Editors Note: This story contains graphic photos
By Tim Maddocks
A few months back, Ma’s doctor discovered a growth on her spine: little wormy cells growin’ all on their own. With Ma needing some tests and with Dad’s dementia worse than ever, someone was needed to keep an eye on him.
Normally, in a situation like this, one of my siblings out in Colorado could watch Dad while Ma goes in for her appointments. No problem. Unfortunately, at this most delicate of moments, a number of my siblings came down with Covid-19, leaving our network of helpers in disarray. And so, I returned home.
Caregivers need caregivers need caregivers.
It was a fine enough trip—from Pittsburgh to Fort Collins. I didn’t get sick. And my mom got some good health news along the way. (Her growth is benign!) I got to spend time with my dad in his newest and strangest stage of dementia. He loves talking to framed photos of me and my siblings. “Hey there, big guy! … Good morning!”
By embedding into my mom’s and dad’s struggles, I thought I might better understand their tough path forward as my dad’s Alzheimer’s progresses. But more than anything, I walked away with an appreciation for the vast web of helpers helping helpers, like concentric circles caught in a ray of light. For me, this web begins with my alcoholism and addiction and my place in the Pittsburgh recovery community.
One evening as my parents slept, I snooped around my father’s office, perusing his old journals and files when I stumbled upon a folder labeled “Tim Incident.” Inside the folder was a list of recovery centers and notes from a yellow legal pad—and a stack of photographs. I’d been hoping to find some footprint of his dementia, hoping to see if I could pinpoint when his Alzheimer’s may have first started. Instead, I found a series of images of me, in a hospital bed, as an 18-year-old suffering from alcohol poisoning.
In one photo, a nurse is putting a tube up my nose while my brother Steve holds my head. In another photo, the camera zooms in on my hands, bloodied and bruised. Another photo zooms out: me, naked with restraints clasped around my ankles and wrists. Throughout the series, my eyes appear fixed in a grotesque liminal state: not closed, not open, not dead, not alive.
Disturbing as they are, I am grateful for them.
For me, a photo like this is high currency. I’m an alcoholic. Probably always have been. And as an alcoholic in recovery, it’s my prerogative to remember that I’m an alcoholic in recovery. It’s been a process to get to the point where I am today, where I can accept that I can’t take just one drink. These photos are an important reminder.
Alcoholism is strange that way. It’s at the forefront of my life, yet it’s easy for me to bury this moment and the dozens of others like it. There’s a cliché that gets passed around in my recovery community. We say: “I have a disease that tells me I don’t have a disease.” These days—seven years into my sobriety—I rarely think about drinking. Yet, I easily forget that I’m an alcoholic.
In the photos, I am a freshman in my first semester of college. At that time, I had already been arrested for public drunkenness once before. I’d alienated myself from most of my friends. Already crashed two cars while intoxicated. And yet, I wasn’t ready to seek help or to stop.
I’d go on to abuse alcohol and drugs for another 12 years before finding a recovery community and a reprieve. For those dozen years, I’d end up in car wrecks and jail cells and courtrooms and outpatient facilities. I’d be back in this same hospital, having checked myself in, because I couldn’t feel my left arm after shooting too much dope into the same vein. And still, again: I couldn’t see it for what it was.
The photos remind me of that raw confusion—and the confusion to come. In the photos, you can see how deeply my family loves me: my sister Betsy is pictured sitting in the corner of the hospital room, phone to her ear, a look of fright on her face. There’s one of Steve’s hand holding mine. I have flashes of memory from the “incident” but don’t recall my siblings there. I awoke once in the middle of the night to see my brother John watching over me, and I awoke again in the morning, fully conscious, to discover that my Dad had arrived—having taken the first flight out of New York back to Colorado.
And yet, despite the obvious love and concern from my family, there was absolutely nothing they could have done to save me. In that moment they were as helpless as I was. Despite their presence, I was alone. For the next dozen years, this didn’t change.
When the pandemic hit, the scariest thing to reckon with was the prospect of isolation: from society, from family, from life. As an alcoholic this is doubly scary. When I look back on the years of drinking and drug abuse, I see isolation not only as a symptom but as an animating force of my addiction. The isolation was narcotic in and of itself.
Because of this, I need help from folks who’ve been down the same path as me and who understand the experience of alcoholism. As much as I love my family and my wife and my cat, they’re not alcoholics or addicts. To stay sober I’ve needed to find addicts and alcoholics who live a sober life, day-by-day.
Today, with the pandemic twisting through every task, every drama, every day, I’ve been surprised to find that rather than feeling tempted to drink again, I have a greater resolve to embrace my recovery, to remember where my drinking takes me—and most importantly—to keep the bonds and connections that have buoyed me through these past seven years.
Strange as it may sound, I’ve grown even more grateful for my alcoholism and addiction. It’s served as a kind of lodestar to help me keep level-headed through this anxiety-ridden, pandemic year.
When coronavirus hit, most of the institutions in my life were either slow to adapt or too incompetent to do so. My recovery community, however, was nimble and ready. By the time the county and state shut down, the group of alcoholics with whom I typically meet not only switched to online meetings but increased the number of meetings we held week-to-week.
