Growing Up With Alcoholism

No two stories are the same. Even so, someone who grew up {or is growing up} with an alcoholic parent will {hopefully} read this and know exactly how I feel. This post was especially difficult to write because of the memories it dredged up from many years ago. Sharing very personal experiences like this, although not easy, is important to me because I want others to know they’re not alone. This, my dear readers, is why I write.

I was first aware of my father’s growing alcohol problem when I heard my mother telling someone she noticed that my father was drinking way more than his usual 6-pack, which was supposed last a week. I know he was going through 18 or 24-pack cases pretty regularly. Just before my father was laid off from his job, my family staged an intervention (before they were called that). When confronted about the amount of beer he was drinking, he said, “What am I supposed to do? Twiddle my thumbs all day?” After that, he stormed off, refusing to listen to anybody anymore. When his company laid him off, it was all he needed to dive, head-first, into a life of denial, deception and extremely dangerous substance abuse, which only served to exacerbate the dysfunction/abuse. By this time, my siblings moved out, which meant that my mother and I were prime targets for whatever my father felt like doing at any given time.

Life with an abusive, alcoholic father isn’t easy. I’ve always felt like I was missing the things that only my father could give me ~ a sense of security and the standard by which all men should be held. The approval I so desperately wanted from my father, as a girl, never manifested. Fortunately, I managed to avoid serious consequences associated with bad choices, because of my protectiveness of my mother. I knew, from an early age, that she didn’t have the easiest life and I refused to contribute to her stress by giving her more to worry about. I’m grateful for the fact that my mother and I were close; if my relationship with her had been dysfunctional, I’m sure I would be a different person today, with a very different life.

The things that happened {while my father was still alive} were so incredibly painful that I instinctively dealt with the memories the best way I knew how at the time ~ I buried them. Those memories surfaced in my 40’s when I reconnected with many former classmates through Facebook. While we were playing the “Do you remember…?” game, I began to notice that I was the only one who couldn’t recall things that most of the others did. I asked my counselor about it; he suggested that it was highly possible that I’d blocked something out that was far too traumatic to deal with as a child. He left it up to me to decide if I was ready to deal with whatever it was. I felt understandably afraid; what if I still wasn’t ready? He assured me that I wasn’t alone and that my “adult” self would handle it; I had the maturity, intelligence and skill-set to do so. He suggested that I start by writing down memories as they came to me and before long, things would come back to me.

The memory writing exercise brought back a multitude of things I’d forgotten but not necessarily blocked out. I recalled that the sound of the old beer can pull tabs filled me with such dread because every time I heard that sound, it was like my father was saying, “I don’t give a shit about my family or how much pain I cause them; I’m gonna do this anyway. Sorry, not sorry.” After a while, I didn’t bother counting anymore but I would will him to go to sleep so it would all just stop. I also remembered the smell of beer on my father’s breath when he got close enough; the smell of beer still affects me today, so I do my best to avoid it. There were times he left me stranded at school and, later, at work because he was passed out on the sofa.  I recalled times when my mother would be getting ready for some social outing with her friends; he would come in and criticize the way she looked in her outfit just to watch her expression change. He did that because he knew that his words would weigh heavily on her mind while she was out; his intention was to make sure she didn’t enjoy herself because she wasn’t sitting at home with him. He did the same thing to her just before anyone in our family visited because he didn’t like seeing her laughing, as she always did with her family around her.

My father was mean-spirited when he was sober, but when he drank, he was downright cruel when it came to his repertoire of verbal abuse. My self-esteem as a teenager was so low that I lacked the confidence to even talk to anyone at school beyond the “friend of friends” level. I felt lost without the security of a stable home environment and I got punished for doing poorly in school (due to inability to concentrate). It was a dysfunctional cycle that looked like this: father goes on drinking binge —> abusive {sometimes aggressive} behavior towards my mom and/or me —> aftermath of abusive incident in which we have to recover while being on our guard in case there’s more abuse or aggression —> attempts to study/finish homework are mostly unsuccessful because of the stress; I do the best I can —> lack of sleep, due to being worried about my mother and/or further abuse —> go to school, stressing over tests and homework —> poor grades, which I knew I’d be punished for  —> teachers constantly asking my mother for parent / teacher conferences, just so they could tell my mother that, although I was a “sweet kid”, I “wasn’t making any real effort” or “didn’t know how to study” —> punishment, without regard for my well-being or investigation into why I was doing so poorly —> Repeat for 4 years of high school.

Why didn’t I speak up? Because we didn’t talk about things like that with “outsiders” back then. Many of my friends from school were experiencing their own version of hell, but none of us knew it at the time because we were abiding by some unspoken understanding that we had to keep our business to ourselves. Saying something would have brought shame on our families and maybe loyalty was more important than the opportunity to fix what was broken.

