Warning: this may sound disjointed but stick with me, it will connect. And there is some inappropriate language if you are dainty.
Alcoholism thrives on secrecy.
St. Ignatius had something to say about secrecy.
'Our enemy may also be compared in his manner of acting to a false lover. He seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered... In the same way when the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret. But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.'
This language seems odd to the modern person as we don’t typically talk about “the enemy” in this manner. So let us consider the enemy a metaphor for that which would stop us from being our authentic selves, whether that is ha-satan, hatred, original sin, or ourselves.
In my household growing up, the big secret, for me, was my parents drank alcohol too much. I had no label for it. In fact, during this time, it seemed common enough among my parents, their friends, and my grandparents. Everybody always drank. I knew how to mix their drinks (is this normal?). And, I am told, that I had my first drink when I was three, when, at a party, I toddled around drinking all the adult’s drinks. There are some interesting thoughts about parenting in this picture.
Alcohol was always present.
When we moved to rural North Carolina, everything changed. My parents did not have the same set of friends. The people they met did not drink in the same manner. This turned the entire family unit inward. I simply did not know enough then to see the turn inward and the dysfunction. Then, in my senior year of high school, I took a psychology class. I discovered a label: alcoholism. I was amazed at its accuracy. The big question is, what did I do with this knowledge? The answer: nothing. I was a senior and I was just waiting to get out of the house.
I was accepted to university and this combination of the first child moving away from home and the alcoholism escalated until it peaked in one horrific night where my father hit my mother right before I left for college. I remember moving into my dorm room on the eleventh floor. The elevators were out because of the burden of so many students moving in at once. So we had to walk up and down. I was secretly (or not) pleased that my parents had to pay the price for their bad behavior by expending so much effort in the repetitive up and down of 11 stories. But still, I did not tell anybody the situation. I was just pleased to be away.
It did not take long for me to be involved in alcohol. That first week at school, I was drinking. I hated class. [It is an entirely different story…the battle over which school I would go to and what I would major in. Needless to say, I lost.] I was angry—at school, at God, at my parents. I had nothing to tell me what normal is. And my poor new roommate—she just wanted to color coordinate our bedspreads. That totally freaked me out because my family never color coordinated anything in their entire lives. It seemed so idiotic. I headed into misbehavior. Then I had, “the dream.” (Cue dramatic music.)
In this dream, God carried me to the precipice of a deep and dark canyon. Think black. Deep. Void. Irrevocable. I clearly had a choice. I was teetering on the edge. Do I continue to walk this path? Or would there be something I could do to avoid it? I call this dream a God Dream. It had qualities that my normal dreams do not have. Whether it was a product of my sub-conscious manifesting itself or whether it was a God experience, it was a life altering moment. Christmas break was coming up. Instead of going home to my parents, I went home to my grandparents in New York. I spent two weeks tooling around in my hometown, thinking, and taking pictures of the wonderful old village I had lived in as a child. Then I went skiing for a week.
Back at school, I was entirely different. I cut off all ties with the people I had been with before and established a new set of friends. I went to Bible study with friends. But even here, there was dysfunction and drama. It seemed that there was not a single safe place. Eventually I decided that God was okay, but God’s people were going to have to stay away from me and I from them.
I returned home after one year of school and started working locally at a 7-11 as I tried to figure out what to do with my life. I returned again and again to the idea of majoring in psychology. This was the major my parents objected to. It turns out, that when I was a baby, my mother probably had post-partum depression. But as people of the 50’s, psychological disorder was frowned upon. Feeling the sting of that diagnosis years before, they rejected psychology and they rejected me. They still did not want a psychologist in their home (can you imagine having a microscope in this dysfunctional home?). They encouraged me to go to music school. I auditioned and was accepted with a scholarship! But I never went. It was not what I wanted to do with my life.
I continued to work at 7-11. Then I started attending community college. I tried business classes, marketing classes, etc. But I was continually drawn back to psychology.
During this time, came a fateful evening. My parents were drinking and talking. I thought I could manage to have an interesting adult conversation with them (after all, I was 19). The conversation was about nuclear power. I felt it was unsafe and my dad felt it was safe or something. Who knows what the actual topic was. I continued to disagree with him and he continued to become increasingly belligerent. I became so frightened of him that I ran to my room. Then he tried to break into my room. I grabbed my person, opened my window, and climbed out of the house. I left and spent the night at a friend’s house.
