(originally posted to tumblr Feb 5th, 2014 – revised, edited and re-written)
In addition to being an alcoholic and addict myself, I am also the “adult child of an alcoholic.” So what does that look like? During the early part of my life the only drug I had ever seen with my own two eyes was alcohol. It was mass media that gave me my first inklings of drugs other than alcohol. My parents drank wine occasionally, but I never saw beer or liquor in the house.
As a kid in the mid-1980s, crack cocaine was all over the news, and “just say no” was the catch-phrase of the moment. I can tell you for a fact that my parents had no access to crack cocaine, wouldn’t have known where to buy it, and probably wouldn’t have been able to buy it from a street dealer even if they wanted to.
Of course, crack wasn’t the only drug I’d learned about through the media. The first time I’d heard of LSD was the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, a clean-cut Green Beret and doctor who was convicted in 1979 of killing of his pregnant wife and their two daughters. He himself blamed the killings on Charles Manson-like hippies doped up on LSD. He was first indicted by a North Carolina grand jury in 1975, so the case was all over the local news, and spawned the book “Fatal Vision.”
I didn’t know what LSD looked like, didn’t know what it did, and knew of no one I could buy it from. However, based on what I’d heard from those many news reports, I thought I “knew” two things:
– LSD makes you want to kill people.
– Hippies are dangerous.
That remained my impression for many, many years. In my real-world experience, I have found neither to be remotely true. All of it seemed so far removed from me.
The only “drunk” person I’d ever seen up to that point was Otis of “The Andy Griffith Show.” He seemed silly, clumsy, and I could never understand why he would go to the courthouse and lock himself in jail – all the while the TV sitcom laugh track running in the background. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized he was doing for the sheriff what the sheriff would’ve done anyway: lock him up so he could sleep off the booze.
None of this is reality. But I was about to face reality for the first time.
I had never seen either of my parents drunk until 1986. My mom had gone to a faculty function at the private school where she taught, and my dad and I went to see the movie “Gung Ho” with Michael Keaton. It was a typical mid-1980s movie about American superiority over other world cultures, and this case the Japanese and car manufacturing. We both enjoyed it a lot, and it was during those trips to the movies that I really got to know my dad for the first time. We drove home laughing all the way.
(Side note: it was through watching movies that I was first able to find ways of coping with cravings for alcohol and drugs in early recovery.)
Once we got home, the laughter came to swift end. My mom’s car was parked to the left of the driveway, diagonally and very close to the lone tree in the middle of our front yard. Dad and I looked at one another, and were both concerned (read: terrified). When we walked into the house, I called out “Mom? Mom?” Her response was delayed…”I’m right here.” It was faint, and at first I thought I heard it coming from the living room. So we went into the living room, and she was not there.
“Where are you mom?”
“I’m right here,” her response again.
When Dad and I went upstairs, we saw my mom sitting indian-style on the bedroom floor, with a towel wrapped around her head. “Mom?” I said again. “I’m right here.” She thought that she was sitting in the bathtub taking a bath. She didn’t seem to be aware of where she was. I couldn’t understand the disconnect – did my mom not see me? Her eyes were sometimes closed, sometimes open, but she didn’t really seem to know I was there. It would be many more years before I saw another person who was black-out drunk, and several years after that before I’d find myself black-out drunk.
As with the fights my parents had during my childhood, my parents sat me down in the living room the morning after. My mom told me what had happened, that she’d had a mixed drink for the first time at the faculty party. That drink led to another, and before she knew it…you can probably extrapolate the rest. My guess it that it wasn’t the first time my mom had tasted a mixed drink. In any case, they reassured me that they loved me. This time, however, they promised me “it would never happen again.” Fights between parents were normal, drunkenness was not. As you can probably guess, her promise was broken time and time again.
All of it left me feeling sideways. I was still thinking about the version of my mom I’d seen the night before, thinking about Otis. It scared me to the core, and I remember thinking how wrong the media was in their portrayals of alcohol, drugs, and addiction. For me, this was the beginning of wisdom and betrayal.
For years I struggled with the pain of that moment. For years I imitated the examples I had been shown in both my parents: my mom, the active alcoholic trying to put her life together, slipping, getting back up, slipping; and my dad, the codependent and the rescuer, who also took some of his anger towards my mom out on me. At first, being terrified of alcohol, I was the rescuer – as well as wanting to be rescued myself. Neither of my parents really directed me towards any kind of therapy, so I had no idea that I was falling right into those typical self-destructive patterns. I honestly didn’t trust either of them anyway. They both seemed earth to me.
So once I finally gave in and indulged in my first drunk, I became the epitome of the walking wounded. I surpassed even my mom’s worst days, and over the course of 14 years probably consumed more drugs and alcohol that all the members of my family now living combined. I’m not proud of that. I wish my life could’ve gone any other way than it did. Today, I’m in long-term recovery and my life is better than it has ever been.
After I got sober the first time, my dad asked me, “what could I have done to prevent this from happening?” The simple fact is that an untreated ACOA is a ticking time bomb. Of course, there’s no guarantee that someone will go down that path. But the risk goes up exponentially, and in my case – even after years of fear being drilled into me, years of church, years of attempting to find friends in any social group that didn’t revolve around alcohol or drugs – ultimately I chose that path.
Scare tactics aren’t enough, fear isn’t enough, even love isn’t enough. If your child is the son or daughter of an alcoholic, and there has been trauma in the family, treatment is a necessity. Allow them to go to Alanon meetings, talk with them about their feelings, find a therapist they can talk to. And be active about it – not all therapists work with all kids, and not all support groups work for all people. Help them find the thing that works. Listen, be interested, be engaged – because while they are still young, they can still be reached.
Maybe we didn’t know in the 1980s the full extent of an ACOA’s dilemmas and struggles. But we know today. We have access to the sum total of human knowledge from our smartphones. Alanon meetings, therapists and help are a Google search away. We owe our children – our adult children – our best effort. To do anything less is to risk a life being caught up in the jaws of addiction.