Steve & Francine | DeForest, WI
I was born in Madison, and my mother and her family is from Madison. My father came up here to Wisconsin from Georgia, in the Air Force, and didn’t have much money. The military gave him a hardship discharge because they couldn’t pay him enough for the kids he had.
There was six of us: I was the oldest, and then I had a sister, a brother who died of SIDS at six weeks old, another brother, and then two more sisters. A lot of places we lived were rural areas without many other children around.
My mom was 16 and my dad was 18 when they got married. They were hard-working, blue collar people who both came from divorced families and were basically on their own from 13 on. Neither finished high school. My dad was a cycle mechanic, and my mom did a lot of stuff at home but also did nursing care. My dad worked at some locations quite a while, and there were times when he lost jobs, and then we had to move.
Growing up moving all the time, you were picked on. They’d call you the new kid, but that meant you were the outsider. Sports would help me get accepted somewhat, and I really loved football. I’d always wanted to be a Packer. I was a small kid, but I was scrappy so I could still get in the games. Then we’d move again and you’d have to recreate yourself. There wasn’t any real connection, other than with my four siblings and my parents.
Our family was close, but there wasn’t a lot of emotions. It was just hard work and high expectations. My dad believed in corporal punishment. We all cared about each other and were loved, but there was also a lot of fear mixed in there, too. Growing up, when someone touched me, it meant I was getting hurt.
My dad worked 12-hour days about six days a week, and the only time I really saw him was on Sundays. That’s where my passion for sports came along. On Sundays, we would go to church, watch the Packers, and then go out hunting. Most of the time if we ate any meat, it was what we shot. Back in those days, farmers would let you on their land. My dad would tell me, ‘If the Packers win, you go and ask anybody and they’ll let you hunt. If the Packers lose, don’t even go out there.’ Packers lose, everyone’s mad, ‘Nobody can hunt on my land.’ But Packers win, and you’re in. Some of my best childhood memories were on Sundays.
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Steve: I grew up doing manual labor from age 13 on. When I graduated high school, I was working on a farm for a little above minimum wage. Six days a week, 12-hour days. I did that for nine months. I thought, man, I’m never going to get money for college.
At 19, I decided to join the military. I just didn’t see another way, other than doing manual labor. I joined the Air Force to serve and honor my country. I was raised that we’re lucky to be born in America, land of the free. I joined in hopes to serve my country. I also hoped that something was going to get better.
I became a guard in a nuclear weapons storage zone, security police, but you just sit there all night looking at this fence, or just driving around on a square block. We’ve got 120 rounds for M-16s and a grenade launchers with grenades—so it was either super boring, or super exciting.
At this time, I didn’t drink at all. I had tried a few times, didn’t like it. But I’m hanging out with some older troops one day, and next thing you know, we’re drinking. Somebody else was buying, and I’ve always been kind of tight, so I thought that was pretty good. We went to a discotheque. I didn’t know how to dance—I didn’t know any of this stuff. But by the end of the night I am drinking out of a glass, spitting ice-cubes, and dancing with a chair.
The way I was raised, I had to be on the lookout for the exits and quickly try to identify friends from foes. I had the feeling that everyone was out to get me. I was thinking all the time. But after a night of drinking, all those thoughts just melted away. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my life so far—it was just relaxing. It was just a breath of fresh air.
I was raised with no alcohol in my house. I was told about the dangers of drinking too much and had an alcoholic grandfather. My mom would bring him home and try to clean him up, and he’d find cologne bottles and drink them. I found it disgusting. I had no worry that I’d ever become an alcoholic.
But I’m in the military and the next thing you know, I’m drinking. And I’m drinking a lot.
My buddies and I started pulling stunts to scare each other, even in the nuclear weapons storage zone. Yes, it’s nuclear weapons in there. But after a while, you’re in it day in and day out and they just look like little hills, right? Then an incident happened: a weapon [gun] got discharged, and people get real excited when a weapon gets discharged in a nuclear storage zone, I guarantee you that. I was in the middle of the whole mess. My life changed right then and there.
