Washington, September 29, 2012 ― As far back as I can remember, my mother was an alcoholic. When she died several years ago I found myself cycling between anger and grief. I kept trying to find the reason I had spent most of my childhood and adult life trying to find redemption for my mother when she herself did not want it. I wanted to trade all the pain I had suffered while caught in the wake of her chaotic life for any far-fetched excuse I could get her to offer.
Pregnant at seventeen, my mother had watched her dreams as they swirled and then entered the drain as she continued a chain of life decisions that left her bitter and angry.
My mother was a beautiful and intelligent woman who had set her sights on becoming a nurse. She was well on her way to that goal when she met my twenty-two year old father. The romance was fast and fleeting, and soon my mother was pregnant with me. Bowing to pressure from their parents, my mother and father married.
My father had no life skills that could adequately support a family so he joined the army and was immediately sent overseas.
Just to be clear, my mother and father had personalities so diametrically opposed they could not have sat next to each other on a cross-country bus trip. Under the spell of romance, however, the most unlikely of couples found bliss only to see their affection for each other transform into something darker, an animosity of equal or greater force.
My father’s enlistment in the army kept him overseas for several years, which turned out to be the best thing for their relationship, as they could not have lasted without that physical distance between them. Once he returned home, the divorce was all but ensured. Loud and violent fights that lasted late into the night were nothing more than the “death rattle” of their doomed relationship.
My mother began drinking as a way to deal with the despair over the loss of her “fairy tale” romance.
Soon my mother and I were living with my mother’s parents where she was seldom, if ever, sober. My mother would disappear for days at a time with no explanation, and in the mind of a child there is nothing more devastating than abandonment by a parent. I was living with my grandparents whose belief was that severe beatings were the best form of punishment for children. They would even go so far as to have me go and get the belt or strap they would use to beat me.
My mother stood oblivious as this all happened, concerned with her own need to “check out” from reality.
When my mother drank, she became a different person whose actions were accountable to no one. This was combined with the amnesia most hard-core alcoholics experience when they sober up. Immediately after the cap was unscrewed from the bottle, nothing else in the world mattered but its contents. This was never clearer than in the situation where you stand in the way of an alcoholic and the drink they so desperately desire.
As a bruised and battered five-year old my mother once told me she wished she had never had me. This was the culmination of a beating and a struggle to get me to relinquish the bottle I had carried with me as I climbed into the high branches of a tree.
There are much darker things, however, that thrive in the haze that surrounds an alcoholic. My mother eventually met someone like herself, and in her drunken bliss they decided to get married. One day I was living with my grandparents and the next I was far away from everything I knew living in a new city.
The man my mother married seemed different at first and showed acts of kindness that I had never experienced before. Then, after a few months the life I had known would change forever as my stepfather began molesting me.
According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Slightly more than half of Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol in the 2010 survey (51.8 percent). This translates to an estimated 131.3 million people, which was similar to the 2009 estimate of 130.6 million people (51.9 percent).” The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health also reported, “In 2010, heavy drinking was reported by 6.7 percent of the population aged 12 or older, or 16.9 million people. This percentage was similar to the rate of heavy drinking in 2009 (6.8 percent).”
That means that more than half of the population of this country are using a drug – and alcohol is considered a drug – that they have little or no education about and that has the potential for disastrous results. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control the results of escalating alcohol use include: “Violence, including intimate partner violence and child maltreatment. About 35% of victims report that offenders are under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol use is also associated with 2 out of 3 incidents of intimate partner violence. Studies have also shown that alcohol is a leading factor in child maltreatment and neglect cases, and is the most frequent substance abused among these parents.”
Why do people become prisoners of their own addiction to alcohol? According to the American Psychological Association, “Problem drinking has multiple causes, with genetic, physiological, psychological, and social factors all playing a role. Not every individual is equally affected by each cause. For some alcohol abusers, psychological traits such as impulsiveness, low self-esteem, and a need for approval prompt inappropriate drinking. Some individuals drink to cope with or “medicate” emotional problems. Social and environmental factors such as peer pressure and the easy availability of alcohol can play key roles. Poverty and physical or sexual abuse also increase the odds of developing alcohol dependence.”
Alcoholism is a disease that extends its reach beyond the infected, beyond loved ones into the very depths of society. Alcoholics wear a mask that is poured out of a bottle and once it is donned a path of destruction can follow that sweeps across all those in its wake. Alcoholics need a reason that is compelling enough for them to quit drinking. For some that reason is as elusive as their sobriety and the ride into oblivion is sometimes a one-way trip.
The key to ending alcoholism is education and exposing children to a stable environment that encourages the responsible and age appropriate use of alcohol. If you suspect someone is an alcoholic you must educate yourself on the way you can best help him or her. I will tell you from personal experience that confronting a person about alcohol use is not something you should do unprepared. There are many organizations that can guide you in helping someone who may be an alcoholic. The Betty Ford Center is a wonderful resource for family and friends who want to help and provide a wonderful program for recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous is another organization that provides support for not only those who have the disease but their loved ones as well.
Mental Health America is another great resource that can help connect family, friends, and alcoholics with much needed help.
My mother’s life became nothing more than a “fairy tale on the rocks,” and although alcohol may not have caused all of her problems, it made her path to a stable life all the more slippery as her dreams were poured into a shot glass. I bear the scars of the child of an alcoholic, both physically and emotionally and as I struggled with my own episodes of alcoholism saw a glimpse of my mother’s world and changed my future. I stopped drinking, found help and I have never looked back.
I am thankful every day for the courage that I found to change my own life. I spent many years trying to forgive my mother, dealing with the pain of her actions and the loss of my childhood to sexual abuse. In the end I let my anger go as I looked into the eyes of my own children and I realized that we all struggle with forces in our lives we cannot control. The key is to ask for help when you need it and to do it not only for yourself but also for those who love you for all that you are and all that you were meant to be.