The author provides a stirring first-person account of a child who grows up in an alcohol-laced environment.
The first time I drank alcohol, I cried. I was never so happy in my entire life. Never again would anyone make me unhappy. I would control that part of my life myself, and I would do it with alcohol. I was 15 years old, and my enchantment with chemicals had come full circle.
Up until that time, I had lived in a household where drinking was so ubiquitous that it went unnoticed. It was common for us four children to hear my father callout to our arriving guests, “What can I build you?” Orders for drinks were taken before the company ever had time to get their coats off and hung away in the hall closet.
There was something fascinating about liquor. It seemed so attractive, so alluring, so welcomed. Always when there was a gathering, the bottles would come out of the mahogany secretary to stand duty on the kitchen counter. There they would sit, handsome and splendid, displaying their embossed and filigreed labels. Each had a mysterious name such as VAT 69 or Cutty Sark. Some were more portentous, with foreign-sounding names like Chivas Regal or Creme de Menthe, names that I couldn't pronounce. And each, though attractive, seemed to advertise something else, something beyond its pedigree, known but hidden happiness, perhaps, and a passport into the world of adult pleasures. As for their smell and taste, they were awful, but the allure was unmistakable.
My home was not a happy one, though gaiety abounded. Beneath the surface was a simmering atmosphere of fear and very conditional love and acceptance. But on the surface was merriment and fun. Neighborhood kids would say, “Gee, I wish I lived in your family.” But we kids in the family knew better. Sometimes we wished our folks would just get a divorce. At least that way they would stop fighting. But divorce was out of the question. We were Catholics, this was the 1950s, and things like that just were not done. We suffered in silence, and ironically, we suffered apart from each other. We did not band together and give each other our mutual support. We didn't know how. Instead, it was each child for himself, and we suffered apart, each of us surviving in our own individual way. Rather than fighting to gain the unity we needed, we struggled to protect the one thing we had – our individuality; and each of us as individuals tried to make it through our childhood.
Although we did make it out of childhood, each of us emerged with a different set of coping skills. But these were the skills we developed in the stunted world of the dysfunctional family, and few of them were suitable for the vicissitudes of adult society.
Only now can I see that each of our skill-sets had one thing in common – to secure the love of a parent absented by chemicals. Each child rebuked by his or her father will set a different path. And each path will lead back to his father's door, a door that never opens. I have seen it in other families, as well as my own. One child will become an organized, decisive planner of all her family members' lives. Another will rule by bluster and threat, pure authority. A third will achieve enormous academic success, yet in his personal life, blend in as wallpaper, a survival skill learned early in life. And because of that lack of personal bonding, none of these survivors cares much for the other.
For me, I wanted nothing more than the love of my parents. And when conditions were right, I received all the love they had to offer. But when I was bad, when I would not conform, when I asserted my individuality, I was punished and the love previously extended was withdrawn. As a result, I fantasized more and more about who I was and what my family should be.
Near my house were cornfields, and beyond them a forest of oaks with hills and valleys, deep ravines, and hidden places ideal for a boy but even better still for a boy and his dog. In the winter, these massive oaks were mantled in white. They stood at the bottom of the ravine, a safe distance from the snowy slopes leading down to them. There they posed no threat to a sledder whose run had played out. In the spring, the snow would melt and turn that ravine into a crystal clear, icy brook that would twist and turn and frisk along, darting in and out of those hidden places, wending its way west to the Mississippi River beyond.
I would spend snowy afternoons wandering this forest, stopping to stand on tree stumps to give speeches to imaginary audiences. I thought I could be like young Abe Lincoln in his prairie days. I didn't know much about Lincoln, but that is what I thought.
After a day of tramping the woods, I would make the long climb up the hill and across the field to home. Always with my dog at my side as he ran endless circles around me, we would walk home alone together. And I would sing Christmas carols. Those songs, so simple and sweet, would lift my spirits on those dark December afternoons when the sun set early.
Crossing the field, I could see in the distance my house beyond. The Christmas tree would be shining out through the bay window of our living room. Those beautiful lights of red, green, blue, and gold softly twinkled through the falling snow and gathering gloom of late-day Saturday afternoons.
My family would usually be gone: in town, shopping. The dog and I would settle in by the tree while we listened to Christmas carols on the Motorola. I would hum and sing along to every verse while the dog slept beside me.
