One of my favorite memories with Chris Graham is of a date we had. I think it was 2016.
We went out to dinner, a wings place near our house in the city, and had the best time. We had been missing each other, busy with life and kids and catching up felt exciting. We didn’t run out of things to say and, for once, it wasn’t me doing all the talking. Chris was just as engaged and vocal. He was paying attention. It felt magical.
He made me laugh that night. He hadn’t made me laugh in a while. I think my husband is funny, but not witty-funny. He’s awkward-funny. He’s dorky-funny. He’s I-didn’t-mean-for-that-to-be-funny funny. I find him entertaining, but probably not the way he’d like.
That night felt electric. We were happy. We were fed. We were together. We were content.
We drove home with the windows open. I can’t remember if it was spring or fall, but the feeling was we hadn’t been able to drive with the windows down for a while and now we could—it felt new and exciting. It might have even been one of those surprise winter evenings where it should have been snowing but instead it was unseasonably warm and every single person felt alive and free and hopeful.
I remember the feeling, and it matched our relationship at that very moment. Everything felt right and easy. We turned the music up as Chris zipped through the streets of our city making our way back home to our babies.
Chris was drunk that night.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he had been drinking most of the day. He wasn’t paying attention and engaging because that’s what people in love do on dates, but because he was drunk and trying hard to not show it. He wasn’t being dynamic and funny because he was feeling alive and free and hopeful like me, he was scared and hiding and pretending.
I’ve forgotten a lot of things about Chris being drunk and lying and hiding, but I’ve never forgotten that date. It still, almost five years later, feels like a blow every time I think of it.
That one still hurts to think about. How much I misread the situation. How much I enjoyed Chris’ personality when it was really another time he wasn’t showing up as himself because he didn’t know how.
There’s a part of me that feels embarrassed to say I had so much fun with Chris that night, and he had to be drunk for me to enjoy him.
Last night as Chris was telling Ellie goodnight, he slurred a word.
She called me in afterward to let me know.
“I think you need to watch Daddy, he might be having a stroke,” she told me. “He slurred a word and then paused for a long time. Make sure he’s feeling okay.”
I assured her he was fine and then went to see if he was fine.
“Ellie thinks you’re having a stroke because you slurred a word,” I said. I wasn’t worried, exactly. But it’s hard to forget some things.
He smirked. “I was trying to think of a new word and I was halfway through saying ‘sleep’ before I could stop it.”
Ellie worries about her daddy. I worry about her daddy. Harper worries about her daddy. We all carry—in our own ways—the worries and anxieties of loving a recovering alcoholic. They show up differently, but they still show up. In our house, they show up as three Graham girls on high alert all the time. It is not the same exhaustion of active addiction, but it is still exhausting.
Chris Graham is silly now.
He’s silly with the girls at dinner. He’s silly with the dogs as he washes dishes. He’s silly with me as we sit next to each other at a baseball game in Louisville.
I don’t trust his silly.
Growing up in a home with abuse, addiction, and violence knocks the silly out of you really quick. I know Chris didn’t get to be silly as a kid. He didn’t get to be silly with his siblings. He didn’t get to be silly with his parents. It wasn’t safe to draw attention to himself so the last thing he’d want to do was be silly. He learned how to be quiet and not seen and ignored because that was what kept him safe as a child.
Adult Chris is safe now. And he’s starting to be silly again.
But, for me, silly means drinking. I fell in love with a quiet, hurting kid who thought the world required him to hide. It’s still challenging sometimes to recalibrate what I knew then to what I know now.
Chris Graham is sober. I know through his actions and through his words. I know through occasional glimpses of his AA work and friends. I know because of the way he’s showing up in the world now.
But I would be lying if I said my overwhelming urge to protect myself and my girls from that type of pain again doesn’t mean I still look at him suspiciously at times. That I brace myself when it looks like he’s having fun.
Trauma stole Chris Graham’s silly. My own trauma is tempted to do the same.
Growing up in a home with violence, abuse, or addiction changes you forever. It alters the way you see the world and how you experience it, how you show up in it. That’s not just some weak way of excusing people’s behaviors, it’s actual science. When we’re children and growing, our brain stem is growing and developing as well. The experiences we have as children literally get “baked” into our brain stems; these childhood experiences create pathways we’ll use for the rest of our lives.
If your childhood was filled with trauma, chaos, and unsafe people, your brain learned that was the way life was and every single experience after that is filtered through that lens.
If your childhood was filled with safety, love, and stability, your brain stem learned that was the way life was and every single experience after that is filtered through that lens.
(You can read more about how trauma impact our brains in development here.)
Learning new pathways is possible. It’s a big part of recovery, retraining your brain to react differently. It is exhausting, hard work. A person doing this is constantly fighting their own brain, constantly uncomfortable and tired from the work of unlearning things that no longer serve them.
One of the ways Chris learned to be safe as a child was to lie. He lied about everything. He lied before he even thought about it. He still does this. Often, his first response to something is to lie, even when the truth is inconsequential. It’s so ingrained in him that sometimes he’s not even aware he’s doing it.
A lot of recovery, even now, is learning where the truth is. And for Chris, it involves being silly, being engaged in conversations, and making choices he doesn’t have to lie about later.