That was essentially the last time I talked with my father to any great degree. I also pretty much checked out of being at home and returned to a path of sex and alcohol, although the dream was still ever present. Here, I had to tell my secret a little. I was afraid of my father and I needed a place to stay just for one or two nights.
Here, I abandoned not only my parents, but my little brother. For the next several years, I was in and out. I went to community college, got a full time job, and eventually transferred to South Carolina with my then boyfriend. I left my brother alone in that family. I am so sorry. I didn’t even think of the consequences for him.
Eventually, I moved back home because I wanted to go back to university and the university of choice was within 15 miles of their home. It made sense. I followed the same pattern of running away. Except now, I was inside their home. I would then run away to my bedroom and shut the door. My brother did the same. It was during this time that I found the first bottled hidden in his bedroom. Alarm bells went off in my head. I knew one of the signs of alcoholism was drinking in secret. However, I chalked it up to experimentation. So yet again, I abandoned my brother. Taking the knowledge I had of alcoholism and ignoring it. If only…
I soon moved out of the house into an apartment with Robert, my husband. We lived in the same town as my parents did but we did not visit them frequently. During this entire time (and before), my mother also was diagnosed with breast cancer and home became one huge oozing, festering pain. I talked about it with Robert. He understood. His parents were also alcoholics. Finally, someone who understood.
We moved to Texas and started our life together. My brother moved to Kansas. We left my parents to their own devices. We returned home only for my wedding to Robert. One of the ground rules I had laid down with Robert was that we both believed in God. I did this early in our relationship for reasons that are “another story.” We were married in a UUA church. We also had our reception in their hall. Therefore, there was no alcohol. Of course, my parents had to have a party at their house with alcohol to celebrate. I guess it wasn’t real unless drinking happened. My mom died in October, 1992. Less than a year after we were married. How do you talk to your parents about their drinking when one of them is dying?
We went to visit my brother in Kansas once. When we got to his house, I was appalled. It was a mess. Messier than even my horrible house cleaning habits. And there were empty bottles of alcohol abounding. We cleaned up the guest room and then stayed there for a few days. We felt a little bit weird. Well, a lot weird. At this point in our lives, Robert and I did not drink (nor do we still, really, well, we drink about once a year; the danger is too high). My brother was clearly in a culture of drinking. I was too wrapped up in my burgeoning family to give it much thought. But there are the signs again, secret drinking. This should have been a glaring, neon sign. Flashing intently. With a horn. But I covered my ears and worried about myself and my family. I am so sorry that I abandoned you.
That was the last time I saw my brother for a long while. My dad remarried and sold our home. We moved to Arizona and then Washington. Robert and I were upwardly mobile. We didn’t worry about my brother. And we hardly had any contact with my father. As a sign of his alcoholism, he met his next wife and had a romance with her and sprung it on us at the last minute before he married. The gift I would have loved to give him is the honor of playing the piano at their wedding. (At the time I was quite good!). Then dad just checked out of my life, it seemed. He was totally invested in his new life. That is good. New life is nice. But he totally neglected his previous life. And the drinking continued (continues?).
My brother returned to North Carolina when he got a job in New Bern. It seems that Kansas was too conservative for him. It is hard to imagine North Carolina as a step up from anything other than South Carolina, but there you have it. He met his wife. And it seemed all became normal. They were to be married the weekend after 9/11/2001. I was going to play the piano at their wedding. And I was going to light a candle for my mother. It felt whole and peaceful. Well, we all know what happened on 9/11. They still got married. I could not fly home. They drove to their honeymoon. I was furious that I could not represent my mother.
Initially, it was great. We exchanged presents at appropriate times and celebrated each other long distance. Eventually, I fell off the socially appropriate wagon. I had/have a difficult time remembering to ship things to people in time for celebrations. I was also having a more difficult time with my father and with my brother and his wife. It seemed whatever I was doing, she had already done it and done it better. I was jealous. Bad me. But I liked her. So that sucks! Talking to my father on the phone became an exercise in avoiding his drunken, slurring voice. I eventually told him that he was not allowed to call me any more. I have not talked to him on the phone since. That is until the fateful day on 5/12/2010. He called me to tell me my brother was dead.