It is only now in later years that I realize these memories all had one thing in common. They are unpeopled. There are no loving family members filling out these images of Christmas past. I am alone in my home with warmth and music and sparkling lights but no people. No fighting, no bickering, just me and a drowsing dog along with enchanting lights, Christmas carols, and dreams of how it all should be.
By the time I was 15, I was becoming very curious
about alcohol. Everyone seemed happy when they were drunk, or at least
terribly funny. Television often carried depictions of tipsy drunks who
delighted their audiences. What was this thing about alcohol, I
I never made any connection between alcohol and my father's behavior. For my father, alcohol was a release from tensions, from worries, from feelings of inadequacy, and ultimately from feelings of guilt about the way he treated his own children. Given to fits of temper, he would beat the children for small infractions. To be whipped with a belt was common; to be pummeled with his hands was ordinary. Later, as a teen, I complained about the way he hit us. In his own defense, he said, “But I never hit you with a closed fist.” A misbehaving child was ostracized, given the silent treatment. A surly or obstreperous sibling withered with a contemptuous look. But of all the disciplines imposed on us, it was the verbal assault that left the deepest lacerations. A vicious cycle was in play, and whether my father knew it or not, he was teaching his children how to behave as adults. This was my legacy, my rightful inheritance, and it would be passed on to my own children if something were not done about it.
Unconditional love brings with it a future of emotional security and the ability to create interpersonal bonding. The lack of it leaves the child without these essential building blocks and unable to develop the life-skills necessary for everyday living. Without such a skill set in place, the cycle goes on.
The parent “removed” because of drugs, the child longing for the love, the dysfunctional skills, the fantasizing – now the experimentation with drugs begins. If for that child, the chemicals provide little more than sickness, the experimentation will soon be discontinued. That child will become a teen, an adult, a parent with inadequate skills for coping, and the dysfunctional cycle will go on, providing the basis for yet another generation. But if, on the other hand, the chemicals provide a temporary release from the pain and loss, then a new cycle of suffering begins; that of the alcoholic family.
Every person possesses certain special gifts or talents laid down at the foundation of their creation. These talents, when discovered, practiced, nurtured, magnified, and enhanced, become the basis for a deeply satisfying life. It doesn't matter what the gift. It could be laying bricks, potting plants, or working with children. The gift doesn't matter. What does matter is that each person's talent is innate and integral to that person's feelings of wholeness and satisfaction with life and all of its mysteries. It is in the pursuit of these talents that much happiness lies. It is as if each person is given a stone to polish and ultimately, in the daily polishing of that stone, a gem is found. The seeking of innate talents is natural. It is the basis for longing, dreaming, and achieving. But when real accomplishment is supplanted by chemicals, dreaming becomes fantasizing. And fantasizing brings frustration. Frustration inevitably seeks release, and release is found temporarily in the use of more chemicals. The cycle deepens, the frustration grows, and poor life choices are made. We somehow choose to try to manage the unmanageable, and that which had been serious experimentation with drugs becomes chronic addiction. Addiction is a disease. Like all diseases, it shows clear symptoms, and in this case, they are chronic, degenerative, and fatal. This situation brings pain and suffering on a scale unimaginable to most. There are only three outcomes that can be had with chronic addiction: insanity, prison, and death.
Operating a vehicle while intoxicated is insane. Passing a bad check is insane. Beating a helpless child is insane. Any of these can lead to prison, and indeed, 90% of this nation's prison inmates claim that they were either high or in pursuit of their drug when they committed their crime. The majority of chemically dependent persons, however, lead lives of protracted suffering: broken health, unrealized dreams, abuse of family members, and shortened life spans.
When I entered my early teens, I gave alcoholism very little thought. I believed it to be the condition exclusive to the skid row bum. I had no idea that I was a prime candidate for chronic addiction. I knew only that I wanted to be happy and that there must be a better way. That better way did come when I was 15, when an older kid got my buddies and me some beer.
We each got a six-pack of 16-ounce malt liquor, and we headed for the barn. There we set ourselves up in the milk house and began our first experiment with alcohol. Each of us popped the top on our beer and drank it down like soda pop. Nothing happened. We decided to try another one, and a moment later it, too, was gone. Again, nothing happened. I was beginning to wonder if by some incredible stroke of bad luck, I had gotten a hold of the only beer produced by the brewery that had no alcohol in it. I opened a third beer and began to slam it down. That was when it hit me. I suddenly began to feel a kind of peace and comfort as I had never known before. This was immediately followed by a sort of lightness and gaiety, a near euphoria the likes of which I had never imagined. My friends were experiencing it, too, and while they laughed and whooped it up with each other, I turned from them and began to cry. Stifled tears, not the sort that anyone would notice, pooled in my eyes. I looked out the window of the milk house and gazed at the field beyond. At last, I was happy, filled with such a deep glowing satisfaction that only tears would suffice. Never again would I be unhappy. Never again would the world be such a dismal, lonely place to abide. From that moment on, I felt, I would take charge of my own happiness, and I would do it as long as my supply of alcohol held out.
