Living with Alcoholism

I was thirteen when I realized my mother had a drinking problem. I watched in horror as she spiraled deeper into the bottle. Her growing instability and mood swings were pretty terrifying in light of the mother I had known to that point. 

I kept constant vigil, secretly trying to smell her breath, searching through the cabinets and basement trying to find her stash, tearing through the village in a panic to find my Dad and let him know that it was happening again.

The humiliation as our secret became public; the confusion as to why this was happening and what I needed to do (it was all my fault, after all); the strong sense of guilt that my epilepsy was the reason for it; the fear for her safety when she would disappear; anger and disgust in the face of her drunkenness; and the helplessness in making it go away largely defined my adolescence.


Approximately one in four people is affected by alcoholism during their lifetime, but the stigma is so great that many remain unaware of what goes on in the homes of some of their friends and neighbors.
Alcoholism is a family disease. Not only does it tend to run through the generations of a family (grandfather, mother, uncle, brother, daughter…), it also negatively impacts those who are closest to the one with the drinking problem (parents, spouse, children).

Often there is a change in the behavior of spouses and children as a means for dealing with addiction in their home lives. The family members develop coping mechanisms in handling the pain involved with having an alcoholic parent:


  • The Hero is a high achiever, trying desperately to compensate for the family’s distress by being extremely “good”. She never breaks the rules and performs exceedingly well in school and all of her activities. She constantly seeks approval, but no matter how hard she tries, in her mind, it is never enough. Her sense of inadequacy is tremendous.
  • The Clown draws attention away from the pain and dysfunction at home by entertaining others, by being “cute” or funny. This behavior provides a good cover to the supreme sense of insecurity that this child feels.
  • The Scapegoat attracts negative attention by acting out, getting into trouble, hanging out with the “unsavory” crowd, often making extreme fashion choices (body piercings, tattoos, spiked hair, or perhaps a Gothic style). Feelings of anger and helplessness and being misunderstood abound.
  • The Lost Child tries to make himself invisible, keeping to oneself, attracting little attention or leaving to hang out with friends outside the home as much as possible. This child feels lonely and unimportant.
  • The Enabler is usually the child (or spouse) closest to the addict emotionally. S/he tries to protect the alcoholic by making excuses for her behavior, picking up the slack around the house, bailing her out of jail. This allows the drinker to continue without suffering the natural consequences of her drinking: social ostracism, financial effects…


While sibling rivalry is normal and necessary in children, becomes a huge problem when childhood competitions are carried into adulthood. On-going sibling conflict may be in response to family dysfunction, such as alcoholism, the mistreatment of others in a way that is detrimental to a child’s well being, or the catastrophic illness of a family member.

The result is a struggle of negative, childish feeling and a supreme sense of inadequacy and even betrayal which has followed us into maturity. At family gatherings, old conflicts reduce these adults to the childish response played out as youngsters. It is likely to cast a dark shadow over our relationships with our partner, children, professional relationships, and friendships. We are setting the example our children are likely to follow if the cycle is not broken. Guidance by a professional may be what is required to break these destructive patterns of communication. 

I have heard it said that one of the most valuable gifts you can bequeath to your children, is to work out or come to terms with unresolved quarrels with your family of origin.

Recently, most of my siblings and I gathered for the funeral of a beloved aunt. As usual, I was filled with fear and trepidation at the prospect of reuniting with my family of origin. I cannot stand the “games”, the secrets, the competition, the dishonesty; the pitting of one against another, and the tremendous sense of being so judged and completely misunderstood.

The opportunity presented itself to work through these lifelong rivalries that had escalated upon the event of our father’s passing, tearing us apart in ways that seemed beyond the scope of reconciliation.

After once again rehashing old wounds, we agreed to make a pact:


  • We will let go of past grudges once and for all.
  • We will say what we mean and mean what we say. 
  • We will talk to each other, not about each other. We will keep our relationship and issues with each other between ourselves; and not pull the others into disagreements that have nothing to do with them.
Our eldest sister, the “Queen Bee”, who was burdened with way too much responsibility at too young an age, and continued to think that she must step in on behalf of her grown siblings, is hereby dethroned! We will now stand as equals.

