Last month I shared the upside of OG's recent 50th high school reunion. Today I'm tackling the darker side.
This is a story of six men, OG and his closest boyhood friends. Several of them had known each other since kindergarten. They were a diverse group and followed different paths in life, but one major factor colored all their lives.
One drank himself to death in his early thirties. His twin brother, trained as a mining engineer, shot himself in his late fifties. A third bounced from job to job--fireman, painter, property manager--until he was able to retire. Another realized his lifelong dream of becoming a successful small-town lawyer, only to die of a heart attack in his early sixties. Two graduated from Ivy League colleges, and one went on to earn a PhD in Chemistry from MIT, but their careers were never what they'd hoped.
What did their lives have in common? All were substantially affected by alcoholism.
The three who are still alive attended the reunion. Two traveled all the way from California to Kansas City to reconnect with old friends. At 68, they have all been sober for many years--two since their mid forties and the third since age 60. They have ultimately attained a level of acceptance and peace in their lives, but their careers and relationships suffered.
As we were driving back to the hotel from the first reunion event, OG told me about attending the funeral of the first friend. Afterward, the one who was a lawyer came up to him and asked, "Why do you think we all drink so much?" I've been pondering that question, because, while heavy drinking isn't particularly uncommon, six out of six seemed like a startlingly high percentage.
I don't know if any of the others grew up in alcoholic homes, but I know OG didn't. However, they lived in a rough, inner city neighborhood and attended a diverse, and often violent, high school. OG said you never knew when you might be jumped and beaten, in or out of school. And he was a letterman on the football team. Imagine what life must have been like for the smaller boys. It's a good thing guns weren't as readily available as they are now. Of those classmates who didn't go straight into the army and to Vietnam, a significant number ended up in the penitentiary or dead.
I think he and his friends, like many soldiers, suffered from PTSD as a result of the pervasive violence, so to ease the pain and anxiety, they drank. And they didn't stop, even after escaping that environment. They didn't stop until they either had no choice or were dead. A fifty percent survival rate is pretty grim.
But observing these survivors at the reunion also reminded me of soldiers in another, more positive, way. These friends were bonded in the way combat binds warriors. They mourned those they'd lost and clung tightly to each other. OG was an only child, and in his own words, these were his brothers. As I watched them embrace after so many years, I knew I was in the presence of a true Band of Brothers. I was sad for what they'd suffered, but glad to see them find strength in each other.
Wow. I can't imagine how rough that neighborhood must have been. To lose friends is hard. But losing them to substance abuse has to be harder yet. Hubs has lost two friends recently--one to undiagnosed cancer, the other to COPD. Like many of us who lose friends, his own mortality hit the forefront. Like OG, he's an only child, so his friends were his brothers. Thanks for sharing, Alison. A very thought-provoking post.
Very touching and dramatic, Alison. I have a family member that started drinking in high school. He hung with other guys that did too. He was popular and smart with good grades. And the drinking didn't stop. I'll have to quiz him some day on what happened to his network of friends. I do know one he still sees and he is an alcoholic by what I know. My family member has over the last few years reined in his drinking but it has done much to determine some of his life. Thanks for the post
It's important for us to hear the sobering part of the story. We all had some kind of crutch in rough times; addiction was around the corner for many of us. The crazy drinking in college and experimentation with a panoply of drugs; today, the opioid craze. I know people who have smoked marijuana their whole lives. That pleasure center in the brain needs feeding, I guess...and the need to relieve stress is human. I'm glad OG had his brothers, but I'm sorry he lost so many too early.
Diane, you're so right about about loss focusing one on his own mortality. I think OG and his friends were very grateful for their own lives and for each other at this point.
Brenda, life has always been tough, and there have always been (and will always be) substances available to dull the worst of it. I'm sure there's nothing unique about OG and his brothers, but I had never been around a group like them before. It was very poignant.
Rolynn, I think OG's reunion was quite different from yours, but it was very moving, too.
At least the ones left have turned their lives around. The fate of the others must surely have contributed to their decisions. And OG has you to keep him strong!
Actually, Alison, I think it is quite unique. 6 men with the same experience yet living it out differently and knowing how they all came out. It's the stuff of really poignant fiction. Only for OH it wasn't fiction at all.
OG dumb spell check!
Jannine, interestingly, they had been out of touch with each other for decades--since that first funeral. It seems they all came to the same place through their own experiences. And yes, I take full credit for keeping OG on the straight and narrow!
Brenda, I would never write about OG and his friends directly, but there's no way this won't make it into a story someday. It was a profoundly moving experience for all of us.
What an incredibly poignant story, Alison. I think most people have a personal "drug" of choice to see them through difficult times, to mask emotional pain. For many it's alcohol, for others it's an activity like gambling or shopping or online "stuff." For me it's been food. Not everyone is affected at the same level, and some "drugs" are more destructive than others, of course. I'm so glad that OG had (and has!) you to help him find his way, and that he was able to reconnect with his "brothers" after so many years.
thanks for sharing. We all have our weaknesses. Alcohol, drugs, food, spending money, etc. But when it affects a group of friends, it does make you wonder why. How did the survivors make it through? What were their strengths?
Leah, it was such a moving experience for me to see them together again after such a long time. I felt privileged.
Vonnie, I was surprised by how different, yet similar, they were. Having never known the three who were lost, I'll never know what made the difference. Was it circumstances, someone in their lives, or finding some inner strength?
Twice now I haven’t been able to comment. As the adult child of alcoholics I know first hand what damage the disease can do. Something my kids never had to experience. I have great respect for those who overcome and survive the disease.
Margo, it really is a curse--and a very widespread one.
Oh my gosh, what an emotional post. I come from a family of alcoholics and the disease is definitely an awful one. Your post is a testament to true friendship, though, and poignant and eloquent.
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