A Step Towards Healing: Part I

So, now that I’ve explained why I’ve started this blog and also provided a snapshot of what my life was like growing up in an alcoholic home, I want to talk about my recovery.

I had no idea that there was an entire world of children (teens, young adults & adults alike) who not only had similar experiences, but had developed similar coping mechanisms and anxieties as I had. Coping mechanisms are things we do as children in an alcoholic environment to protect ourselves and also attempt to rationalize an otherwise irrational display of parental love. A lot of us get mixed signals, “I love you, go away,” is one of the most common. Over time, we develop sometimes unexplainable anxiety attacks & episodes. These episodes are a direct reflection of feeling powerless and unsafe in an unstable & inconsistent (to say the least) household. These things, combined with the inevitable negative self-talk (the things we say to ourselves about ourselves in our thoughts) create a very distinct set of personality traits considered to be “trademark” of Adult Children of Alcoholics.

Before getting promoted to her current position, my wife was a Mental Health Specialist in her department’s office. She was also at the time working on her Masters Degree in Forensic Psychology. One of her class assignments was that she needed to attend a group therapy meeting of some sort and reflect on the experience.

By this time, I was on the cusp of feeling like I had had enough of being emotionally manipulated by my mother. I had about 2 more tearful interventions with her about her alcohol abuse (This was about a year and a half before the story told in my entry “In The Beginning” occurred.) how it affected me, to no avail. So I had somewhat given up on intervening with her. I began to question if there were anything in the world I could do to achieve some sense of serenity and control over my emotions and reactions to her psychological abuse.

My grandmother had been in a nursing home for about 2 years. I credit my grandmother as being my saving grace in that household growing up. My grandmother acted as my 2nd parent (my parents divorced around age 3 after a very abusive relationship) in the house and kept me accountable for my actions while providing me the love-charged discipline every child wants & needs and has truly shown that she loves me unconditionally.

My mother has always envied and resented the relationship I have with my grandmother for at least 2 reasons: 1. She holds the delusion that she’s been a responsible parent to me and that I am ungrateful, entitled & take advantage of her “love,” and 2. She has some deeply unresolved issues with my grandparents regarding their alcohol abuse & abusive relationship. When my grandfather passed away (I was in Kindergarten), my grandmother became reborn in a sense. She stopped drinking and started loving. I believe in many ways that her loving relationship with me has kinda served as her way of redeeming herself from being an alcoholic & emotionally unavailable mother to my mother and my aunt. But the point of mentioning all this is that my mother was using my grandmother’s ill-health as a tool to manipulate my emotions and mental well-being.

My wife chose for her assignment to attend a meeting for a group called Adult Children of Alcoholics. Up until that point, I had no idea such a thing existed. She chose this group because we both come from alcoholic households. Her parents are what you’d call Dry Alcoholics. They have been sober for longer than my wife has been alive (they actually met in AA [Alcoholics Annonymous]). Though they put down the bottle, parts of them have not resolved the addictive personality that was always lurked behind the abuse. So this was something that she was looking forward to being meaningful for her and I.

When we got to the meeting, we sat around a room in a circle. The room was filled with people (though we were clearly the youngest there by at least 10 years) of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. It was already unbelievable to think that any of us would have something in common. I could have sat on a train car with all of these people and never even imagined I could relate to them.

The meeting began with the host stating that we’d go around the room and just say what’s on our hearts & minds. If I remember correctly, because it was my & my wife’s first meeting, the protocol is that you have to speak, even if it is brief. The woman to my left began the meeting with her share, making me next in the circle to share after her.

This woman shared a story about something that recently happened with her mother, the primary alcoholic in her life. She described a situation where her mother was being curt and extremely self-absorbed. The woman in the meeting went on to explain how these behaviors were linked to a long line of events where her mom would emotionally manipulate her to prime her for psychological abuse. It was crazy. Listening to this woman who was at least 20 years older than me and looked nothing like me was sharing her life experience with her mother and I felt as though she might as well have been telling me about my own life & relationship with my mother.

When she finished her share and the floor shifted to my own share, I became overcome with emotion. I hysterically cried my way through describing my own pain and how I was at wits end with being manipulated. I addressed the way that I felt like the previous sharer had just told so much of my story by telling hers and how I just couldn’t believe it. My wife gave a tear-filled share next (seeing me cry and openly share my pain with a room of strangers really moved her to tears and opened her up to sharing deeply about herself). One-by-one, everyone went around the room sharing their pain & their thoughts. Some stories & thoughts were more relate-able than others, but in general I felt an incredible amount of kinship with these people. So many of our anxieties, worries & thoughts were alike. The energy in the room was so strong.

