Calling Out a Friend


I received a Christmas gift this week, inexpensive but meaningful. It came from a patient who is becoming a friend, a man who attends my men’s support group on Wednesday mornings. His gift of a T-shirt touched my heart.

In October Lisa and I took a trip to the Smoky Mountains and I have shared many stories of the trip, of the people and the beauty and how much we wanted to return there. His gift of a “Great Smoky Mountains” T-shirt was personal, a gift that made me smile.

What made the gift even more meaningful is the back story behind our friendship. Joe (not his real name) has been a patient of mine for several years. He is an alcoholic, for a while drinking enough for his blood tests to reveal liver damage. For years our visits were characterized by him making empty promises to do better, half-hearted commitments to decrease his intake but never to quit. He almost never followed up as requested and sometimes over a year elapsed between visits.

This changed a little over a year ago. During that visit, when he said, “I know I need to do better,” I interrupted him.

“You know what your problem is?” I said matter-of-factly, “Your problem is that you’re are a filthy, rotten, drunk.”

He looked as if I had slapped him in the face. I explained that I felt comfortable saying this because I was also a filthy, rotten sinner. My struggles were not with alcohol, but being a good man is still a struggle. I went on to explain that the key to a successful life was not the absence of dysfunction, but the willingness to recognize one’s dysfunction and deal with it. I told him he needed to get serious about his alcoholism.

He did. He has been sober for months now. A few months ago he started coming to the Wednesday men’s group. (The purpose of the group is for men to encourage one other to be better men, a perfect environment for him.) He has been a fixture ever since, openly discussing his problems and sharing his life with the other men.

His gift was not only kind, it was the perfect illustration for our conversation that morning. We discussed the proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”. The truth that there are times in life where we go off course and need some sense knocked into us, times when the truth we need to hear is painful. Faithful friends, true friends, will love us enough to hurt us when this happens.

He shared about how my words about his drinking had hurt him yet had also helped him turn his life around. It was a powerful moment. His story inspired us as the group talked about being the type of men who could both speak such words in love and who could also receive such words when spoken to us.

We went on to review the second half of the proverb, “Profuse are the kisses of an enemy”, about the tendency to surround ourselves with people who only tell us what we want to hear, who only praise us and never correct us, and how this is unhealthy and harmful. (We also talked about how a certain orange tinged politician could benefit from this lesson!)

We live in a world that is afraid to confront, afraid to correct, out of fear we will lose friends or be called judgmental. The words of my friend and the gift he gave are proof that this is not always the case. We have a relationship based on truth and a shared desire to be better men. For me, this is true friendship.



Love and an Irrational Fear of Alcohol

I have never had a drink. I have taken a few sips to see how something tasted but I have never downed a complete beverage. Alcohol wreaked havoc on my family so I have lived my life as if I was an alcoholic. I will not drink. I have a strong aversion to it and avoid it completely to the point of irrationality.

My wife learned about my irrationality early in our marriage. We had been married only a few months when she went to the wedding of a friend. I worked Saturdays at a market and was unable to attend so she went alone. When I came home late that evening she told me about the ceremony and reception. As a part of the story she mentioned having a glass of champagne for the toast. This bothered me terribly and I did not hide the fact well (I would never make it as a poker player, my face tells all).

She asked me what the problem was, it had only been a single glass of champagne. I told her that while there was nothing wrong with anyone drinking a glass of champagne, that the image of the woman I loved with a drink in her hand was terribly upsetting to me. I knew it was silly, but it really bothered me.

Lisa hasn’t had a drink since. Not because it is wrong for her to drink and definitely not because my argument was powerful and persuasive. She decided to never have a drink because she loves me. My revulsion to alcohol is irrational and extreme, but it is real and based on real hurt from my childhood. Alcohol is nothing more than a beverage to her and she gladly set it aside to ease my pain.

I thought of this story recently in counseling a patient. He is in the process of working a 12-step program after 30 years of an alcoholic life. He has fully embraced his recovery, going to counseling and hosting meetings for those he met in rehab. While he has been doing well with sobriety his relationship with his wife has struggled. One of the areas of conflict has been the coed nature of the meetings he hosts. His wife is not comfortable with him having friendships with women, even though he does not meet with them one on one.

“So don’t have friendships with women,” I interrupted. He defended the practice and explained that he was never alone with the women and that it was all centered around recovery. He told me he had invited his wife to the meetings so she could chaperone and see that there was nothing untoward going on, but she did not want to go. He could not understand why his wife was as bothered as she was. No explanation or protestation of innocence could sway her. He felt trapped, as he felt the meetings were important but wanted to respect his wife as well.

“Don’t have women at the meetings,” I said, “Make them men only.” I told him that his wife’s fears and concerns did not have to be rational to be respected. His wife had endured decades of his alcoholism and was no doubt deeply wounded. She did not owe him an explanation and did not need to defend her position. Instead of arguing with her, he should choose an act of love by telling her, “I understand,” and changing his meetings to men only.

I shared with him the story of my wife and the wedding champagne. I explained that while my request that she not drink was irrational and absurd, my wife honored it because she could. She loved me that much. My wife did not need to be persuaded by logic or convinced by argument. She needed only to understand my heart and my fears. After a little more conversation with the patient he decided that he would honor his wife’s request. He had been selfish in his drinking for years, he could now do this one thing for her.

As he left I thought of the incredible example of love my wife has been for the last 34 years. She has accommodated so much. Raised toilet seats, cupboards and drawers NEVER closed, as well as my fears, anger and anxieties. I thought of the hundreds of failed marriages I have seen over the years and how many times a marriage might have been saved if someone had let go of “being right” and simply given in out of love.

I went home that night and told my wife that she is wonderful and amazing. Because she is.

- Bart

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