An Examined Life with Jeff Allen 40: Not-So-Functional Alcoholism with Tori Taff

An Examined Life with Jeff Allen 40: Not-So-Functional Alcoholism with Tori Taff June 22, 2015


Lawyers always say, “Don’t ever ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.” But I’m no lawyer. So, I should have consulted one when I recently asked my wife why she doesn’t listen to my podcast.

Her answer? I’ve never had any women on.

So, in the interest of growing my audience by at least one very important person – my bride – I have a dear friend as my special guest this week. Tori Taff and I have been friends for years, which I don’t understand how she finds the time for me in the midst of all her writing, singing, songwriting, blogging, and just being an amazing person!Moon_Pie_Festival

And, according to Tori, being on the show is almost as much of an honor as when she was voted Moonpie Queen in Bell Buckle, TN.

Tori and her husband, singer and entertainer Russ Taff are self-confessed late-blooming Baby Boomers and parents of a recent college grad. Their daughter graduated from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in writing and rhetoric, with a minor in Spanish. Now, even as Tori makes fun of her daughter for pursuing degrees “guaranteed” to land her a place in the unemployment line, she just landed her first step on a career path as a Docent at the Belle Mead Plantation and Museum. Meanwhile, their youngest daughter just graduated from high school, with aspirations of designing video games. Now, this may seem like a lofty pipe dream, but it’s actually something she has been pursuing since she was nine-years-old.

Yet despite all this educating, career finding, and graduating, Tori and Russ still don’t have an empty nest – nor do they expect to have one for quite some time.

You can read all about Tori and Russ’ adventures on her blog,  (Why she left off the “e” in bloomer, she can’t say) Tori Taff

Now, when Tami and I became empty nesters, I remember a morning when I saw here weeping downstairs. So, being the sensitive husband that I am, I went online and found blogs similar to Tori’s, but written by fellow parents whose kids had recently “abandoned them”, and was able to encourage my wife through experiencing other people’s pain.

God bless bloggers!

Now, even as Tori explains, we know that our kids moving out is the right way to have things happen – we don’t want them still living at home at 45-years-old – there is still something painful that happens when they leave. It’s a strange dichotomy – they do exactly as they are supposed to – exactly as you raised them to do – yet, emotionally, you beg them not to go.

Now, one drawback to waiting fifteen years to have kids, as Tori and Russ did (or a perk to having kids right away as Tami and I did) are: GRANDKIDS!

As I’ve said so many times before, grandchildren are your reward for not stabbing your kids when they were sixteen. Let the little ingrates live, and you get a nice little package several years later!

I’ve been a parent for 31 years, and a grandparent for two. Over the last couple years, I haven’t worried once about our little grand daughter, but I still worry about my son – how is his job, how is his marriage, how is his life? Because I know that if things go south, he’s going to be back under my roof! And we don’t want that.

And apparently, it never ends. Tori asked her 96-year-old mother, just before she passed away, when the worrying ends, and she quickly replied, “Never”… and she had lived long enough to see her two oldest children retire!

Now, as for Tori and Russ, they recently experienced a major life change. They have always lived in roughly the same area around Nashville, Tennessee. But recently, they moved to the tiny, artsy town of Bell Buckle. According to Russ, they were one good move away from assisted living anyway, so why not make the transition?

Moving away from the big city, and even its suburbs, to a town of only 405 residents has made Tori embarrassingly happy! It’s not so much a small town, as much as it is a large neighborhood. Now, typically a “non-joiner”, Tori is on the Arts Council, the Historic Commission, and a former Moon Pie Queen!Russ-and-Tori-Taff

Russ and Tori have been married for 38 years. But it hasn’t always been easy. To both of their surprise, Tori married a functioning alcoholic. Like me, long ago, Russ would go out on the road for five days performing, binge during those five days and then come home and dry out. Sure, we had headaches and were tired when we came home, but our wives were none-the-wiser, and we were in complete denial.

Now, Russ was only 23 when they got married and Tori was a mere 20-years-old. He had come from a strict, Pentecostal Pastor’s home… who also happened to be an alcoholic. So, you had this odd dichotomy of Pentecostal extremism: women couldn’t shave their legs, wear pants or make up; and all these rules and messages being preached and enforced by a functioning alcoholic who had no personal tools to deal with his issues.

So, of course, the LAST thing that Russ was going to be when he grew up was going to be an alcoholic! He didn’t drink a drop until he was in his mid-twenties. Then one day, at an airport that had run out of soda, he tried his first beer. Then he immediately slammed down his second. At that point, according to Russ, he thought, “This must be how normal people feel all the time… and I need to feel like this all the time!”

And Russ isn’t alone. People at AA meetings all over make nearly the exact same comments as Russ did about the “revelation” that alcohol brought on.

Combine this perspective with the opinion that social drinking is an absolute sin, and you have inner struggles and deep, dark family secrets abounding!

And, even when it came to recovery, it took Russ and Tori several different passes at it before real healing could occur. He first went to treatment when they had been married for about ten years. And there were times when it worked. Then, gradually, he began to “slip” (Tori hates that word). He hid it so well – to that point, she had never even seen him drunk.

Then, there was that one, miserable Christmas. Russ was miserable. He made everyone else miserable. He was never abusive, but he just wasn’t well at all. And, as a world-class performer, he has the ability to transmit his feelings to those around him – whether it be a sold out audience or a family gathered for the holidays – so when he was disgusted, self-loathing, and miserable, so were the rest of us. This is what eventually convinced Tori to join ALANON, and come face-to-face with the fact that she was married not just to the son of an addict, but an alcoholic.

Through years of treatment and follow-up, Russ would recover, then relapse every ten years or so (whether they needed a relapse or not), typically resulting from a death in the family, culminating in the death of his mother. That’s when a lifetime of memories hit him like a tsunami. All he wanted to do was whatever he could to grow numb and not feel this storm of painful emotions. So, to the bottom of the bottle he went.

Now, the family counselor that they had been seeing knew his journey and had the wisdom to tell him:

“Russ, you know how to be sober. You’ve been doing it for ten years at a time, off and on. There isn’t anything that a treatment center can teach you that you don’t already know. But you’re a child of trauma. And that has never been dealt with. There is a place called Life Healing Center in Santa Fe where I think you need to be.”

At this point, both Russ and Tori were so hopeless. There marriage was hanging on by a thread. Tori was dead-set on not raising their girls in an alcoholic home. Though they had seen glimpses of their dad’s behavior, they had been shielded enough to not know the fullness of what was going on.

So, with the aim of not doing to his daughters what his dad had done to him, Russ went to Santa Fe. Over the course of three months experts at Life Healing Center helped him address his deeply held secrets and pains. And, while there may not have been any huge surprises or revelations, he did come face to face with the abuse, neglect and consequences that came out of his childhood.

What they learned more than anything is that no one can spontaneously recover from trauma. In fact, most marriages don’t last through recovery attempts. But, thankfully, by the grace of God, Russ and Tori – as well as Tami and I – have made it!

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