Following the meeting, I felt a new sense of hope for healing. I started downloading books on my Kindle related to Adult Children of Alcoholics. Finally, I had a name to put to this. Finally, I didn’t feel so alone and isolated in my experience.

The first book I picked up was “Transformation for Life: Healing and Growth for Adult Children of Alcoholics” by Roland Petit. This book was the first of many that I’ll be sharing with my blog readers that has helped me recover. This book scratched the surface just enough for me to feel like there was hope and that I could take charge of my life, begin to heal myself and walk into the strongest chapter of my life.

If you are struggling to recover and cope with being a child of an alcoholic (or more than one), please seriously consider attending an ACA (sometimes referred to as ACOA) group meeting near you, or at least pick up this book and/or any of the others that I’ll be sharing in entries to come.

Advertisements

In The Beginning…

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,
“and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– ‘Alice in Wonderland’

I got married about 5 months ago. In the months leading up to the wedding, I asked my mother for pictures of me as a kid because my wife & I had a creative photo idea for the centerpieces. I thought of a particular stash of photos that we had used for my Sweet Sixteen. Her response was that she had no idea where they were…in the basement, maybe. Who knew? I’d check in every so-often, “Have you thought about where those pictures are, yet? I know they’re not in my old room, because I’ve looked all through there…” Still, seemingly no idea.

I came up with the idea that when we came up to Boston (my hometown) for the Winter holidays, I’d look through various parts of the house to find them. They couldn’t have just materialized. After all, we’re talking about every photograph of me from birth to about age fourteen. So, we get to Boston and I search again through my childhood bedroom (which has sort have become this empty shell of a room with no bed, two night stands, a computer desk, a bookcase, and a treadmill which is more like a clothing rack than it is a piece of exercise equipment–there’s clearly a metaphor here, but we’ll touch on that another day perhaps) to no avail.

Then, I remember that in my grandmother’s room, she’s always had this antique nightstand with a drawer full of photographs–maybe they got mixed up in there! So, I start going through this drawer but all I find are photos of my grandmother, grandfather, countless friends & acquaintances, and some photos of family members over the years. The contents of this drawer range from genuine black & white photos from the 1930s on up to the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Considering I was born in 1987, I manage to find about 10 or 15 photos of myself from around birth to age 5. But that’s it. And furthermore, these are not the photos I set out looking for–they are pictures that my grandmother took, and most of them are holiday or special occasion photos of the family featuring me.

My mind immediately takes me to those cliche movie/TV show moments where the child is getting married and the parents break out the stacks of photo albums which have effectively cataloged every major (and not-so-major) life event of their child from first tooth grown to first time buying sanitary napkins. Where are my sanitary napkin pictures? Why has no one meticulously cataloged my life? My heart sinks to the floor and I immediately feel as though I don’t matter. And I can’t help but notice that the feeling is all-too-familiar.

***

From the age of 18 when I left home in Boston for college in Washington, DC, my relationship with my mother became increasingly estranged. I should stop here to note that our relationship had been emotionally estranged for many years before that, but we always had the discomfort of living in the same house to convince ourselves that there was something substantial there.

I spent a great deal of my childhood trying to make sense out of the alcoholic environment I’d grown up in. The first time I tried to intervene with my mother about her drinking, I was so choked up with tears that I could barely make complete sentences. I was about 12 years old. The second time, I couldn’t bare to go through what I had experienced the first time, so I just wrote her a letter and left it on her bed amidst  her bills & junk mail for her to discover when she got home from work. I was about 14 by then. When things only got worse after that, I began to feel voiceless and took on a more passive approach.

