Discovering Choices

Too much to drinkIt’s sum-sum-summertime.

The cookouts and fireworks of July (hope you didn’t eat those deviled eggs that were left in the sun too long) have given way to the box-fan-in-the-window dog days of August.

It’s a time when lifelong memories are made, some beautiful. Others will forever stain that beauty like ink on your favorite blouse.

So, between the pee-your-pants rollercoaster rides, sno-balls with marshmallow (old-fashioned Egg Custard at Rehak’s in Sparrows Point for me), and jumping waves where Worcester County meets the Atlantic, I’d like to pose a serious question.

Are you stuck on vacation with this guy?

“I’m drinking beer for breakfast… I party all afternoon…”

It could be your husband, your father, your brother, or the guy you’re really not related to but have called “uncle” since childhood.

Heck, it could be Grandma.

The lyrics are by Mark Noone of Washington’s fabled Slickee Boys. Noone is rocking “When I Go to the Beach,” a minor MTV hit from 1983 and the eternal soundtrack to the endless, intoxicating summer.

If you belong to the average American family, chances are good that someone is hitting the sauce too hard and too often. In the Susan Minot novel Monkeys, the kids know that if Dad has been “good” for a while, the distinctive sha-wish sound of a pop-top 12-ounce can—part metallic, part effervescent—is an air-raid siren.

Over time, it leaves you angry, disgusted, and sometimes hopeless. Like an alcoholic loved one at the end of a long day, you’ve had a bellyful.

But you don’t have to put up with it.

Really, you don’t.

That was the good news shared by more than 100 people gathered at Washington College in Chestertown earlier this summer for the 36th annual Maryland & District of Columbia Al-Anon Family Groups convention. The theme was “Discovering Choices.”

Navigating relationships with an alcoholic — whether wet or dry — is tricky business. It can be like wrestling the ghosts of ancestors you’ve never met.

Based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon began to take shape in 1951 and was formalized by Lois Burnham Wilson, wife of AA’s co-founder, Bill Wilson.

A new documentary — Bill W., released by Page 124 Productions — came out this summer and includes footage of the courageous and often-overlooked Lois (just as the lives of those in close range of bigger-than-life alcoholics are both overshadowed and frequently defined by the drunks they love).

In the auditorium of William Smith Hall in Chestertown, a woman told a story about her younger brother and began by saying how beautiful he looks in his baby picture.

Alcoholism created years of estrangement (the woman had found her way out of the maze decades before) but they were reunited not long before his death. One of their last times together was when she took him on a final run to the hospital.

The beautiful boy with the twinkling eyes was now ravaged—distended belly, yellow skin, rotting teeth—and old before his time.

His last words to his sister were, “What happened to my life?”

The woman could not save her brother, but with help she was able to save herself.

There are meetings of Al-Anon Family Groups throughout Maryland, from Ocean City to Deep Creek Lake. A toll free number (1-888-425-2666) can connect you to help just about anywhere in North America.

On the other end will be someone who will tell you — with the kind of conviction that only comes from experience — that it doesn’t have to be this way anymore.

Editor's Note: This story also appeared at Image: Licensed on by © Michele Princigalli
Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez

A lifelong Baltimorean, born on Bob Dylan's 17th birthday, Rafael Alvarez has spent the last 35 years writing about his hometown -- and when he can get away with it -- nothing else. The author of the epic "Orlo and Leini" stories, he is about to finish a history of The Tuerk House, a pioneering drug and alcohol rehab in Baltimore that was one of the first facilities for the poor when alcoholism was decriminalized in 1968.

Alvarez wrote for each of the first three seasons of the HBO drama, " The Wire," and was especially involved in season two, which focuses on the Baltimore waterfront. His book about the show -- the encyclopedic "The Wire: Truth Be Told" -- was published by Grove/Atlantic and was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award. 

His influences include the great Johnny Winter, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.