Here, Christopher Shulgan discusses his addiction and his book, Superdad: a Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood, which chronicles his struggle with becoming a dad.
Q: What did drugs and alcohol help you avoid dealing with?
A: I drank and smoked crack as a kind of escape from the humdrum domesticity of life as a new parent. Life was all about Bugaboo strollers and latching methods and as a new dad, I felt emasculated. I needed something to prove to myself I was still edgy and hardcore, and if you’re a new dad looking to rebel against all the things that dad-ness stands for, then smoking crack functions pretty well as an antidote to all that. Like the song says, I was losing my edge, and crack was an easy way to convince myself I still had it.
Q: Did your wife know? Did your drinking and drug use put a strain on your marriage?
A: Well, she did and she didn’t. My wife knew I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and other substances, but she had a newborn baby to raise and that was a bit more important. She’d say things to me like, normal people don’t have trouble remembering the previous night. They don’t black out. Normal people don’t stay out until 5 or 6 AM., every weekend. People in their 30s shouldn’t get into fist fights. They shouldn’t walk around with black eyes. I have a picture of myself with a black eye, holding my son, and it sums up everything that was wrong with me at that point. And my wife was in such a different place, figuratively, from where I was. Of course, it put a strain on our marriage.
Q: Did you hit bottom? What did that look like?
A: Sure, I did. It looked bleak. My bottom was a period of time around my son’s 18-month mark, when I just felt so brutally guilty all the time. My wife kept telling me I was better than the way I was behaving, and I knew it too. When I was around my son and my wife and we’d go and do wonderful family things like picnics in the park I would resolve never again to touch crack, or drugs, or whatever. And my tendency toward avoidance convinced me that everything was, in fact, okay. But then weeks later I’d find myself out with the boys and I’d have a couple of beers and suddenly, bang, party cycle ON! It was all about the quest to find drugs. And then once I was sober, I’d convince myself I was okay, I’d be okay.
Thinking about it a little more, I guess my bottom was two parts. There was an incident when my drug use directly put my boy in danger, and then once I sobered up from that I avoided thinking about that incident for months, until one morning when I actually was stone-cold sober, and I dropped my boy down a flight of stairs. Total accident. He was fine. But what an awful thing, and god I felt guilty about it, and that got me thinking about all the other ways I was failing my son, which brought up this incident months before. That was the worst part, when I realized how badly I was failing not only my family, but myself.
Q: How did you turn things around?
A: I quit drinking. I started running again. For the next year I hunkered down into total hermit mode and didn’t do anything that didn’t involve my family. I read a lot of books and hung out with my wife and my son and gradually I learned that I was a likeable guy even without the edge. And another important thing was that I started writing the notes and diary entries that would eventually form ‘Superdad.’ At first I thought it would be just another light-hearted parenting memoir, but as I wrote draft after draft, each one got more brutal and more honest. And once I had the whole story out, I saw how messed up I was. It was like, dude — whoa, you were messed up, and if you want to stay healthy, if you want to participate in your family and set the example they require, then you need to stay away from drinking and drugs. Permanently.
Q: How did running help you?
A: Running helped as a form of solitary therapy. I’d head out and fall into a kind of meditative state where I’d consider how I arrived at the point where I was. Memories would percolate up into my thoughts and I’d examine them for how they may have contributed to the problem. Running provided me with the time and the opportunity for self-examination, leading to epiphanies that I would write down and work out once I showered. And on a completely different level, the physical level, it was just good for my self-esteem. Getting faster made me feel good about myself, and the runs sucked up a lot of the surplus energy that otherwise would make me a bit irritable.
Q: Do you think your drinking and drug use have ultimately made you a better father?
A: No. I wish I could have that first year back. I wish I would have been fully engaged in fatherhood right from the start. I wish I could have been there for my wife during the pregnancy and the following year — to have been fully present for her, instead of running away from my responsibilities. I’m trying to make up for it, but I think it would have been better if I didn’t have anything to make up for, you know?