I had not had a drop that day, but when you’re drinking heavily, just because you take a day or two off, you’re just not back to normal. I’m not an idiot—I knew alcohol played a part in this.
There were a lot of ups and downs from there, but basically, within a year and a half, I’d gone from having a promising career in the military getting great reviews to getting a DWI and getting kicked out.
My commander calls me in and says, “Do you want out of the Air Force?” I say, “Only with an Honorable.” I really didn’t think it through, I just said it on the fly. Two weeks later, I’m getting discharged. I get out with honor, but I have no game plan for life. I was shell-shocked.
Steve: My folks were good, hardworking people. After being discharged from the military, I was collecting unemployment and laying on their coach for about two weeks until they finally go, “You need to get a job. This is not how we live.”
I got a job back in roofing. I roofed for about six months, and at 21, I took a test at the University of Wisconsin to see about enrolling in my hometown college. After I took the algebra test, I went and talked to a counselor. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember these words distinctly, ‘Theoretically, you should have done better guessing.’ I didn’t qualify. I went to the community college instead.
After three semesters at MATC, I was doing college algebra, college trig, college physics, and pre-college chemistry, just to prove to myself that I can take math. I’m getting good grades, and at the same time I met a woman.
I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight, but in my case it’s pretty close. I started talking to my wife, Francine, almost daily. We just clicked.
As I’m going through classes, I still don’t know what I want to do. I ask my dad, “What do you think is coming up?” Here’s my dad, late 70s, no high school education, and he says, “I think electronics, I’m starting to see it on motorcycles.” So my brother and I went to the Wisconsin School of Electronics, and it’s been a career for both of us ever since. My dad called that right.
Francine and I got engaged a little before a year. It was three times that we were at parties together and I took a drink, and the next thing you know, I’m gone. It’s only a couple of times, she thought, and everyone parties a little bit. But after the wedding, she was going to quickly find out that’s not so unusual.
There was one time about 1 am, and I’m out drinking. I came back saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to do this.” I buy a plant, I’m sorry. Three nights later I come in at 4 am. She has no idea what’s going on. She took off for a weekend to try to gather her thoughts. We’re going to live that way for another six years.
In my last year drinking, my mom got into a bad car accident. At this point in my life, I was trying to believe there isn’t a god, because if there isn’t a god, there isn’t a hell, and if there isn’t a hell, I can check out.
I walked out of the hospital totally lost, knowing my marriage is on the line, knowing my career is getting in trouble, knowing I might lose my mom. I say to a god I do not yet believe in, “If you save my mother’s life, I’ll stop drinking.”
She had an amazing recovery.
Steve: My wife came from a very loving, engaged family. When she gets married to an alcoholic, and alcohol starts affecting her life, she starts isolating, too. She starts not talking.
Francine: I prayed, but I did not tell anyone. I did not want to tarnish his reputation, and I kept thinking, I love all these endearing qualities, and he’s very sincerely remorseful and eventually, it’s going to come to a point of surrender and he’s going to change.
Steve: I’m always going to quit, I’ve quit thousands of times, and I do it sometimes for days, and sometimes for a month. After my mom’s car accident, I was sober for about three months.
I volunteered as a fireman in a local small community in Dane County, and at an annual celebration dinner, they had free drinks. Next thing you know, I’m starting to help myself. I don’t even think about it. My wife comes walking over and she was shocked. She looks at me and goes, “Why?” I go, “I don’t know why.” I had no idea anymore.
Francine: I started to think seriously about leaving. I did not want a divorce; I loved my husband. I just knew I couldn’t live in the chaos. But then it was Mother’s Day, May 11th, 1987, when he got a DWI and things started to move in a different direction.
Steve: I got a DWI, and I could not believe it. It was almost another bottom. I’ve come to believe that religious people are right: Hell is a bottomless pit. But they didn’t tell me there’s ledges. You hit some of those ledges, and you think you can’t go down any further. Blacking out, throwing up bile, all those things are new ledges, new lower pits. You think you’re going to quit, and you’re never going to do it again, and you slip off the ledge, because you’re just on it by yourself. You start free falling again, but as long as you’re alive, you haven’t hit bottom. Anyhow, so I am now forced to go into treatment.