I later learned that my father’s problems went beyond his alcoholism. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the “nerve pills” he took {every time he was stressed out} was actually Valium. He never used the clinical name so I wasn’t aware of what they were. That he had to take pills to calm him didn’t really register as anything unusual in my young mind. Maybe I thought it was normal. I didn’t find out about his addiction to Valium until more recently; when I think about the fact that he mixed his Valium with copious amounts of alcohol, I feel amazed that things weren’t much worse than they were. How did he not cause serious harm to himself or his family whilst he was constantly trying to maintain his buzz? A lot of what happened back then now makes even more sense.

Parents are supposed to be responsible, emotionally available and provide security for their children. My childhood ended far too soon. I wished for a father who prioritized his family above all else and whose actions didn’t deprive me of a happy, content mother. It’s not that my mom allowed things to get in the way of our relationship; I just wish her focus hadn’t been constantly on merely trying to survive. As a woman in an abusive situation, I know what we mothers go through to protect our child(ren) from any pain we might be feeling; keeping up the pretense is exhausting, to say the least. Undoubtedly, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of at the time. My mother was adept at keeping her emotions in check, but eventually, she got tired of hiding everything. I found it difficult to watch my mom’s cheerful expression dissolve into one of immense pain because of something my father did and/or said. My mother was not a mean woman; she tolerated a lot. I was never one of those kids that wanted my parents to stay together for my sake; my mother deserved better and I didn’t care about having a broken family. All I wanted was a refuge from our daily hell and a life that as was as close to “normal” as possible.

I wanted to feel secure in my home and not have to lock my bedroom door to keep my father out while my mom worked. I never knew how drunk my father would wind up before he was “done” for the day or if he would become physically violent if provoked. The combination of alcohol and valium certainly made that more possible. We were always walking on eggshells to prevent making him angry and we got out of the house at every opportunity. After he slept it off, he would wake up to find us upset, unable to remember what he’d done to us during his buzz. We would tell him and he never believed us, but he would apologize and expect us to forgive him the instant he said, “I’m sorry.” If we didn’t, he would get mad and give us the silent treatment.

When I was 17, my father raised his hand to me, with intent to hit me. My mother stopped him. It was unprovoked on my part; my father tried to start an argument with me while I was on the phone with my best friend. We were making plans to go to college registration together and my father aggressively told me that I’d better do what I was already making plans to do. I covered the mouthpiece with my hand and explained to him that I was in the process of planning to go to the campus with my friend to register for classes. He responded with, “You’d BETTER go or else.” I looked at him and said, “Daddy, I’m going. I’m talking to my friend about it now. We’re deciding on a time to go.” He didn’t even seem to hear what I was saying because he repeated his last response. I remember the anxiety…what else could I say to appease him? Again, I explained what I was doing and again, he said, “You’d BETTER go or else.” My mother came in, at this point, wondering what was going on. I don’t even remember what I said then, but I knew that my adrenaline was pumping because my mother got involved and my father didn’t take kindly to feeling ganged up on. The next thing I knew, his hand went up and my mother grabbed his arm before he could swing. She said, “If you lay a finger on her, it’ll be the last thing you ever do before you leave this house for good!” When she let his arm go, he put it down, walked away and said, “Bitch.” I’m pretty sure he was referring to me because I can’t imagine he would ever address my mother that way. My mother was petite; I remember feeling more scared for her than me. My father’s unpredictable behavior could have turned the situation into a potentially deadly one. In retrospect, I think my protectiveness of my mother would have kicked in, had things gone any further. If he had turned on her and hit her, I would have fought him, without consideration for my safety. I felt badly shaken for a while after that and purposely avoided being alone with him.

After I started working, my contact with him lessened considerably. I went from working to getting married and moving away to another state. The distance was necessary. After a year and a half, my then-husband and I returned to live somewhere closer but not too close. We saw my parents every month for a couple of days and seeing my father that much was enough for me. There were a few times when I called him out on his shit after he said some particularly nasty things to me {before I moved to the UK}. As an adult, I decided that I wasn’t going to let him get away with saying whatever he wanted. It didn’t make me feel any better for speaking up; that I had to say anything at all was ludicrous. His decline in health (first non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, years later, lung cancer) didn’t change his attitude; if anything, he became more embittered. I lived abroad for the last 2 years of his life and made it home to say goodbye only 5 hours before he passed away. Did we make our peace? No. With my father, that was never going to be a possibility and I have accepted that.

I write this to articulate a certain, very important, perspective ~ that of a child whose world was dysfunctionally altered by her father’s choice to consume copious amounts of alcohol. I remember what it was like to be in the midst of the chaos, with no freedom to express my feelings about it all. But then…I grew. I matured. I sought therapy. I healed. I gained an awareness of the dynamics of life with an alcoholic. I evolved from a child of an alcoholic parent into an adult of an alcoholic parent. I still feel the ripples that originated from decisions and actions I had no control over; the person who made those decisions and initiated those actions spent most of his time in an alcohol/Valium induced haze. I’m not saying it was easy for him because I know he was struggling with some pretty big demons. Still, while he was numb from his pain, we didn’t have the option of escaping from ours.