Gearing Up for Sobriety

She’s an alcoholic. This is dreadfully humiliating since she once professed to be a substance abuse counselor. She’d gone into the field with the intent of fixing her alcoholically dysfunctional family of origin, curing her mother and brother of their alcoholism, looking for the answers and tools necessary to get her own unstable psyche on track.
During her training as an alcohol counselor, she learned that it takes a child under the age of five,only five weeks to become addicted to alcohol; under the age of 15, five months; an adult, five years.
She  knew herself to be at risk, potentially alcoholic given the fact that she came from a strong line of drunks. Even then she ditched the initial three daily beer bottles in the barn at the back of her apartment until she could dispose of them properly.
But still, there was plenty of time. Given that this had only been going on intermittently for 2 ½ years; she was safe for another 2 ½ according to what she’d wanted to believe. After all, her “situational” bout of alcoholic drinking was purely “temporary”, until she got back on her feet after being abandoned by the love of her life.- Right?

Years passed, and she got married, relocated, had children.

During  a visit  to her parents’ house over the holidays, her mother discovered her stash in the closet. After agonizing for days over this turn of events, the elder woman confronted her daughter with her discovery of empties buried in her suitcase and dirty laundry- rather ironic given all the times that the shoe had been on the other foot. (What was her mother doing searching her belongings anyway??)
The younger woman fled with her two young children to visit a friend in another part of the state, and then spent her remaining time in New England in a motel so as not to face her mother. 
The older woman was convinced that her daughter had left to resume her drinking (wouldn’t she have done the same?). But she was wrong. Discovery was what the young mother had needed to stop drinking- for someone else to know so she could be held accountable. Her eldest was approaching the age she was when she became aware of her mother’s “drinking problem”.
She confessed to her friend and later, her sister. In passing she mentioned to her husband that she had the “potential” to become alcoholic.
“So stop drinking.”
And she did. For three weeks.  
She had learned that one of the “tests” in determining whether or not one is alcoholic (designed more to break through the denial of the “problem drinker” she later suspected) is to go 30 days without a drink, or 90 days having no more than one drink a day.  
She had clearly failed. She took her drinking into the closet; she no longer drank in public. Ever.
At her mother’s death bed three years later, not wishing for her to die with that boulder around her neck (it was her faulty gene passed on after all) she assured the dying woman that she had taken care of the problem. “I know,” her mother beamed. She had noticed that her daughter no longer drank at family gatherings. Little did she know… She was her mother’s daughter after all… she knew the signs, She had them all. 
Following her mother’s death, she nearly went off the deep end because she was convinced that her mother now knew everything from her cosmic perch.
 Three years later… 
She came home for a moment from a neighborhood gathering, for some brilliant and well planned excuse,  to fortify her alcohol level with the wine hidden behind the furnace, or in the root cellar, or her closet. She remembered the times that she had chalked up her husband’s discovery of hidden bottles to her mother’s previous visits. (Couldn’t do that anymore; she had to remember to bury the bottles in the garbage on pick up day.)
By now she was plotting to ensure that she had a constant supply. But she didn’t want everyone in her small town to know, so she alternated between liquor stores. She learned the liquor shop keepers’ schedules so as to make her purchases seem more spread out.
She invented reasons to go to the city: She needed some supplies from the craft store – and while she was at it she’d just slip into the liquor store next door.
When she went out with friends, she’d leave the restaurant to go to the package store next door under the guise of going to the ATM two doors down for cash.
She stopped on the way home from appointments in another town to “get wine for a friend who is unable to get a certain kind in the local store”, or because “Joan asked me to get it for her”.
She was constantly on the lookout for options, and excuses to go to new locations. She’d even gotten a purse large enough to accommodate two 1.5 liter bottles without splitting it out.
When she arrived home with her stash replenished, she was giddy with relief and anticipation.
At  the airport, during  layovers she sampled wine  from each bar within the  allotted time frame. She even tried once to smuggle a bottle onto the plane, but security made her get rid of it- “oh, no problem” as she nonchalantly deposited three liters of wine into the nearest garbage receptacle, cursing under her breath.
She dampened her husband’s suspicions by claiming that the alcohol he thought he smelled was the breath freshener she used; or that she was slurring because she was so exhausted and could scarcely keep her eyes open.
She stayed home when her children would go skiing, or hiking, or camping, or bowling with their father. 
Over the last two or three years she was spending as much as $60 a week, asking friends to pick up wine for a “romantic dinner”. She threw up a quart of wine that graced the toilet in it’s original form, and went back to the closet for a replacement slug.  
In the mornings over those last three months, as she stood at the bathroom mirror gazing into her mother’s eyes, she sensed her spirit presence day after day, as Mother seemed to nudge her left shoulder and breathe encouragement- Come on Girl, it’s time to pull yourself together. Girl, you can do this, it’s time…
But she couldn’t do it. She’d try. She would resolve to put an end to this hell. And she couldn’t make it beyond a day or two.
 Finally she realized that the only way she could do this was to let her husband (who had been in denial all those years) know that she was in trouble. But she didn’t know how to tell him.
So she hid her bottles where he would be certain to find them- in the cabinet with the cat food. He fed the cats every day; he couldn’t miss it.
After several days of dread filled walking on egg shells, she chickened out and moved the bottles.
Several days later, the dreaded confrontation happened as her husband angrily told her of his discovery. He was furious!
He insisted that she see an alcohol counselor; she told him she would if it became necessary. She was after all, a former substance abuse counselor- she knew the drill. Besides, seeking outside help would be so humiliating!
It became necessary.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross writes, “It is only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth- and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up- that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”
And so, she embarked on the long and difficult and blessed journey to recovery.