My group counselor was an alcoholic, and I identified with that guy a little bit. He was in sports, and I was in sports. He goes, “Steve, have you ever hit your wife?” I just looked at him and said, “Yeah.” He said, “So did I.”
I started going to recovery groups and I got a mentor, a guy that I could actually listen to. He had an answer. He had some solutions. He had a way out. I mostly started doing what he told me to prove to this guy that it doesn’t work. I did things I did not believe in, and it changed my life.
Francine: He started to include me in his recovery things. He started inviting me back into his life more. So instead of living like roommates, we were back into more of a marriage. He was going to lots of meetings, which I was thrilled about because he was not going out with his buddies, drinking, instead. I remember a lot of relief and a lot of feeling included back in his life.
Steve: I come out of those recovery groups feeling kind of elated and I’m going, “What did I just do?” It was just a moment of grace. I’d been there for two hours and I pretty much smiled the whole time and my cheek muscles were sore. I said, “I think I’ll go back. I’m not going to listen to my head on this one.” Soon enough, I was a couple years sober.
Steve: You can’t think yourself into a new way of living, but you can act yourself into a new way of thinking. Take actions you don’t believe in, take actions that others have tried, and start walking the path with them. Start getting some recovery and some sanity back, and then start helping somebody else.
Francine: He was genuinely remorseful. I could see that he was so hooked into this. It was an entrapment and a misery inside of him. I knew that he was very sincerely wanting something different but didn’t know how to get it.
When I would go to recovery meetings with him, it wasn’t the drinking I related to, it was the human nature I related to. I didn’t realize until starting to participate in recovery circles that I had a core of fear of my own that was controlling a level of my freedom. Turns out I had my own things to work through, and that took me to a very hard place later in our marriage. But Steve stood by me through that very difficult time in my own life.
Steve: We are so different in our thoughts, but at the core we have a lot of the same beliefs; we just go about them a little differently. We get to share life. We talk a lot. We say our prayers in the morning; we say our prayers at night together. We go to recovery circles together, we have found community there, and we share in our families’ lives. We went through our parents dying this year and just being there for one another. I’m just so grateful for the life we have together.
Steve: There’s this old story: a guy was walking along the beach and saw these starfish. There were thousands of them. And all of a sudden he looks and sees one guy bending over and and throwing them back one by one. And the person walks over and goes, “What are you doing?” And the person goes, “Throwing some starfish back in the sea.” “What does it matter? There are 10,000 or more here. What can you do?” The person picks up the one starfish and throws it in the water and says, “To that one, it made all the difference.”
That’s why we give back what was given to us. I’ve been involved with recovery circles for almost three decades now and I still see a lot of people not get their opportunity of recovery and sometimes you can feel very small.
As long as people believe it’s a mental thing, that you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that is why so many are going to never recover. Some will even die. I absolutely believe recovery is not an alone event. We come in alone and if we stay alone we are probably not gonna stay on this earth very long. I’ve had a lot of good help and direction, a lot of support, and so now I do the same for others. We make ourselves available at anytime. Bars and drug dealers are open round the clock, especially dealers, so you need to be available to help out where you can.
I believe we got to be able to get out there and say, “We recover.” People got to know that voice and that story, too. We’ll share our darkest past, because that’s the thing sometimes that can help somebody. That might be the moment when they say, “Man, if they can do it, maybe I can, too.”
When you start to see a change in someone, the lights come on and they start having passions again, their relationships come back to life. They start heading someplace instead of trying to get away from something. Those are the moments that make you go, “Wow.” That’s when you know it’s a grace more than just us.
If we can help even just one, the ripple of effect of the one can be incredible. Sometimes you see recovery in the families first, the kids begin to notice. You start to see the family become alive again. If we can stop alcoholism in one family, the ripple effect that will have on their children is immeasurable. And that can ripple to another generation and another.
-Steve & Francine | DeForest, WI