Friday, December 3, 2010

Growing Up In Alcohol

*** Submitted by TheActOfReturningToNormal

My dad always drank too much. According to my mother, this had always been the case, but she didn't recognize the signs, because no one in her Mennonite family ever drank. I didn't know anything about this until I was ten, although I have earlier memories of being anxious and uncertain because my dad sometimes acted strangely. When I was eight neighbors would come over and get loud after the kids went to bed. At some point during these get-togethers my dad would come into my room to retrieve my violin. I would pretend to sleep as I heard them trying to play it as a fiddle. This really worried me. Partly, it was because it was my violin and they weren't playing it right (I was trained in classical violin) and somehow it tarnished my love for play. The other part was that it didn't seem right for grown ups to act this silly (read: stupid). I just couldn't understand it. I can also remember listening to my parents talk some nights after we'd gone to bed. During these conversations my dad would explain my mother to herself. My mom would talk. My dad would talk over her. These weren't loud conversations, but something about them made me uneasy. It was like my mom wasn't allowed to speak for herself.
By aged ten, I'd seen my dad stumble around drunk. I'd seen him sit in his chair, alone in the living room, balanced precariously between consciousness and unconsciousness. I'd seen my mom beg him to go to bed. And I'd started to realize his promises were empty - we never did any of the things he said we would do. As a result, I was always anxious and only found relief when I escaped into books. Because I never knew when I'd have my dad around, instead of that weird drunk guy, I felt alone. Because my mom already had so much to worry about, I never felt I could turn to her to talk about my fears. In the absence of friends, which I avoided making, I read all the time. Escaping into a world of fiction was the only thing that relieved the pressure. Later, I would discover food. By twelve I was overeating to cover my feelings of stress and loneliness. By fourteen, I knew I had to be thin as well, so I over-exercised, and learned to purge. Bulimia became a full time compulsion. When my parents finally divorced, I was already locked into the behavior and couldn't stop, even though I was desperately unhappy and knew it was wrong. I didn't realize at the time that this was my first addiction. When I did stop at eighteen, I simply removed the behavior from my repertoire of coping mechanisms. I did not deal with anything that had driven me to do it in the first place.

Alcohol was never discussed in my house. We avoided and denied. We all pretended everything was fine. From my perspective, we each lived solitary lives in our house. We were more like roommates who were never in the house at the same time than like a family. I felt responsible for my brothers because they were younger. I hated my dad. I yelled at him and called him names whenever he was drunk and wanted me to talk to him. I worried endlessly about my mother, who was so stressed out that she started fainting with regularity. My worst nightmare was that she might die and leave us alone with my dad.

I now realize that these circumstances are not unique. As a child and in early adulthood, I oscillated between thinking everyone else had a better childhood and thinking it wasn't so bad, that others had it much worse. My dad was a quiet drunk for the most part. He didn't physically or sexually abuse us. As far as I can remember, he rarely yelled at us, though I know we were all afraid of him, but my memories are hazy and incomplete.

I truly believed I would never become an alcoholic. I hated my father with intensity and blamed everything on his drinking. For most of my childhood I hoped and prayed he would stop. I thought if he could only stop drinking we could have a normal family. By the time he finally did quit drinking, we lived in a different city and I began to forget what it had been like. I didn't drink in my teens. I couldn't bear the idea of becoming like he was. There seemed to be nothing cool in doing what he had done. I married (at 18) and later divorced (at 22) a man who had grown up with an alcoholic father. With my divorce, something shifted, and I felt l'd missed out on all of the fun everyone else had been having in college. I started to drink when I went out with friends. Sometimes I was moderate and sometimes I went too far. I spent the next ten years going overboard and then cutting back. I convinced myself that what I was doing bore no relationship with what my father did. I was always able to stop after an embarrassing episode, until suddenly I couldn't.

When I first realized I was an alcoholic about six months ago, I thought it was a fairly new thing...I estimated maybe four years. Tops. My math was predicated on the fact that "everyone" drinks too much in college, that I stopped drinking for both pregnancies, that when my kids were little I moderated. In looking back more honestly, I can see that each of those college, alcohol-induced, shameful moments were part of this whole. The bottle had me from the very start. I drank to hide, to soothe, and to escape from myself from the beginning.

I look at my daughters now and I sincerely hope against hope that changes I'm making now will provide some immunity for them from alcoholism and eating disorders. It saddens me to see signs of my childhood in their reactions to things, in the way they describe themselves, and in their concern for me.

If I can do one thing in this life, it would be to break the pattern so they can grow into strong women, who can trust themselves.


  1. This resonates with me MUCHLY. Thank you for sharing your story.

    I look back now and see that I always had that same relationship with alcohol, the obsession, the inability to push the off button, most of the time. I could moderate here and there, but I had to work at it, stay conscious of it, etc.

    It's so hard to come to terms with this disease especially when you are CERTAIN you won't follow in someone's footsteps, someone that brought you so much pain. I totally get that. It never entered my mind that I would repeat what my Dad had done and I too pray that my boys will not live with this. I have to keep reminding myself that my Dad is okay now and I'm okay now, even though we lived this out. It's hard to forgive (myself included) but I'm trying. Because I think that's part of the freedom for my kids.

    Peace to you,

  2. As I've tried to compartmentalize (or maybe justify) my years of drinking to myself your article made me realize that alcohol has always been THE problem in my life vs. how I chose to drink at the different stages of my life. I've also begun to realize how progressively sneaky drinking has become in my life. I just want to stop...

  3. an excellent post. you can break the pattern. and you can teach your girls the dangers of alcohol. avoiding it, not talking about it, i believe that to be more dangerous than being honest. you are on your way. :)

  4. Breaking the cycle seems so easy, even though it is hard. Admitting your reasons to yourself and to others is a huge step. I'm so glad that you did. For yourself and your children. I hope that you have peace in your life.

  5. I too, thought I could never become an alcoholic because I was so aware of it and its signs. But it did catch me. And I pray my little boys will never have to experience it. I pray I am providing an environment for my boys to feel confident, safe and secure. It has had a detrimental impact on too many people in my family. I pray the cycle can be broken and the break has occurred.
    Peace to you.

  6. I also grew up with alcoholic parents. My kids were a big motivation for me to finally quit, and I hope that my being sober will help them realize there is another way. Genetically, I'm sure they've got the "bad" genes since alcoholism is all over my husband's family, too. Anyway, you should be proud of yourself for breaking the cycle!