Is There a John Daly in Your Life?

People who battle addictions are often written off as just addicts. But usually that’s only part of their lives

By Ryan French

“Five wins on the PGA Tour; could have been 25 if he wasn’t such a fuckup.” That was a response to my tweet about John Daly, and it made me think of my Aunt Helen. Let me explain.

My Aunt Helen took her first drink when she was 12 years old. Twelve. She got drunk for the first time soon after. She started smoking unfiltered Chesterfield cigarettes when she was 13. For the next 60 years, she did a lot of drinking and smoking. There were periods of being sober, followed by long periods of heavy drinking.

My grandparents kicked her out of the house when she was 21. After years of trying to help her, they had had enough. The drinking got much worse after that.

There was the time she woke up in her car in the middle of a cornfield and had no idea where she was. The farmer called the police, and she was handcuffed and put in the back of the squad car. She remembers waking up as the cops were taking her handcuffs off on the side of the road. They must have gotten another call or didn’t want to do the paperwork, but for some reason, they just left her on the side of a country road. She didn’t know what city she was in, let alone the road. She never found her car.

She went to rehab once, and her roommate was a nun. They both just wanted to drink and hatched a plan to steal a cardboard box from the kitchen, use it to slide down the hill, and run across the freeway to get to a bar. A lesbian and a nun hatching a plan to escape rehab on a cardboard box—even Saturday Night Live writers would think that is too ridiculous. 

She prepared for her daily AA meetings:  She put a glass with ice in the freezer in the morning and took it with her to the meeting, so when she got out, her Jack Daniels was cold.

My parents wouldn’t let us get in a car with her, fearful she would drive us home after some drinks. My mom would cry when Aunt Helen asked to take us somewhere, and Mom would have to say no. Addiction is a bitch.  

Aunt Helen had hundreds more stories; luckily, she never killed herself or anyone else. She somehow avoided jail. She was my family’s John Daly. Some people only knew her for her drinking. They didn’t see past it and judged her because of it. Those people had no idea of the entire story.

When she was a teenager, she got a job as a produce truck driver. One night she stopped at a bar along her route and had too many, like a lot of nights. On this night a man came on to her, she refused, and when she left the bar, he was waiting for her. He brutally raped her. She told hardly anyone about it.

“I tried to kill the motherfucker,” my aunt told my wife, Stephanie, when she was almost 80. After she was raped, she got in her truck and tried to run over the man, she explained. The anger was still very real when she told the story. We all sensed her rage. She cried and Steph just held her. The most formidable woman I knew finally had been able to tell the story that affected her entire life. The drinks helped numb the pain.

My mom and Aunt Helen were best friends, even during some tough times

And here is the most critical thing the people who only saw her for the drinks she had didn’t know.  She was an amazing sister, sister-in-law, friend and aunt. She and Mom were best friends until the day my aunt died. They talked on the phone daily. Sure, they fought at times when Helen drank, but behind the drinking was a kind, loving, caring woman. In her sister’s obituary, my mom wrote, “She would (and did) give friends and family literally the shirt off her back.” The ironic thing about their relationship was my mom was an addiction counselor and has basically never touched drugs or alcohol. An addiction counselor and an addict—sisters and best friends.

When I was little, Aunt Helen bought me a stuffed animal for Christmas every year. It was our tradition. She would find some obscure stuffed animal and tell a great story about procuring it. She never bought them from a store. The tradition continued with our children. Annette still can’t sleep until she snuggles up to her stuffed owl (Whooters) that Aunt Helen gave her the day she was born. When Stephanie and I got married, she went online, got ordained for $35 and officiated at our wedding on a beach in Key West, Fla. She bought a robe and everything.

She once spent her entire savings to fly to Australia to spend time with my sister. My sister was 16 and an exchange student there. She was feeling homesick, and Aunt Helen was just what she needed. They spent multiple days together, and it remains one of my sister’s favorite memories with her.

She worked at Western Electric and Mazda; she could build or fix almost anything. My dad would call her regularly; the tractor wouldn’t run, the chainsaw blade had come off, we needed to fix a deer blind … call Aunt Helen. And she always fixed it.

She swore more than any person I’ve ever met. When I was a kid, I would laugh so hard when she let a line of expletives go after hitting her finger with a hammer or telling a story. That never changed. As her health deteriorated, I would call to ask her how she felt, and she would cuss like crazy explaining how fed up she was with her doctors or the pain. It was still funny. I use her as a reason I swear so much. I told everyone who knew her it was my way to honor her.

