosed in a dome. There are plants and trees, and a river, and a boat, and stores, restaurants, bars, and more. We were going to be there for five days and had no plans to leave the hotel. It’s that big—you can have an entire vacation without knowing you never set foot outside.
I was impressed with the place, and we were having a great time. It had only been three weeks since we moved. I enjoyed my team, the team of professional Scouters I’d joined, and I missed the team I had just left. I was sharing a room with my former supervisor, but he was more than a supervisor. He was, and is, an excellent friend of mine.
He brought me a copy of a newspaper story that ran when I left Midland. Midland isn’t a big city—it has a population of under 40,000. Great town. I loved the time we spent there. It’s a Scouting town. One out of three boys of Boy Scout and Cub Scout age were members of the Boy Scouts of America, and I had the privilege of being their executive for seven great years. I read the article several times and looked at the picture—amazed that a newspaper would print a 1/4 page article about me.
The council I was serving had a suite for the night. It was on one of the highest floors of the hotel. Huge windows overlooked the miniature world that is the Opryland Hotel. I drank a lot that night. We all did. People came and went throughout the night and those of us hosting the party made sure they all had a good time. The party was showing signs of winding down at about one AM and the boss’s wife let me know she wanted me to clear the room out.
I cleared my throat and said, “It’s late and we all have a meeting tomorrow. I expect to see everyone at breakfast!” There were some good-natured boos and some ribbing back and forth. I remember that clearly. I meant what I said….
The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes in the hotel room. Someone was shaking me. It was Steve. He pulled back and shouted, “It’s two o’clock. I thought you were up.”
“Up?” I shook my head to clear it, but it didn’t work very well. I looked around.
The balcony doors were open on the interior of the dome. I could see bright light, sunlight from the skylights, and green plants out the balcony. I rolled over and looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand. It was two o’clock in the afternoon!
So much for beating them all to breakfast. So much for the opening session. So much for….
“You must’ve gone back to bed.”
“I wasn’t up.”
He grinned at me and tossed some stuff on his bed. I glanced at the stuff. It was a pile of the usual conference stuff: brochures, give-away pens, notebooks, etc. Stuff I should have been gathering between sessions. “You didn’t miss much. Your staff was looking for you.” He started to head back out. “Oh yeah…. You won a trip to Branson, air fare included. Weekend stay, or something like that. One of your team members claimed the prize.”
“Where the hell is Branson?”
“Missouri. Second country music capitol of the world.”
“Damn,” I muttered. “Punishing me already, aren’t they?” I’d rather have an unexplained rash than listen to country music. The joke was wasted. He was already gone.
I didn’t feel well. My head felt funny, and not just with a hangover. I felt like I could have rolled over and gone to sleep for a couple of days. I jumped out of bed and started to pull clothes on. Guilt and worry hit me when I was in the shower. I was sure I was in trouble, and thought I deserved it. My new boss wouldn’t be happy about me missing the first couple of sessions, and getting drunk and sleeping most of the day was far from the kind of example I wanted to set.
I had to live with the worry for a couple of hours. By the time I ran into my boss, I felt pretty normal. Guilty, but normal. He was on his way up a set of marble stairs leading to one of the big ballrooms used for a general session. He grinned when he saw me.
Before he could start yelling, I stopped him. “I overslept,” I said, “….by a lot. I’m sorry.”
He grinned, and waved to a couple of people standing at the top of the stairs, looking over the waterfall and river on the other side of the stairwell. “You’ve been through a lot in the last few days: moving, unpacking, getting used to the office.” He slapped me on the back as he went by. “See you at dinner.”
In most fiction, there is a scene in which the protagonist could avoid the trouble that makes the story. This isn’t fiction, but it is that moment….
I had just come back from lunch and was hanging my coat up on the back of my office door when the boss’s administrative assistant stuck her head around the door.
“He’d like to see you when you get a chance.”
She vanished before I said anything. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was in a pretty good mood. There was no reason I shouldn’t have been in a good mood. We were at the start of a new year after a successful year of membership gains, goal accomplishment, and fund raising. I felt good, too good, after a couple of beers and as many bites of a hamburger for lunch.
I walked around the corner to his office and was surprised to see him sitting at the table by the windows. He was a big guy: broad shoulders, round face—the kind of face that could make a grin contagious—and expressive eyes. He wasn’t smiling. There was a manila folder in front of him on the table. It was a thin folder without much in it.
“Take a seat,” he said with neither smile nor preamble. “Close the door first.”
I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but I remember it felt surreal.
“Have you ever heard of the E.A.P?” he asked.
I said I hadn’t, but he clarified for me. It was in the employee handbook—the one I just helped revise. I had no excuse for not remembering it.
“It stands for ‘Employee Assistance Program’. You have a drinking problem. I hear things….”
I didn’t say a word. My mouth was dry, and my heart was beating too fast. Excuses piled up behind my teeth, but I didn’t bother to utter them.
He pulled a card from the file and slid it over the table to me. “This is the number for the referral program. It’s an eight hundred number, and they answer it twenty-four hours a day. You’re going to call that number, and you’re going to do what they tell you to do. If you don’t call that number in twenty-four hours, I have to fire you.” He leaned forward, locking his eyes on mine. “I don’t want to fire you. You’re too valuable to this organization. If you weren’t valuable, I would have already fired you. Call that number, Dave.”