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14 thoughts on “Growing Up With Alcoholism

  1. Well put and thanks for sharing. It’s wonderful that you have been able to keep his choices from preventing you from moving in a positive direction. I know someone will read your piece and realize they are not alone and deserve better than they are getting. I grew up with an alcoholic mother. When my sister and I were told that she was an alcoholic we were told we couldn’t tell anyone. Luckily long time family friends knew the situation and it allowed at least some outlet to share what we were going through. On a side note,my mom eventually got sober and we were able to rebuild our relationship before she passed away (just shy of 25 years of sobriety)

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    1. Hi Mary,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my post and share your story, too.

      I’m so glad that you and your mom were able to build a good relationship before she passed away. The peace that comes from making amends helps in giving closure.

      I grieved for the father I know I deserved, not the father I had, so my grieving started long before he died. I tried to understand why he was the way he was (dysfunctional childhood), but the choices he made as a married man and a father perpetuated that dysfunction. I made the choice to break the cycle because my children and I deserve better.

      {Hugs}
      Carol

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, I had no idea. I could have written this. The only difference would be my mother. She was cold and abusive.

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  3. Be glad your father didn’t add sexual abuse into the mix of your hell, like my drunken father did! Moving out of state to attend college was the only thing that saved me! Being six hours away on a good drive puts things into perspective.

    The memories I had blocked out didn’t return until my sophomore year in college. Was a very rocky year. Tried telling my mother what was happening when I was little, she said it wasn’t possible. Tried telling her again while in college, she remained in denial. It wasn’t until after I married my husband the day after graduation and together we relocated twice as far away as we could go, did my mom finally admit it could have happened like I had described. She still lives with the monster, but it is her choice.

    You will heal after time, if you don’t fight the healing. There is a reason I know where every weapon of self defense is located in this house. I am not talking about guns. A four battery D-cell flashlight could easily kill if applied properly to your attacker. Got more un-recognizable weapons stashed in every room of the house.

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    1. I’m so sorry your mother was in denial about what your father did. I admire you for your courage and ability to move on from your experiences and wish you every happiness and a life-long sense of peace. You deserve it.

      {Hugs}

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  4. Well written! I too, could relate to a lot of what you said. My stepfather was a mean drunk, and he was worse things when he was sober. I’m glad you’ve done the work necessary to heal, and I’m glad you shared your story with us!

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    1. Hearing from others who can relate to what I wrote has helped me immensely. I hope you have healed from your experiences with your step-father and wish you peace, happiness and a big {hug} for taking the time to comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A big hug right back! I think I’ve healed significantly, but sometimes things pop up that need to be dealt with. I could probably write a book about this subject; unfortunately many of us could.

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      2. I agree and, I think the healing is an ongoing process that never fully stops. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either because it helps us to keep that negative cycle where it belongs ~ in the past.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing your story Carol; it was well written and received. I hope that you and your mom will totally recover from this experience.

    As I read your story, I remembered my dad and how his abusive actions deprived the family of its unity and stability. I don’t think that we have managed to heal and unify the family. Looking back it now, I think he just could not deal with his emotions in a healthy way, so he snaps.

    I noticed that you have mentioned that you had blocked out a lot of your experiences. How well did the process of Writing Down Memories worked for you?

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    1. Hi Nicholas,

      My mother passed away in March 2014, but she had about 16 years of peace after my father passed away in July 1998. She became more relaxed and at peace, which she deserved.

      I think that alcoholism affects every relationship within a family; each person deals with it in their own way. I hope that your family will eventually heal and seek comfort from each other.

      Writing helped me to remember many things I’d blocked out during my childhood. I find that once the process of writing starts, more memories come to mind. I advise caution, however, because it is a painful process. Be sure, before you begin, that you have support to help you deal with the memories that surface as a result.

      Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      Kindest Regards,
      Carol

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  6. Beautifully written. I have some similar history and recall vividly being told “we don’t wash our dirty linen in public.” Which meant never telling any adult who might have helped. Academics and college are what saved me.

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    1. Thank you very much for your comment on my post.

      I sometimes think that we’ve gone to the other extreme in terms of how much we now share with the world now, as opposed to how much we shared, as children. I think many OVER share nowadays (if that were not true, why would we need to say “TMI” all the time?). The “happy medium” would be to not hide everything happening to us, but also to not publish every thought that pops into the mind.

      I’m glad you found refuge in your education. Knowledge is power! 🙂

      Kind Regards,
      Carol

      Liked by 1 person

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