I knew things were bad for my brother. In 2009, we went to Washington D.C. and we wanted to do the D.C. thing and also visit them. He was in a car crash just before we got there and he was responsible and he was drunk. This is alarming. After the crash, he had court adjudications and he went to rehab. My brother and wife separated. She laid down some rules that he had to complete before he could come back into the house with his wife and son. She was/is very smart. A good lady to be jealous of. Anyway, he went to rehab, then to sober living, then to his own apartment. But like the entire pattern of my life, my brother and sister-in-law and my father essentially kept the severity a secret from me. I’m not saying that I reached out, either. I left well enough alone to my competent sister-in-law. I tend to walk of not trying to intrude. Well, that is secrecy. I should intrude sometimes.
It turns out that over the last year, my brother had something like 7 admissions to the ER for alcohol related traumas. The only person they reached out to was my father. Guess what he did. The two specific times she reached out:
- Can he come stay with you for a little while (he needs to live in a monitored setting)? Answer: I’m sorry, but we are afraid that we will have to lock up the liquor cabinets. In other words, that is too much of a trouble and risk for us.
- He is hooked up to life support. Can you come see him? Answer: I’m sorry, I’m on the golf course right now. I’ll call you back. Call back: We decided to extend our vacation stay.
Maybe, just maybe I’m a little pissed right now. I find out all this after my brother dies. And two days ago, when he died, after I talked to my sister-in-law, after my dad SENT ME AN EMAIL telling me “he passed away” my dad called. How did the conversation go?
“I guess he blamed me just like he blamed everybody for all the things in his life.”
Me: (in stunned disbelief) I can’t even remember my response. I am sure it wasn’t quite cohesive. If I could do it again, I would say, “I don’t think it is blame, dad, I think he holds you responsible for some horrible times.” (And I do too.)
Then my dad signed off with, “I love you Terri.” And I responded with bile in my throat, “I love you too, dad.” And I do. I love the image of what dad could be. But if you ask me if I love the person he is now, I would have a hard time saying yes. I love the father I knew when I was five years old. By the time I was 10, that man was totally gone.
He died and my father died, although he is still alive. Why? Because of alcohol and the ability of families to keep their secrets to themselves.
I am here to say that THIS IS WRONG. My brother should still be alive. In my darkest moment, I think it should have been my father. I can’t even picture him as an adult any more. I keep seeing this little 7 year old, tow-headed, skinny little boy with a devilish smile. I haven’t seen that brother in so very long. I hate the world that allows people to thwart their authenticity…hell the world that throws horrible challenges in front of children so that they have almost no choice but to live a life not planned for them. Freedom of choice is a funny thing. If all you know is a world of alcohol, envisioning a world without alcohol is nearly unimaginable. For him, it manifested in alcoholism, for me, it manifested in other ways that include overeating, smoking, and a real challenge managing money. Although I don’t smoke now and I am better with money (although far from perfect). Eating potato chips and ice cream and macaroni and cheese seems to be too difficult to conquer. But I digress.
He is dead because this was a familial secret. He is dead because he and I bought into the secret. He is dead because we abandoned him in his need. His wife is the only damn person who stuck it out with him. Not only did she go through it with him, she put down some ground rules towards helping him become the authentic person he could be. But it was too damn late. The enemy called secrecy and alcohol had taken its toll.
It is a mystery how he died and when he died at this point. What we do know is that facing Mother’s Day weekend (a difficult time for both of us without our mother), on Friday night he went out and bought 2 fifths of vodka. At some point between Friday and Saturday (we hope because Mother’s Day will be forever worse if it was Sunday), he died. I don’t know if he drank enough to dead the pain enough to do something to himself or if drinking 2 fifths of vodka just pushed his body past the point it could handle. I don’t know. Either way, it was suicide by vodka.
If you suspect that alcoholism is in your family or around you, go and tell. Take the secrecy out of the closet and get help. If I had confronted him and gotten him help 20 years ago, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I know it is not my fault. But I bear some responsibility. We all do.
So dear brother, go in peace. Know that you are loved and that you will be missed. Join mom. And I welcome you as one of my cloud of witnesses. Bless you.