I called that night. Hands shaking, ashamedly buzzed from a couple of beers to help me gather the nerve (a moronic move, an addict’s move), I dialed the phone hoping it wouldn’t be answered. It was answered. A very understanding person informed me they were expecting my call. She told me it was an employer referral. I asked what that meant. It meant, she explained, that my employer was sending me through the Employee Assistance Program and that in order to participate, I would be required to sign a waiver that would allow them to share information with my employer about my participation and progress in the program.
I stared at the phone for a long time after I hung it up. I drank a few more beers before my wife got home, knowing I would have to tell her about the phone call I just made. By the time she got home, I managed to convince myself it was all some sort of mistake. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I was just a guy who liked beer. Liked it a lot, to be sure….but I just liked it. She would laugh and tell me to go through the program.
She didn’t laugh. She thought it was a good idea. It was, of course. I know it now, you knew it when you started reading this, but I didn’t want to know it then.
I went through the program. Nine weeks of alcohol education, mostly attended by people who had DUI’s on their records and were required to attend the class before they could start the process to get their driver’s licenses back. I stayed mostly sober through the nine weeks. When it was over, I went back to drinking. I drank at a slower pace, but I kept drinking.
Thoughts before we get to the important stuff
I started drinking beer again after I got through the program. That doesn’t mean the program wasn’t good, and that I didn’t get any help from it. I didn’t use what I learned, not until after I got home from the hospital five years later. During the nine weeks, I learned I could handle sobriety. I could have learned to enjoy sobriety, but I didn’t. I also learned I didn’t have to rely on beer to get to sleep. I took melatonin then. You’ll hear more about that later.
In 2003, my wife and I moved to Racine, Wisconsin. It wasn’t a promotion. I took a job as the number two professional in the Boy Scout council there. We liked living in Wisconsin. A year and a half later, we had a budget shortfall that was only a little bigger than my annual salary. When you’re the number two guy in any company and the budget shortfall matches your salary, you know what you do? You pack your bags.
It might surprise you to know I had a very good performance record, in spite of my drinking. Several other middle managers in the organization were laid off, or otherwise displaced for budgetary reasons that year, and a lot of good professionals left the organization. I thought about leaving. I was vested in the retirement program, but I loved, and still love, the Boy Scouts of America and I wanted to hang on. The organization worked on my behalf. The day I was told my position had been eliminated, I called the Regional Personnel Director. We knew each other. Not well, but well enough that when I said….
“I didn’t think I’d be calling you like this on my birthday….”
He said, “Wait a minute! It’s your birthday?” He laughed. Hard. Very hard. It was such a surprised, happy sound that I laughed with him. Laughed with tears in my eyes, but I laughed. “They laid you off on your freakin’ birthday?”
“Well,” I said as I coughed through laughter and burning eyes, “I didn’t tell them it was my birthday.”
That brought another spate of laughter. I couldn’t help it. I laughed too, and felt better for it. I was sitting in my car in the parking lot on a beach on Lake Michigan on December 20th. Wind was whipping over the car. I watched light snow blow around the parking lot.
“We’ll find something for you, Dave.” He wasn’t laughing when he said that, thank God. “You have a great record, and we’ll find something for you. I have to warn you, it might not be a promotion. There are a lot of guys in your position. A lot of councils hit a financial hard place this year, and lots of positions have been eliminated. Don’t quit! We’ll find something for you.”
They did. I made phone calls. My boss made phone calls. The region made phone calls.
I got a job as a very senior district executive. It was in Cleveland, Ohio. The executive director there offered me the same salary and job classification I had in Wisconsin. It was a demotion in title, but the council there was looking to create management positions, and if all went well, one would be mine.
My wife took the news very well, in spite of never wanting to live in a big city. We always agreed that she wouldn’t move during a school year and until then we were able to time our moves so we moved in the summer, but not that time. That time she stayed in Wisconsin, and I got a furnished one-bedroom apartment on a six month lease in Cleveland.
Was I smart enough to be sober when I moved to Cleveland and waited for her? We know the answer, but I’ll say it anyway.
Section Two – The Storm
Intro to Green Goblin
Looking back on it, I see Wernickes coming on. I didn’t see the little warning signs then. Some medical professionals will say there aren’t any warning signs. Others will say the signs are often missed, and those are the ones I agree with. I’ve read some stuff that says Wernickes comes on suddenly. I don’t know which ones are right, and which ones are wrong. I think some of the things I’ve described so far are indicative of Wernickes.
I was also having problems with my memory, but I didn’t know or believe I was having problems with my memory. My wife, bless her, told me I was forgetting things, but I was able to cloak her assertions in denial.
Then I got sick. Really sick. I had breakfast the other day with an old friend from camp staff. He said he was surprised at my recovery. My father told him I was ill when I was in the hospital for Wernickes. This is what my friend said:
“Your Dad told us the hospital said you probably weren’t going to make it. When I saw him a couple of weeks later, I was almost afraid to ask. Your Dad said you were home and doing fine.”
I was lucky. I was blessed. I didn’t know how lucky, or how blessed, until much later.
The next part of this book is a book on its own entitled Green Goblin. It’s available as a Nook book, a Kindle book, and in hardcover and paperback from www.lulu.com/spotlight/Misticuf. You don’t need to buy it, but if you want to send it to someone else, it’s a good cautionary tale.
Werknicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A disorder of the central nervous system characterized by abnormal eye movements, incoordination, confusion, and impaired memory and learning functions.