Sunday, October 27, 2013

First memory of my drunk dad...

Last night, I was chatting with a new friend who had converted to Mormonism when she was young.  She has since left the church and is very happy about her decision.  But one side effect of having been Mormon for a long time is that she doesn't really know how to drink alcohol.  She said to me, "You grew up in a normal family with a normal relationship to alcohol."

That comment struck me as almost funny and I said so.  You see, I grew up in an alcoholic household.  I didn't realize my father was an alcoholic until I was about 17 years old.  My mother did a great job shielding me from the truth most of the time and my dad was always very functional… except for the times he wasn't.

The night I found out about my dad's condition, I was 17 years old.  It was my senior year of high school and I had just been accepted to college.  I was feeling excited about the new chapter in my life and had started thinking about the things I would need to purchase before school started.  My dad was sitting in the kitchen drinking a Gibson (a vodka cocktail with onions) and trying to eat some weird dish with artichokes that my oldest sister had made and left in the fridge.  I asked him about some items I thought we had and I might be able to take with me to school in the fall.  I remember that it seemed to be a struggle for him to speak.  He said something along the lines of "It don't work too good."

My dad was never one to use improper grammar.  He's usually pretty formal.  His eyes were a bit glazed, too.  But I had seen him many times in the kitchen drinking vodka.  I thought nothing of it and went back to my room.

A little while later, I heard my mom yelling.  I ran back downstairs and stopped about halfway down.  My dad was in the living room, staggering around.  My mom, who is plump but petite, was standing next to him absolutely fuming.  She actually hit my dad, but didn't even come close to hurting him.

"You smell like a damn bar!" she snarled as my dad stood there looking a little sheepish.

My eyes widened at the sight and I said, "Mom, is he DRUNK?"

"Yes!" she bellowed.  Then she turned to my dad and said, "She is 17 years old!  I am NOT going to hide the truth from her anymore!"

I ran back upstairs, aghast at what I had just seen and realizing that I had actually seen my dad drunk many times.  This time was the first really obvious time, though.  It was like my eyes opened.  I am amazed that it took so long.

A little later, my mom called me to go outside and turn off my dad's grill (she didn't know how).  I went outside and turned it off, noting the large steak he had been trying to cook.  Evidently, he had started cooking the steak and then forgot about it.  The large piece of meat was coal black about three quarters of the way through and leathery well-done on top.  I brought it inside and my mom said, "Just leave it in the sink!  Maybe he'll see it tomorrow."

I left it there and went to bed.

Over the next few years, I saw my dad drunk many more times.  One time, he was trying to burn trash while drinking and forgot about the fire, which came dangerously close to the buildings on his property.  Another time, I came home late from work and found him in his picture framing shop, passed out on his work table.  The doors were all open; the lights were all on; and he had the radio and TV blaring.  My dad was sound asleep, his head on some lady's beautiful embroidery that she had brought in to be framed.  I thought about leaving him there, but realized that the lady had spent a lot of time on that work and I didn't want him to ruin it.  So I woke him up and got him to go inside.

He is in the current state he's in now, in part, because he was drinking heavily before back surgery and had a bad reaction to the anesthesia that left him in a coma on a respirator for weeks.  Honestly, I don't know how my mom dealt with the stress of that situation.  They had the surgery done near my sister's home in North Carolina instead of near their home in Virginia.  Mom ended up staying in North Carolina for a long time, waiting for my dad to rejoin the land of the conscious.

The very first time I heard whisperings about my dad's problem was when I was 13.  Two of the my three sisters were young adults trying to launch.  My oldest sister was in the Peace Corps in Morocco.  My sisters and I and our parents were clashing a lot.  There was a lot of fighting going on.  Someone determined that we needed to attend family counseling.  I remember our counselor was a master's level psychologist named Nancy.

I deeply resented going to the therapist.  I wanted to be home watching TV.  I remember being really tense and anxious during the few sessions I attended before my mom mercifully let me quit going.  My sisters talked frankly about my dad and what they thought was a drinking problem.  I heard what they were saying, but didn't realize how true it was until I was older and saw my mom and dad in that living room scene.



  1. One of the hardest things in life is when you realize your parents are fallible. We know this intellectually, of course, but we don't know it in our hearts a lot of the time. For many of us, our parents are wise and great and ADULT. But then, something like the living room scene with your dad happens and what we know intellectually, but never really think through, comes crashing through our consciousness. I am sorry you experienced this, how hard for you and your family as a whole. Alcoholism eats away at the fabric of any family until there's nothing left but holes.

    1. I agree. My dad and I have never had the greatest relationship. He's not a bad person, despite the alcoholism. We clashed all the time, though. I got the brunt of his alcoholic drama when I was growing up. I realize now that he was in a lot of pain and had a lot of emotional issues that he never dealt with. He was very depressed and medicated himself with booze. Sadly, he never overcame the addiction or the depression.

  2. What a difficult thing you wenth through. My parents drink, but I don't think it's to excess on a regular basis, although the kids are often the last to know. My dad -- the heavier drinker of the two -- is very conscientious about being sober for driving or work, and he's not mean at all when he's had an extra beer or two. I'm pretty sure he only drinks beer for the most part, and most nights he only has one or two, and he probably has reasonable tolerance. The bottom line is that I cannot manage anyone else's life at this point so I just don't worry about it. Perhaps I should, but I don't.

    1. Alexis, I am here to tell you that if your dad drinks one or two, it's highly unlikely he has a "problem". My mother was finding hidden bottles in his room when he was hospitalized. He hid bottles all over the place. I never knew about any of this, though I do remember being a young kid and going to the "package store" with my mom to buy booze. She would always buy the cheap stuff in gallon sized jugs. To me, it was normal.

      I have seen doctors with drinking problems, though. When I was in grad school, I worked at a country club where several doctors were members. I bartender once a week… and yeah, there was at least one doc who would order lots of Wild Turkey to take out on the golf course.

  3. It's good to know that the amount my dad drinks is not considered excessive.

    1. Personally, I think alcoholism is more about how alcohol affects your behavior than it is about how much you drink. My dad drank a lot when he was still in control of his faculties… a lot more than one or two beers a night. But I also know that drug and alcohol abuse is also a problem among health care providers. One of my internships in the social work program was working with the Recovering Professionals Program in South Carolina, where we monitored health care providers who were in danger of losing their licenses or had already lost them due to substance abuse.


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