A 44-Year-Old Child of an Alcoholic
By: Wendy Ward
I am a child of an alcoholic. I say this, as a 44-year-old, not a child...
I have suffered my whole life in the dark shadow of how alcohol affects a family. There are millions of stories like mine and I would like to believe that I have escaped it, but reality holds even as an adult, it can haunt me.
Kids grow up in alcoholic households every day. When you grow up this way, you become acutely aware of the sounds and moods of those around you. For me, simple sounds like the opening of a "7Up" can bring me to very clear memories almost immediately. Each time that my dad was trying to convince my mom he didn’t have a drinking problem, 7Up by-the-case would pack the refrigerator, replacing the clink of ice entering the cocktail glass, normally filled with Scotch. A refreshing whoosh and fizz once the soda can opened. And, a crush and clank as it ultimately landed crinkled in the blue recycling bin, finished.
Eight cans of 7Up a day proved he could give up alcohol. But, confirming it as a temporary fix, the 7Up would eventually disappear and inevitably the ice cubes returned to replace the whoosh and the crushing of a can. The routine would return; 5pm each day Scotch would chill in a lowball crystal glass and the discomfort at home and inside me would rise again.
Our situation wasn’t as bad as other stories I have heard over the years. He never beat us- he berated us sometimes about new rules he wanted around the house. He would be a bit nasty from time-to-time, but mostly it was his “bad moods” that controlled the atmosphere. It sent mom to her room at night and it was the focal point of my mind when I was around it.
The contrast to these acute sounds was a deafening silence. Not silence like a quiet morning with birds chirping and the sun rising. The kind of quiet that came with nobody around us knowing that there was a problem. The elephant was always in the room, no matter where we were. We never heard mom talking about it with her friends or her family. We certainly didn’t talk about it, at least for me, I figured this was normal in all houses. Mom and Dad didn’t have friends over or dinner parties, so we didn’t know what other couples did. We didn’t talk about it amongst ourselves as kids either. And I never, ever told a friend. It was uncomfortable and I just lived with a low-level discomfort all the time.
Over time, a mindset developed inside of me. Can I control it? What if I act this way or that way? What if I get better grades? What if I bring a bad boy home? What will get his attention away from the bottle and onto me? Or when the anger was so bad that it was about to blow, how can I escape it? How can I avoid being the one who sets the “mood” off?
I didn’t know that any of this was dysfunctional until I left home. Over time the questions changed and affected my friendships, my relationships, most of my jobs and ultimately my marriage. The shame, blame, and silence owned me at various points. I didn’t know that just like physical health we all have mental health. Even after years of seeing a therapist, it never occurred to me that what I was constantly thinking wasn’t normal and that I wasn’t in control of everything in my life.
The turning point was when I finally realized I wasn’t fully functioning in life while I was owned by this self-doubt. And further, it was not my fault. When I finally talked about all my fears and questioning, the help I was able to receive changed. I let people into my life that were able to embrace me as I was. I started looking for different things in my life to be keenly aware of, like the wind and how it affects nature in a wondrous way. It's mysterious and calming.
I don’t ask the endless questions today, but it sneaks up when I am least able to manage it. And, even though I know where it comes from, it can still defeat me. So, I remind myself- it’s not my fault. I look for the wind and any branch or leaf that are blowing in it and I remember the world is bigger than what is going on in my life and it will all be okay.