Military pilot could not control wife’s drinking

I grew up in California on a cattle and citrus ranch. I had everything a boy could want. I went to a prestigious prep school and then to an ivy-league college, where I enrolled in ROTC. I was commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force. I became a fighter pilot, served two tours in Vietnam, spent six years in the Pentagon, and retired in Canada after serving for five years as the Defense Attaché at the United States Embassy in Ottawa.

It was during a posting in Brussels, Belgium that I was forced to consider that perhaps my wife had a drinking problem. Although no mention had been made of alcoholism, over-drinking was beginning to affect our marriage, our friends, and my job. I had to do something. I was desperate to find a way to help my wife.

At my first Al-Anon meeting, I found 20 or so talkative people, apparently enjoying themselves. They were all women. My “problem” was a woman, and this group turned me off completely. And imagine my shock and disappointment when I heard that there would be no talk about the alcoholic. I deeply resented having to go to Al-Anon because of her drinking. She had the problems, not me. It would not be until three years later that I would stay for the recommended six meetings.

I sought out Al-Anon in Ottawa. Of course, I was introduced to Step One. The first part didn’t seem to pose a problem; I didn’t feel the need to defend against an admission about alcohol. But, that my life had become unmanageable? I was a senior officer in the United States Air Force who had gotten to where I was precisely because I could manage. How was I to accept that I had allowed my life to become unmanageable?

My feet became firmly planted and my hearing turned off. And there I stayed until my defenses softened. I began to learn to see and hear what everyone in my group had or was experiencing. They were just like me.

At a family program at a local hospital, I picked up a pamphlet called Did You Grow Up with a Problem Drinker? (S-25). It had 20 questions and told me that if I answered one or more of the questions with a “yes,” I could be an adult child of an alcoholic. The only “no” was for the last question: Was either of your parents a problem drinker? My parents were heavy social drinkers, but neither was alcoholic. I was at a loss as to how to resolve the description of me as an adult child.

A month or so later, I found myself in California. I ran across a very good friend of my father’s. I asked him if he had known my grandfather. His answer was, “Oh, yes; he was a great guy.” I asked if he could confirm that my granddad had died of wounds that he had suffered in World War I. “What?!” he answered, surprised. “Where did you get that story? You’re granddad died of alcohol poisoning.”I had my answer. My dad had grown up to be an adult child of an alcoholic. He passed it on to me, and I had been a very good student. I later discovered that my mother had had a grandparent who was an alcoholic as well. I had been raised by two adult children; no wonder I had answered “yes” to those 19 questions.

Becoming aware of the predictable characteristics of an adult child of an alcoholic helped explain to me how I had grown to become who I was. I could see that a good report card, a winning score, or the appreciation for work well done were the most significant requirements in my life. I needed to be “perfect” to assure approval. I also needed to be totally self-sufficient, never asking for help from anyone. One of the techniques I discovered to accomplish these needs was to shut down my emotions. If I didn’t feel, I could just get on with being perfect.

One day I was reciting the Serenity Prayer to myself slowly, trying to appreciate each word and phrase as I said it. “Accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance, but of what? Just the things I could not change? Or was there something else? Where was the wisdom I needed to know the difference between my need for acceptance and my need for courage? I needed acceptance of her, of me, and of where “I” stopped.

Just then I looked at my hand and saw my index finger. There was “my” limit—the end of my finger. At that moment, my index finger became my “wisdom finger,” the reference that I could use to see where the power of my will stopped. The only world that I need to change and work with stops at the end of this finger.

Now I could begin to work on the fact that my life had become unmanageable. How could I do that when I had worked professionally for 30 years to assure that my life was always well-managed? But was it? My professional life, yes; but my personal life, most certainly not. There, I accepted it. If I could live that acceptance, then I could claim Step One.

My two largest fears were fear of rejection and fear of abandonment. I was so concerned about how someone else would feel and whether they would still like me that I waited for them to show me how I felt. That way I would be safe—people would not reject or abandon me.

I realized after time that the deep basis for this sequence of habit and behavior included a very low self-esteem. I was fully convinced that I didn’t matter. I was not able to pinpoint where all this was coming from, but my Higher Power soon gave me a lesson and allowed me to see inside. What I saw deep down was a vulgar, bad, terrible something that I began to call “Little Rotten.”“Little Rotten” was what made me different. It was the explanation for why I would never allow myself to belong; it was what made me much “less than;” and was, in fact, the basis for who and how I was. He was the deepest secret in my life.

It became more and more evident that I was going to have to change my relationship with “Little Rotten” if I was going to be able to make any progress towards recovery. My relationship with my Higher Power had continued to grow during this time though, and that seemed a logical place to turn. I did so very carefully because I wasn’t sure my Higher Power would tolerate “Little Rotten.” This brought me the first of many lessons about just how my Higher Power and I were going to relate. I awoke to the knowledge that my Higher Power accepted me warts and all—and that included “Little Rotten.”

My logic and awareness took a leap—if my Higher Power could accept me, who was I not to accept me? Whoa—I don’t accept me?

My Sponsor asked if I had an understanding of surrender. I said, “Certainly, it’s what I learned never to do during 30 years as a fighter pilot.” “Not the same,” said my Sponsor. “Humility is the state of having established the true relationship between you and your Higher Power.” To do that I would need to surrender my will and my life to my Higher Power. “I can do that willingly,” I said. After a few months of talk, thought, and work, I was finally ready to humbly ask.

 

I realized that I had come to a place where I was comfortable to make such a request as removing my shortcomings, but I had no idea how or when it might happen. Then I recalled another piece of good Sponsor advice that I had almost never taken—meditation. He suggested to always keeping in mind that praying was talking to God, but meditation was listening for answers. “Of course,” he said, “you not only have to be willing to listen in meditation, you have to be willing to hear.”

I started trying very hard, but it did not come easily for me. My mind was always flying off on some disassociated series of thoughts or worries. With constant practice, however, I was able to disconnect my mind from the real world long enough to let some answers seep through. The more I did, the easier it was to revisit that still and refreshing place.It was not long before I became aware that I had in fact made some small changes. Awareness of these differences made it easier to identify what needed more work. My Higher Power and I became a real team, and we made some significant progress.

I was beginning to truly enjoy the journey. The bottom of page 63 of One Day at a Time (B-6) reads: “Let me realize that the Al-Anon program is not a magic potion that will instantly cure all my ills, but a pattern of living that will serve me to exactly the degree that I work at it.” For me, there is no completion of this program, only constant practice.

By Howdy R., Ontario