The Family Disease of Alcoholism

While we may grieve about the past, we live in the present.

The past few weeks have brought with it clarity and some small levels of heartbreak. One of my brothers has inherited the disease of addiction from my father.  Most of his life I have watched him fight to love himself, to find value in who he is and to not be consumed by the pain of loss within himself.  He and my father were the closest and his grief journey is different than mine. His disease has flared up again, and when this happens my whole family shifts. We fight to support him, we fight the disease, we love the person and we work to grow ourselves. From the disease of alcoholism, I am learning that the past never really stays the past.  It lives in the very cells of your body and when triggered by just the right event, your mind, body, and spirit can all get highjacked by this past, even though it is not happening in the present.

When my brother shared that he was worried about how things were going to turn out with his drinking if it doesn’t change and that he would like help, my mother stepped up and moved him into her little one-bedroom apartment and they are working as a team to make that happen. What I learned the first time we ever went to get him “help” was that it’s not like calling 911 and the ambulance shows up and everything is just taken care of from there.  It is days and days of paperwork and waiting, not something a person in the throughs of an addictive battle has the patience or the capacity to handle easily. While we waited for the process the first time, I thought I was actually going to watch my brother die before my eyes. It was one of the most helpless feelings in the world and all I could do was stand in it and try to stand with him.

As my mom and brother work to fight this disease we also all fight the past. For me, the pieces of the past that I like to unpack are thoughts about how hard his situation makes my life, how mean he can get and will his sharp tongue come at me again, how am I going to talk to him about estate things, and what are we going to do about the coming family gatherings to deal with my dad’s remaining belongings. Because I too have my own disease from growing up in a Vet PTSD home with a person who self-medicated from alcohol my thoughts get highjacked and I can start to stop living and my thoughts can get stuck in a loop.  I started to feel that happening, that the fearful thinking was taking over my life, so I reached into my toolbox of skills and pulled out Al-Anon.  One of the best tools I was ever given. Part of why I picked that tool was because I was thinking and judging why he wasn’t going to a meeting a day and why he wasn’t talking to his sponsor.  Realizing that none of that was within my control I turned those questions on myself, something I could control and I made a commitment to be at a meeting (online, in person, or via phone) every day until the family meeting.  It didn’t take but a couple of meetings for me to start to get my thoughts back on track and to push the fears out of my breathing space. I have the disease of enabling and judgment and it can be painful when applied to the people I love. I didn’t ask for it, it took years of training and grooming between my father and I for me to become such a professional at it. This recent reintroduction to the twelve steps and my own thinking has come with more pain than usual.  I am seeing that I am part of the disease of alcoholism in this family. Like grief, the awareness comes in big chunks, like a giant chest that pops open and unpacks.

The first awareness I had was that I often blamed my brother for everything that would go wrong in situations and that he waits for me to do this. That is horrible.  He is not the only reason things don’t go the way I want them to.  I am most of the time and I had been too big a coward to see it or admit it. I also realized that in my judgment of him and how HE should be living his life, I was continuing the verbal and mental abuse I had received and been trained to give. I was now the mean person.  The worst of it was that society and my friends would tell me I was right in my thinking and that I was good for doing it.  That is a total crock of crap. Anyone that really knows shame, blame, and guilt would have identified it right away. I sent my brother a text, email and a voice recording apologizing for my behavior, asking his forgiveness and shared how I was working to shift this defect of character.

A couple of days later, while I was listening to a meeting and doing my daily readings another chest of goodies from the past unpacked, I say this with total sarcasm. This time it was about the way I had and do at times treat my mother. I didn’t realize it, but I had been trained and groomed to victimize my mom. I am finding these things to be very complex and very complicated to take in.  My own dark side and the people it has harmed. Standing in this moment I am trying to understand why I couldn’t see it sooner. I think part of why I didn’t realize it was because that was how all of the fighting between my dad and I started when I was 10 or 11. I would hear what he said to my mom and I would defend her, I would tell him that he couldn’t talk to her that way, that he was mean. As the years went by we escalated our fights in sound, words, and amount.  We stopped having kind words to say to each other and we saw each other as the enemy and less a friend. He never did cut back on the amount of derogatory and negative things he said about my mother. I just honed and learned my skills of enabling, fighting, talking back, disrespecting, and putting people down, mostly him. What I know for sure about dysfunctional, PTSD, alcoholic families is that there has to be a scapegoat.  Someone you can blame for everything that goes wrong. That someone was my mom for all of my life and for about five years it was me until I was launched off to college and cut off from talking to my mom more than ten minutes every two weeks. At this point as I type this I can feel most of this as just what is so. Not reading into it as all good or all bad. I can see it as the start of my advocacy work and why I am such a fighter for the underdog and why I might stand up for someone if they are being bullied. The most important thing I have been reflecting on is how day after day of listening to him tell me my mom was dumb, stupid, can’t do anything right, always screwing up, and lazy I soaked that in, even though I fought back. His name-calling of her got far worse when the PTSD forced her to leave and divorce him.  I had been asking her to leave him since I was about 10 or 11 and by fourteen, I had realized that it was never going to happen. I was never going to have a quiet, safe home. As my mother has been single now for over twenty years I can see many times in her journey where I have judged her choices harshly, internally called her stupid, and externally said, “What were you thinking?” That is how you hide the put-down, wrap it in a question and let it drip with condemnation. My father was a professional at that and it now appears I was a good student. I now see my mom as human, beautiful, happy, smart, glowing with wisdom, a fighter, a techno lugite, a dreamer, neurodiverse, and kind. She is not perfect, like all people and she is not the misfit my father projected his own self-reflections and feelings onto. She is a person, complex in all ways, just trying to make her way in the world.

Just like with my brother, I will make amends to her also in whatever way she needs me to that will help in her healing journey.  I will ask for her forgiveness and I will seek out and replace those thoughts and feelings that pop up where I judge her based on someone else’s unkind words and pain.

I am glad I paused to add Al-anon back into my grieving journey. I have not found a simple or easy tool to do this introspective work. Here are a few things I have learned on and off from Al-Anon over the years. You can stop talking at any time, meaning if you realize in mid-word that the words you are saying are unkind and just being tossed out there as word bombs to defend and fight, you can stop and walk away. There is literally no limit on when to apologize for harming someone, whether you meant to hurt them or not, and that owning your mistakes is far easier than burying them.  I have learned that other people have free will too and they might not forgive me, and I can live with that. I have learned that even things done out of what I thought was love, but are received as anything but living, are valued by how they are received, not how they were sent.

I can see and know that everything my father did for us was out of love. He just didn’t realize that it was not being received that way.  The fear of being alive and living through what he lived through in Vietnam made it impossible for him to adjust out of the fear.  He was always stuck in a mode of survival for his life, just as he had been in the jungles.  His brain never allowed him to come home and be safe in the country he defended and maintained freedom for. It is complex and yet so simple.