As the pandemic has worn on (and on and on and on), my community of like-minded alcoholics has grown more robust, more tight-knit, more far-reaching. It hasn’t been easy—but for some of us, the process of persevering has made us closer. Thanks to Zoom technology, I now have more people in my recovery family this year than I did in the year prior. In this new world of online recovery, there are now people from New York and Ohio and West Virginia who I depend on and who depend on me.
The pandemic has had a distorting effect on me and shares a lot of similarities with my early days in sobriety. Tasks that once took me an hour can take a week. There are days when I can’t focus for more than two or three minutes at a time. Some days I have trouble getting out of bed and my biggest achievement is putting on a pair of pants. And yet—the difference between my early sobriety and the pandemic slog is that today I can trust the recovery process and know that I don’t have to go through this alone.
In my earliest months of sobriety, during one of my very first group meetings, there was a man who stood up in the back of the room to speak. He wanted to thank the group, he said. He’d just heard some news. His cancer was terminal. Had maybe four or five months to live, at most.
His voice was deep and fiery. Not much time left, he said. But he wasn’t sad. Wasn’t worried. He was joyful and unafraid. He said he had a good many years of sobriety under his belt and wanted to thank the group for every sober moment. He said that if he could just stay sober that day—today!—that he might die sober, too.
I’ve been mulling this moment over, ever since. I never saw that man again. But I’m convinced he died sober. I still have trouble making sense of it. I can’t forget his happy timbre or the calmness of his voice. His grace. And maybe that’s the point. It defies sense.
My father and I are like two waves passing each other over.
About the time I joined the recovery rooms around Pittsburgh, I began to realize that my father could no longer hold a conversation over the telephone. Pretty soon he forgot where I lived and what I did. Before long, he forgot who I was entirely. No matter how many angry phone calls I had with Ma, the reality of his illness was immovable.
At first, I was angry and confused. I imagined myself as a Polaroid in reverse, fading from focus into nothing. Later I just felt deep sorrow. I missed him.
When I went back home and found the photographs of me in my father’s filing cabinet, I discovered that my alcoholism was as baffling to him as his Alzheimer’s is for me. Shuffling through files and journals, there were many more episodes that he could have filed away as another “Tim Incident:” Court documents from my DUI, bank statements tracking the money I stole, insurance claims from the cars I totaled. He’d made journal entries about my time in jail and my outpatient visits and my 12-step work.
He was grasping for some kind of understanding. In journal entries, he questions whether he failed to offer the right kind of discipline or if I drank too much because I was lazy. Later, he writes with more compassion and nuance. In the week in which I went through withdrawal from a methamphetamine addiction, he writes about his own struggle to quit cigarettes in an effort to empathize with me.
His devotion was as sweet as it was sad. I didn’t realize how prolific he’d been in his documentation. But I should’ve known. He was always scribbling. He’d sit me down for long conversations when he’d try to talk sense into me. He’d scribble down a note, ash his cigarette, and ask: “Tim, why?”
Today, I’m no closer to knowing the answers. Sure, there’s a list of factors: genetics, weird religious shit in my family, middle child syndrome, etc. But the truth is, I don’t know why. I flip through these files and look at these photos and find alcoholism just as baffling now as it was then.
For me, the “why” is beside the point.
What matters is that I’ve learned to focus on the solution: to take it one day at a time. These photos sitting here on my writing desk—picturing me unconscious and battered—are only important insofar as they’ve strengthened my resolve to stay sober today. From the time I wake up to the time I fall asleep, it’s the most important thing I can do.
With some sober time under my belt, I can finally show up for my family in a real and meaningful way. Of course, the great irony is that my father now no longer cares.
And while this may sound heartbreaking and sad—it doesn’t feel that way to me. When I first began to realize he was sick, I made a lot of grand overtures to try and control the situation. I’d yell at Ma over the phone, begging her to take him to a doctor. I wrote letters to my siblings. I even moved back home at one point. Over the years, I’ve been learning to let go. I no longer need to assert my control. I can accept it. These are concepts that have been introduced to me through my sobriety. And these same concepts that helped me to stop drinking are the same concepts that helped prepare me to be present for the moment—whether that means dealing with the pandemic or sitting with my father while Ma is at the hospital.
Yes, my dad’s disease brings us to moments that are hard to stomach. He gets frightened and angry and lashes out at me: “Who are you?” he asks. “What are you doing in my house?!” But mostly he enjoys his life in a way that’s beyond comprehension.
Mostly, his day is full of an urgent and present joy: all day long, he whistles. Whistles as he follows Ma around the house, helping her with little chores. Whistles as they make coffee, dry the dishes, fold laundry. He sits on the couch in front of the fireplace and whistles … for hours. He whistles along to the Christmas classics, to old country standards, to opera. He’ll flip through my mom’s catalogues, mumble to himself, whistle to himself. Each next note, each next page a new world before him.
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Again, here he is—present. And now since I’m living sober and trying my best to reckon with each day as its own reward in and of itself, I’m left in utter awe of who my father has become.
And I’m grateful to be here for it.
Tim Maddocks is a freelance writer and researcher based in Pittsburgh. Follow him @TimothyMaddocks