Operation BabyStroke: The First True Test of My Sobriety-Instilled Sanity

By Christopher Dale 07/14/16

After suffering a dangerous health crisis within a week of becoming a first-time father, I would soon discover that I was sober enough to maintain my sobriety.

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Operation BabyStroke: The First True Test of My Sobriety-Instilled Sanity
Chris, Vector, and Nicholas via author

On March 18, my wife gave birth to Nicholas Li Dale, our first child. 

A week prior to that blessed event, I had a stroke at the age of 36. 

It's been a busy few months. 

God willing, this fall I will celebrate five years of sobriety through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA saved my life by teaching me how to live - not just free of alcohol but free(er) from the glaring, ruinous character defects that were preventing me from being a useful member of a family, company, or society at large.  

Previously in this space, I've written about entering the muddy middling point between AA newcomer and old-timer. "Like so many ragged rookies before me," I wrote in that December 2014 piece, "the best I could do [in very early sobriety] was suit up, show up, and shut up. It was an exhausting, grueling daily grind."

But, I posited in that piece, being a newcomer also had a plus side: the enviable pink cloud with which so many recovering alcoholics are familiar. The fact that I had, it seemed, found something that could finally succeed in breaking the vicious cycle of binge-remorse-repeat provided the extra lift required to soldier through that volatile initial phase of sobriety.  It was, simultaneously, awful and awe-inspiring.  

It was also infinitely intriguing, and the result was a careful intensity that I had never before been able to muster. Ticking off sober days through a newfound discipline that didn't seem to be originating with me; allowing myself to admit defeat without succumbing to the shame that, for years, had spawned days-long sprees of substance abuse; watching myself make life-affirming decisions rather than life-destroying ones.  

It was miraculous, and I missed it. I secretly hoped to recapture that bottled lightning at some point - without, of course, instigating its necessity via relapse. 

And then, in consecutive weeks, I had an arterial brain blockage and an adorable baby boy. 

Overwhelmed, Overnight. 

Luckily, it wasn't a severe stroke. An aching neck, hellish weeklong headache and temporary blind spots all eventually alleviated, leaving me with no discernibly permanent injury. Still, when someone is sitting across a table from you and their head suddenly disappears, that's not the most reassuring of signs. 

The larger point is this: near-instantaneously, I went from having one job - my enjoyable career in public relations - to three. I now had my day job, new parenthood and, of course, an urgent mission to find out what had caused a healthy 36-year-old to suffer from something far more typically associated with septuagenarians.  

A small stroke can be, as my neurologist put it, "a warning shot." So what ensued was a scramble drill involving a medical team spanning neurology, ophthalmology, cardiology and hematology conspiring to find the smoking gun that fired said shot. Thus far, amid bloodwork, MRIs, ultrasounds and both echo- and endo-cardiograms, my time-sensitive diagnosis-by-elimination process has come up clean of solid suspects.

The final step - a monitoring device implanted in my chest, searching for heart arrhythmia - is now ongoing, and will be for the next few months. Thankfully, the heavy lifting in this extensive effort seems to be behind me and, according to a stroke specialist, my risk of short-term recurrence at this point is minimal.

Resilience: Tapping My AA Reserves

Sometimes treading water and making progress are, I believe, one and the same. In the most consequential period of my life since initial sobriety, any resilience that the program of AA had instilled in me was about to be measured not by forward strides, but rather by my ability to keep my head above water amidst waves of fear, worry, guilt and duty. Could I keep the raft afloat despite its intimidating, near-total inundation? 

In the spirit of being careful what you wish for, my newfound careful intensity brought with it exactly none of the benefits of early sobriety. I hadn’t found a solution that had the potential to save my life; I’d suffered a dangerous health crisis that threatened to ruin or even end it. And with worst-possible timing, all this played out against the ordinarily euphoric backdrop of becoming a first-time father – at best dampening the experience and distracting me from fatherly obligations; at worst, evoking panic, guilt and downright horror at the suddenly-all-too-real possibility of leaving my newborn son fatherless.   

It’s a lot just to take in, let alone take. And amazingly, I – whose first reaction to major obstacles is to run, hide and anesthetize with the closest, strongest substance available – somehow managed the seemingly unmanageable. 

Emergencies, in my opinion, don’t build character so much as they reveal them. Just like a two-minute drill isn’t the time to learn the basic X’s and O’s of football, coming through in pressurized, time-sensitive situations like Operation BabyStroke rely heavily on the prep work done beforehand. And for formerly hopeless alcoholics such as myself, it becomes a litmus test of how ardently and honestly I’d been working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  

Long story short: I was just sober enough.  

Not that I didn’t bend, and bend quite a bit. For two head-spinning, gut-wrenching months, I didn’t make enough meetings (because I didn’t have enough time); didn’t spend nearly enough time with my infant son (because I didn’t have the focus or patience); and was, in general, restless, irritable and discontent… and really, really scared. Frustrated outbursts were frequent. 

But I didn’t break. And by break, I don’t just mean I didn’t drink. I mean that I got through a truly miserable experience by effectively taking the next right action until the worst of it was behind me. It means I burned both ends of the candle without burning up or burning out. It means I didn’t add significant insult to already-significant injury. 

I accomplished this by leaning on the foundation I had built in Alcoholics Anonymous.  Four-plus years of meetings, stepwork, literature, service, fellowship and sponsorship had, apparently, been worked well enough – by no means perfectly, but well enough – to avoid total meltdown in a situation that could, should and otherwise would have ceased me from functioning.  

Because 10, five, or even two years ago (two being post-active alcoholism, mind you), Operation BabyStroke would have been Mission Impossible. I would have been locked in a padded psych ward room with a one-way observation mirror. Or locked in a room with several bottles of whatever would sufficiently numb me. Or worse. 

If you’re new, or coming back, this is not a cautionary tale but rather a precautionary one. Build your AA foundation now, because you never know when you’ll need something sturdy to lean on. 

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.

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