If you are the adult child of an alcoholic parent, there’s a lot I’m going to say here that you probably already know.
Nobody needs to tell you how a nameless fear in childhood can fuel an obsession in adulthood.
For example, maybe you always want to sit with your back to the wall. In a restaurant, in a meeting — even at home. Sneak attacks to the back of a young head will do that to you. Always on guard, always wary of the unknown space behind you.
Maybe you’re really good at reading a room, gauging a mood. You can already sense trouble while others are still waiting for the caffeine to kick in. You know the value of a daily exit plan.
Maybe you never stop trying to please others, no matter how awfully they behave. Because it’s up to you, right? If there’s a problem, you fix it. Maybe you still think that if you just try hard enough, this will be the time — that magical moment — when he or she changes forever.
If you’re like me, you’ve sometimes wondered how different you’d be if someone, anyone, had intervened on your behalf. Someone who was willing to step between a child and the person who’s supposed to be his or her protector. Someone who had the guts to pull you aside and whisper, “This isn’t normal, kid. This isn’t your fault.”
At the very least, wouldn’t it have been nice if someone had given you the tools to identify an alcoholic?
Earlier this month, a video confession of drunken driver Matthew Cordle went viral. In it, the 22-year-old Ohioan admitted that he drank too much, again, and got behind the wheel, again. This time, however, he drove his truck into oncoming traffic on the interstate and plowed headfirst into the Jeep of 61-year-old Vincent Canzani, who died at the scene.
“I killed a man,” he says in the video, which was produced by the Ohio nonprofit group called “because I said I would.”
Much has been written about Cordle’s willingness to go public and make the irreversible decision to take responsibility for his crime. I agree that this is important, but I also see in his video the potential to help children who live with a Matthew Cordle in their own family.
To outsiders, Cordle looks handsome and seemingly harmless. To children of alcoholics, he looks all too familiar.
“Sometimes I drink because I have depression that I struggle with every day,” Cordle says, “and I just drink to get out of my head for a few hours.” He proceeds to describe how he blacked out before getting in that truck — how he didn’t think of anyone else when he turned the key and hit the gas.
I wish children across the country could watch this video, but only in rooms where the grown-ups are wise and the setting is safe. Ever since I first saw the video — and I’ve watched it several times — I can’t stop thinking about the childhoods that could be saved.
“I will plead guilty and take full responsibility for everything I’ve done to Vincent and his family,” Cordle says. “I won’t dishonor Vincent’s memory by lying about what happened.”
He continues: “I beg you, and I say the word beg specifically, I’m begging you, please don’t drink and drive. Don’t make the same excuses that I did. Don’t say it’s only a few miles or you’ve only had a few beers. … I can’t bring Mr. Canzani back, and I can’t erase what I’ve done, but you can still be saved. Your victims can still be saved.”
On September 18, Cordle pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated vehicular homicide and driving while intoxicated. He will be sentenced next month and could serve up to eight years in prison.
Meanwhile, right now — right this very minute — too many children still have no idea that their family’s version of normal isn’t.
Maybe you are one of them.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.