RDW 7-28-07

The Old Man and the Little Girl

As I understand it, her mother’s father died a painful death of esophageal cancer when she was two. Being a sensitive child, she felt for his pain and tried to soothe him with the white blanket which brought her so much comfort, patting him gently and singing softly as she covered his lap. Of course, she was too young to understand about death, and was bewildered by his absence when he passed on to the next world.

Her eldest sister, eight years older than she, doted on her, relieving her mother by taking her little sister in the stroller for a walk about the neighborhood. Occasionally they made the expedition to the center of town where she released the little girl to run about the common and watch the trains arrive and depart from the elevated station across the street. On one such adventure the sweet little blond spied an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife, sitting on a park bench, and mistook him for her beloved grandfather. Climbing into his lap, she threw her arms joyfully around his neck.

In the days that followed, the little girl and her sister would often see him on their jaunts downtown and they grew to become friends. Finally, one day at church, the girls’ parents met the grandfatherly soul they had heard so much about, and from that day forward he joined the family for Sunday dinner and the afternoon. When it was time for the children to go to bed, he would say goodbye and go back to his lonely existence until the following week.

As the years passed, he became the young girl’s special friend, and she the grandchild that he would never have. They saw each other several times a week as she grew old enough to venture downtown on her own, and he continued to join the family on Sundays. After dinner the old man and the little child would walk hand in hand downtown. They would go to Brigham’s ice cream parlor where he would enjoy a vanilla shake as he watched her eat her ice cream, and then lovingly clean up the sticky mess before resuming their walk. They visited the other shops in town, picking up candies and trinkets along the way.

As time passed, the man joined her family for holidays and other special events as well. To her delight she discovered that he was able to reliably predict the weather a week in advance. He was an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox, and drew her interest to follow the televised games on Sunday afternoons . When she was in fourth grade, she was assigned a research paper on the state’s capitol. Given that he had grown up in Boston, he dictated the whole thing, incorporating his life experience of the city, relieving her of the research that had been the intention of the assignment.

In the summer he sent the girl letters and postcards through General Delivery in the town closest to the family’s current vacation spot. Upon their return, he would greet her with his favorite song, Hello Dolly. Once, upon returning from a two week camping trip, the family was devastated learn of their elderly friend’s admission to the hospital. The girl accompanied her mother to the hospital for visiting hours, but broken-hearted, she remained in the lobby due to the age restrictions placed on visitors. After he became well enough to return home, he occasionally stopped by the house to pick his young friend up for one of the church suppers being held in the area, for that was often where he found his evening meal. Then one day he took the girl, her three sisters, and their caregiver, to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, and it was with great alarm that the older woman reported that their friend was a danger behind the wheel.