I’d go into the pantry and pour some of her red wine (that is her drink of choice) down the sink–meticulously scrubbing the sink with Comet cleaner so that she couldn’t see the red trail that went from the sink’s edge to the drain. If I were in a rush and really worried about how drunk she was getting, I’d take a mouthful of her wine when she left the room and run to the bathroom to spit it out–in this case it went scrub with Comet, Listerine, flush the toilet and run the sink so it seemed like I had used the bathroom. On nights when she’d successfully passed out, I’d tip-toe into her room to confiscate her wine glass–Comet, Dawn, Bounty…

***

One night during this Winter holiday trip, my mother took my then-soon-to-be wife, my wife’s cousin and I to this Paint & Sip (go figure) place. By this point in my life, I’d had countless tear-filled interventions with her about her drinking and how it had hurt me as a child, and she takes me to a Paint & Sip. The last thing I had wanted to do with my alcoholic mother was to paint the Boston skyline as she sipped her wine and put on the usual show for everyone (my wife’s cousin included) that we were the kind of Mother/Daughter pair that were super close and did these really cool artsy things to fill our time when we weren’t braiding each other’s hair and talking about last week’s episode of The X Factor.

She had a glass of wine or two at the event and was on relatively good behavior. After we said our goodbyes to my wife’s cousin, we went to my cousin’s house for a bit. When we got there, my mother resumed her drinking, polishing off an entire bottle of wine to herself and then “sneaking” to the kitchen to make a tequila & juice of some sort mixed drink. I regret to admit that even in my late 20s, even after about 2 solid years of recovery, I still keep tabs on how much she’s drank and what the drinks consist of. It is a terrible, old defense mechanism which only really seems to serve a masochistic purpose now. Trust me, I’m working on it.

So after a night of what’s now been one & a half bottles of wine and I’d venture to say a fourth of a bottle of tequila, we head home. She had driven us around in her car all night, but at this point I drive. This is one of the most wonderful victories of now being an adult. When I was a kid, I didn’t have the power to drive, and we almost always went home at the end of the night. You can imagine what type of unsafe situations I’ve been in, with that in mind.

Once home, my wife & I start to get ready for bed. As we’re getting ready for bed in the back end of the house, my mother is doing something or another at the front, going back & forth from the kitchen to her bedroom. Just as we are about to crawl into bed, I start to smell food. Up until this point, I’ve avoided seeing her in the house since we had a small argument in the car on the way home where I realized she was actually black-out drunk and the interaction wasn’t worth my energy.

This is where the old triggers kick in. I tell my wife I can’t get into bed until I figure out what’s going on with my mother. I’d done this many times as a kid & teenager, leaving the clean-up up to my grandmother who lived with us…those nights always ended in me laying awake in bed having an anxiety attack as I listened to my grandmother tell my mother she needed to turn her lights off, her music (which was blasting through the house) down and go to bed because she’d passed out anyway. My mother would always yell back at her like some angry teenager, “I’m listening to my music! Get THE FUCK out of my room! LEAVE ME ALONE!” It would go on like this over a few hours until eventually my mother would sober up enough to be irritated by her music and the lights and finally turn them off.

But now I couldn’t rely on my grandmother to intervene. My grandmother has been in a nursing home for about 3.5 years now, so it is just my mother in the house. At that point, it was me, my wife and my mother. Thankfully, my wife & I have built a strong relationship on self-care and recovery and she has been full aware of my childhood home-life since the beginning. Going back to Boston has been so much easier since I’ve had someone in my corner to reassure me that I’m not crazy and that the environment is not a very healthy one.

So I walk into the kitchen first to see what’s going on. In the oven, there is a tray with enough appetizers to feed a party of 5. They are pretty much done baking by now, so I turn the oven off. I should have just gone to bed after that.

I walk in to my mother’s room and I say her name pretty loud..she doesn’t even budge. I nudge her leg a bit while calling her again, and she finally awakes. I let her know that her food in the oven is finished and I turned it off. She mumbles something incoherent and stumbles her way to the kitchen, with me following her. She sways in the middle of the kitchen floor with one hand on her hip. Her eyes are glazed over and have this vacant look about them and I get nervous right away because I’ve seen her like this too many times in my life.

I explain to her again that the food is done and I’ve turned the oven off. She asks what time it is…I respond that it’s 3:41am. She pauses for a moment and then says, “I’ll just given them like 10 more minutes. 10 or 15 more minutes.” I say that I don’t think she understands what I just said and that she needs to listen carefully, I repeat that the food is finished and that I turned the oven off. Up until this point, she has avoided eye contact with me. Then our eyes meet and behind the vacant glaze, she doesn’t look so much confused as she does out-of-control.