Naturally, such raucous frivolity was followed by sleep, and in the morning when we woke, we headed for the barn, where copious yomiting took place. I was as sick as all the rest, but regarded this as no more than the price one paid for real happiness. When I was through throwing up, I wanted to get drunk allover again.
I went on to drink for 24 more years, and I suffered
all of the inevitable declines that come with chronic addiction. I
barely graduated from high school. My college years were tortuous and
protracted. My ambitions were confused, misdirected, and thwarted by my
own hand at every turn, and the happiness I had found in chemicals
elusively waned with each passing year. I was 21 before I admitted that
drinking had become a problem for me, but still there was nothing I
could do about it. After all, drinking held out for me the only hope of
happiness I had. I married, had a child, and then another, and
throughout this time went through a series of treatments for chemical
dependency. All of it was to no avail. No human power could relieve my
suffering. In the summer of my 39th year, my nine-year-old son found me
passed out on the kitchen floor, and valiantly, with only the love a
child can muster for a suffering parent, he tried to lift me from the
floor. I looked into his eyes, and it was in that moment that I found
the strength to admit defeat. That day I surrendered myself to the
loving care of professionals and friends alike who had up until now
stood by waiting for me to fall, in the hopes that I might then accept
the help I so desperately needed. This was the beginning of the third
and final circle of life. I have enumerated the first two circles. The
first is that of living in the alcoholic home and growing up to become
an alcoholic, the titular head of a dysfunctional family. The second is
the life cycle of the non-addicted child who carries on with his
inadequate coping skills and here again a dysfunctional home. Both of
these are tragic and self-perpetuating. But there's a third circle of
life, a way of living available to the 25 million Americans who suffer
with chemical dependency, and that is recovery.
Some children of alcoholics do escape into recovery. Our numbers are few, but our successes are solid. The exact number of people achieving recovery is impossible to determine. The statistics vary widely, but it is held by some that for every 1,000 chemically dependent people, 100 will go to Alcoholics Anonymous. And for every 100 who go, only 10 will stay. For all the rest, there is only insanity, prison, and death.
But in that third circle, that of recovery, lies grace. The dynamics of the family remain the same, but the outcomes are remarkably different. Recovery provides growth and unconditional love. Along with these come emotional security and the ability, for the first time, to have interpersonal bonding. These behaviors provide solid models for children to adopt and practice within their own families and then, later, to practice in their families to come. Mutual respect and nurturing of each other's needs takes place. Spirituality is recognized as an integral part of each family member's makeup, and every effort is made to support each member in his search for a mature, meaningful spiritual development.
There can be slips along the way. Relapse is common, but more and more lately, professionals are recognizing that relapse is a part of recovery, and it, too, offers lessons that can be had in no other way. It is the recovery, though, that sustains. When a person learns to surrender to God that which is God's and to himself that which is his, spiritual growth abounds. And those gifts laid at the foundation of His creation are then given their full consideration and begin to come into their own full flower. Spiritual growth is ever nascent, ever dawning, and many say that, although they don't know where life is taking them, they do feel each day that the next step they take is exactly the right one for them.
In a word, recovery leads to more recovery. One cycle is broken, only to be replaced by a different cycle, that of meaningful and yes, even joyful living with your family members. It is as if you have come home, home at last. Home, where you always knew you should be.
It begins with children enchanted with chemicals. It ends in heartaches and broken families. But that is not the only end. There is recovery, too.
For those addicted, no human power can relieve their suffering, and indeed, no human power does relieve it. But relieved it is, through a power far greater than ourselves.
A dozen years ago, I asked the question: “Why me, God? Why have you done this thing to me?” And now 4,275 days later, after being given back my life, given back my family, given back all that has meaning for me, I am rephrasing the same question: “Why me, God? Why have you done this thing for me?”
Life has become an enchantment, an enchantment without chemicals.
This feature: Talbot, R.P. (2002) One child's story. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol. 11 No. 3. pp 137-140