Aunt Helen gave us money she couldn’t afford to give. When our son, Jack, had brain surgery and the medical bills nearly bankrupted us, she sent money to help with the bills. She didn’t have much, but every month an envelope would show up with a $100 bill or two. After she died, we confirmed what we had suspected: She was basically broke.

Always up for trying something new, I can see the swear words about to start

The other day I was going through my phone, deleting old videos, and I came across several from her last visit with us. She delayed much-needed foot surgery to see my sister and me. I showed it to the kids, and we all laughed. We all miss her like crazy. She was so much more than what some people knew.

All of this is to say, we don’t know John Daly. Addiction isn’t his entire story. The fact is I can’t agree with a lot of what John Daly has said lately. And I surely can’t and won’t defend his transgressions. It sounds as if he drank enough for 20 lifetimes, gambled sufficiently for 30 and treated women poorly. Addiction doesn’t excuse those things. All I am saying is maybe there is more to the story. Perhaps he has learned from his mistakes, and perhaps he’s an amazing father, partner and friend. His generosity with his money (even when he didn’t have any) is legendary.  Of course, there is a chance he hasn’t learned anything. We don’t know.

John Daly has such a loyal fan base because many of us can relate. We all know a John Daly; for me, it was Aunt Helen. Mark Baldwin’s dad struggled with drinking. In a podcast, Justin Lower talked about how his father died in a drunk-driving incident, killing himself and Justin’s brother. A friend sent me a text just a couple of days ago saying his father, who has battled addiction his entire life, had relapsed again.

It’s so easy to say that John Daly would have won 25 events if he were sober, or my aunt would have accomplished X or Y. Or the person you know who battled addiction could have done this or that if he or she were sober. But we don’t know. Maybe these people would have accomplished less, this was their coping mechanism. I was lucky enough to have an amazing aunt who I miss more than I can say.                                          

Aunt Helen was much more than her last drink or last cigarette. Maybe John Daly is too.

–Ryan French

14 thoughts on “Most of Us Know a John Daly”

  1. My sister was “your Aunt Helen” in that she was addicted to food.
    I believe that she was molested in her early teens by another older cousin.
    She changed. The family doesn’t talk about it, but I can’t let it go.
    She ate herself to diabetes, lost a leg, and died from a heart attack and complications.
    I was unable to be with her on her last two days.
    I was asked to lead the funeral and of course I did.
    I have tears in my eyes for your Aunt Helen and my sister Miriam.
    Life is too short to care if JD won 5 or 25. Get on with living and it sounds like Aunt Helen did.
    Your friend “The Retiree” on Twitter BillSpies1

  2. Ryan,

    This is a great article. The world needs more of this. Bless you, your family and your sister. Hope you have a Happy Holiday laughing with remembrances of your Aunt.


  3. Great story and your message is spot on, especially in todays world when people are critical of others 24/7. We need to focus on the good in people and not dwell on their bad habits.

  4. Really great story about your Aunt. We all have something going on in the background. You never know what somebody’s battling and it’s a nice reminder to have some empathy. Definitely these days. Thanks for sharing Ryan.

  5. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story Ryan. I have a few Aunt Helens in my life, and you have helped bring back some wonderful memories.
    Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  6. Thank you Ryan for such a well written article and perspective. I was ever able to meet my cousin Helen. Well said.

  7. Wow! Beautifully written and poignant message. So uplifting to see a positive, kind , and uplifting editorial in today’s climate.

  8. I’ve been sober 12 years. However, I never talk about it. The strange looks or odd comments when you decline a drink, especially after a round, just comes with the territory. But my life is amazing and I don’t miss it so if that’s as bad as it gets, I’ll take it.

  9. John Daly helped me get sober. When he quit one time I quit as well. If he could do it, so could I and it stuck. John Daly as role model!

  10. Your Aunt Helen. My Uncle Doug.
    Uncle Doug died of his alcoholism, alone, in a trailer. Gave a lot more love than he received, by a long shot. I wish I knew why he drank, what he had gone through to feel like this was his only life. I wish I’d treated him better.
    Thanks for the thoughtful article, Ryan. Hope your Christmas is Merry.

  11. Wonderful stories. Thanks for the sharing. For better or for worse, a good life well-lived will always be bettered by the presence of an Aunt Helen. I wish she’d killed the bastard who raped her.

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