Her eyes look at me in a way that I feel like she is going to break into tears and say she is sorry and she knows she’s really drunk right now and she doesn’t know why she keeps doing this but she keeps doing it and she’s in so much pain on the inside but she can’t talk about it because she has to be perfect and if she could just say these things she could get some real help but she’s scared because she doesn’t believe in herself enough to think that things can get any better than this and she doesn’t know where she got that idea from or maybe she does but it came from someone who she really loved and who she thought really loved her so she’s believed it so much for so long that she thinks that’s really who she is deep down on the inside.

I start to understand why she cooks when she’s black-out drunk. Because in between blacking out and passing out, there has to be something there to comfort her. In that moment, I feel sympathy. I start to hurt for her and I just stack her hurt on top of my own anxiety. So I offer to put the food away and clean up after her. She grabs a plate, puts some food on it and stumbles back off to bed.

The next day I declare to myself that that will be the last time I subject myself to seeing her like that. That is the last time I allow her pain and alcoholism to set off my old triggers of sacrificing my own sanity to try and save her. But she is still in the same mode.

Every time my mom gets drunk like that she does one of two things the next day: 1) She complains of a stomach ache or a headache or a throat ache…claims she is coming down with a cold or something [anything but admit she is hungover, because if she admits that she has to deal with her reckless behavior] or 2) She tries to overcompensate by buying me gifts or treating me to something extravagant and unnecessary. On this day, it was option #2.

She pretends as though nothing happened the night before. I’ve gone back & forth on what I believe about this: do I think she genuinely has no idea how bad things got because she blacks-out after the “fun” stops or do I think she knows but just doesn’t want to acknowledge it because then she’ll have to deal with the issue. I suppose it’s both, but for a long time I attempted to comfort myself by saying she just didn’t know and it’d be best if I didn’t bring it up and just enjoyed her soberness the following day.

She makes my wife & I breakfast and a slew of other things happen that should have been comforting, but they weren’t because I’ve become aware of how this is all just a part of the game of Alcoholism-opoly.

Then, the night before my wife & I are about to drive back to DC. The last night that my mother & I will see each other until my wedding (which was just a month & some days away at that point), she calls me into her room. She is sitting next to a brown paper shopping bag full of something. Says she just happened to be going through her closet and she found this.

It is a bag full of pictures of my childhood.

Running In Place.

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
– Excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’

When I was a kid, I fell in love with Alice in Wonderland. I could never pinpoint why exactly I loved the story so much. It was funny, yes…but there was something else there that I could never put my finger on. As an adult, I realize now that I probably loved the story so much because I’d always felt like young Alice: navigating a curious land through an illogical series of events and encountering only the most absurd characters along the way.

I had felt like I was spending my life trying to figure out how to get back to where I came from–then racking my brain to figure out if I had even come from someplace else to begin with. I’d been wondering if I were the same as I’d used to be–then racking my brain to figure out if I was even the same as I was that morning…and if I wasn’t, who the hell was I, anyway?

I realize that these are clearly the thoughts of a child who grows up surrounded by half-truths, inconsistent messages and kaleidoscopic delusions. This is the part where I stop alluding and say that I am an adult child of an alcoholic family.

The thing about family alcoholism is, you’re not supposed to talk about it. You’re meant to act accordingly and pretend that everything is hunky-dory. Smile and laugh perfectly on cue, even if your chest feels hollow and you’ve disassociated yourself from your own feelings so long that you’re not even sure if you’re genuinely enjoying yourself at the given moment or if you’ve become so good at pretending that you’d seriously consider purchasing beachfront property in Idaho.

By creating a blog to talk about this openly and frankly, I am breaking the oldest rule in the book. There are people in my life, particularly my mother, who will be very hurt and likely feel betrayed by my words (should they read this). Why would I do this? The answer is that I am tired.

I am tired of having to ‘run as fast as I can’ just to keep up appearances because it helps other people exist in their world of denial and delusion. I am tired of being told that I’ll have to ‘run twice as fast as that’ if I want to convince myself of my own “okay-ness” with it all–to deny and delude myself.

Because it’s not okay. Not any of it.

I have chosen to do the right thing and break the cycle. Something about being in Wonderland never felt right. I wish to speak frankly and openly about my experiences and my thoughts about those experiences. I want to release the pressure of it all from my brain, and more importantly, I want to reach people–adults, young adults, teens and children alike–who can relate to my story and encourage them to break their own cycle and build something real and strong and true.