As she grew older the girl became aware of the fact that she had him wrapped right around her little finger. All she had to do was gaze longingly at an object that drew her fancy and the following week it became hers: the beautiful orange and white gold fish, the adorable pink Easter bunny, the Kodak Instamatic camera in the drugstore. For her eleventh birthday, he presented her with a beautiful garnet ring.

As they each became older, he well into his eighties and she approaching puberty, their relationship began to change. Their Sunday afternoon walk became a game of hide and seek, the girl running ahead, hiding in a doorway or alley, heart thumping in suspense as he approached, peering into nooks and crannies along the block. It was terrifying.

He came to require a nap in the afternoon and sulked if the budding young woman wanted to spend time with girls her own age. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she lay on her bed while he napped on her sister’s bed in the room they shared. As soon as his breathing deepened she would sneak away to her friend’s house and guiltily, fearfully stay away until it was time for supper, coming home to find him watching TV or reading the paper, clearly upset by her abandonment. As it came time for him to leave, rather than accepting a kiss on the cheek as he had always done, he wanted a kiss on the lips. “Oh, that was just a peck,” he would chide as she brushed his lips with her own, and in her confusion and disgust, she felt obligated accommodate him. As he left he would place into her hand three Cadbury Chocolate bars.

One afternoon, because her friends were going to the movies and she was required to stay at home to “entertain her guest”, filled with resentment, she reluctantly walked with him deep into the cemetery as they had done on occasion over the years. They sat on a park bench and he pulled her to him, kissing her wetly on the lips as she attempted to pull away. She was deeply humiliated when a couple walking by looked on intently, and even more so when the cruiser pulled up, the officer telling them to get into the car, he was taking them home.

The next day, the child was sent to spend several weeks with friends in another state. Upon the girl’s return home, her mother informed her that their friend would no longer be spending Sundays with them, as she had forbidden him to see her daughters. She was at once relieved, angry with her mother for having hurt his feelings, and deeply ashamed that she had somehow caused each of these people whom she loved dearly further humiliation.

As the weeks and months passed, the girl became intensely fearful of running into the man on the street during one of her trips to the center of town. When she did catch sight of him, she turned to flee in terror, dizzy, her eyesight dimming as she felt the blood rush out of her head, heart pounding in her throat.

That fall, she was admitted to the local hospital for exploratory surgery, resulting in an appendectomy. While recovering from the operation, she looked up to see the white haired man in his damp wool coat looming in the doorway, a large armful of pink gladiolas in sharp contrast to his black coat. He started to sing Hello Dolly, as he had so many times before. Despite the familiar panic sensation, she had the wherewithal to ask him to go to the coffee shop to get a strawberry frappe, and then pretended to be asleep when he came back. The next morning before dawn, the flowers having been placed in a glass vase on the counter across the room, inexplicably crashed to the floor, shattering the vase and ruining the flowers.

The following spring, he attended a concert in which she was a choral and orchestral participant. With a frightful gasp, she looked up to see him sitting in the second row. She left the stage for the bathroom, refusing to come out until the auditorium had been cleared. Slipping out the side door she peered around the corner of the building to see him waiting out front, the familiar panic seizing her as she rushed to hide in the back seat of family car.

That was the last time she saw him, for after that she rarely left her own neighborhood.

Eight years later, the girl having moved with her family to another state, was walking up the hill to the post office, when a sob caught her throat and she burst into tears for no reason. The next day she received a call from the man’s cousin informing her of his death at the precise moment she had broken down the previous day. He died a peaceful death: looking at family pictures, they began to slip out of his hand onto the floor, and he was gone. He had left one third of his estate to her, his cousin explained in bewilderment.

She attended his funeral with her older brother and sister. The officiating minister, who had not known the man, said that his favorite song had been God Bless America. But the girl knew better.   – RDW 6-19-07