Growing up with alcoholics

It never feels appropriate to write about this. Perhaps because both of my parents are still alive (which I’m grateful for) and the idea of them reading it makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Despite the hurt and suffering I’ve experienced at the hands of my parents’ alcoholism, I don’t wish them any pain or suffering.

We always want our parents’ love and approval, no matter what age.

Strange that is.

Sharing this story makes me feel like I’m betraying them a little. Like I’m being unfair because I’m only telling the negative aspects of my childhood.

Don’t get me wrong, there were many happy times growing up. But there were also sad times too, mostly due to my parents’ addiction.

My first memory

I must have been six at the time. My sister was just a year and two months older.

It was mid-afternoon. School was out. We travelled home on the bus as we did everyday for the seven years that we lived in that quiet little town.

I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember the day or what happened later that night. My memory is frozen to a 10-second window of time, which I’ll never forget.

Our home was multi-story. You’d enter through the mudroom, and pass through a doorway to the right that led into the family room. If you kept going you’d approach a small set of stairs leading you to the living room, kitchen, dining room, and the main front entrance.

In this exact moment I was standing equal distance between the mudroom and the stairs. My sister was sitting on the top step, cowering against the wall. Her face was bright red and scrunched up, she was crying intensely, screaming in fact.

I remember what she was wearing, because it was the focal point of this memory: A stark-white, woven cotton cardigan — 100 percent cotton to be exact and all the more valuable because of it.

I hated that sweater. It was so stiff you could barely move in it. Despite my feelings for it, the sweater was a prized piece of clothing in my mother’s eyes, gifted to us by some member of the family.

That day at school, my sister drew on that sweater with a fine-tip, neon green Crayola marker. Up and down the left sleeve.

With scissors in her right hand and my sister’s flaxen blond hair in the other, my mother threatened to cut her hair off as punishment.

Waving the scissors dangerously close to her face, I was certain she would.

At that exact moment, I screamed at the top of my lungs, yelling for her to stop.

NOOOO!!! STOP IT!!!!

I remember my voice not belonging to me but to the fear in the pit of my stomach. It rose up and came out of my mouth without my control.

My fight or flight response to my mother’s drinking kicked in at the tender age of six and lingers to this very day.

Adolescence

Throughout my life, my mom drank all day, everyday.

She would start in the morning with light beer. At 6pm she would have a Bloody Mary or a margarita. On celebratory occasions she would have both.

We would sit down to family dinners and she would have three glasses in front of her: one beer, one cocktail, one wine (or a second cocktail).

She would also smoke weed throughout the day.

Towards the end of her marijuana habit, she would smoke one quarter of an ounce a week (roughly $120 CDN worth I believe). And between her and my father, they would polish off a 40-ounce bottle of vodka once, if not twice a week.

My father was just as bad in his consumption, but he was a highly functioning alcoholic, and he was neither violent nor aggressive. He would just get sloppy, slur his words, and fall over. He would pound back vodka tonics and she would tell him he drank too much.

The irony was lost on her.

When we were teenagers, having pothead alcoholics for parents had its advantages…

My house was the cool house. You could drink, smoke, paint on the walls and generally let loose with no recourse.

My sister and I were renowned for our parties. Our house was a nightclub for the underage.

Stealing weed and alcohol at 12-years-old was also a good time. Because I was so exposed to drugs and alcohol, neither seemed like a scary thing to me. Instead, I saw them as a rite of passage into adulthood.

I would swipe a few ounces from my parents’ vodka, steal cigarettes and occasionally some weed.

One day, my mother cleaned my room and found my secret stash. I was put on “probation” and was made to feel like a wayward child that needed to be morally saved.

Really mom?

Aside from the few good times, the pros of having addict parents did not outweigh the cons.

Sure it was great to have a place where you could party with your friends, but most of the time I was embarrassed to have friends visit. They would smell weed coming from the living room and I would be mortified.

The worst, however, was knowing that we couldn’t always rely on our parents if we got in to trouble. Most nights they would be passed out in bed, unable to hear the phone ring or too drunk to drive anywhere to pick us up.

If ever we needed a ride home, or if our car broke down (which it often did), we could not call them for help.

My friends had parents who would pick us up and drive us to parties no matter what time of night. I was a bit envious of that. I would have traded the house parties for reliability any day of the week.

Adulthood

The older I’ve become the more aggressive I am towards my mother’s drinking.

I’ve become accustomed to the sound of her voice when she’s had too much. As soon as I hear it, tension kicks in and I’m anticipating problems before they even begin.

The last physical altercation we had happened on Christmas Eve 2009.

At the time I was 24-years-old. I had graduated from a masters program that spring, and was invited to start a PhD program at a business school in Montreal the following year. In order to get into the program, I had to score a certain percentile on a standard aptitude test (GMAT). My plan was to write the test the day after Boxing Day, and cram as much as I could before then.

I had travelled home to spend whatever minutes I wouldn’t be studying with my parents for Christmas. Looking back, it was not a smart plan.

Trying to remember high school algebra was a challenge in its own right, never mind with a mother hell-bent on having a raucous of a time.

Over the course of a few hours, she would blast music, harass me, and say demoralising things like,

“I don’t know why you bother…you’ll never get in anyway.”

It was classic, antagonistic behaviour that culminated in me taking the bait, hook, line and sinker.

Sitting in my room, studying, she would turn the lights out on me repeatedly.

Real mature mom.

I responded by telling her that she always found a way to ruin Christmas (true), and that our grandmother always thought so, too (also true).

I retreated to the basement to find shelter and isolation. Staring intently at my computer, trying to solve for x, I turned my head and found my mother’s face inches from my own. It was distorted, like she had been possessed.

She screamed:

“YOU SAID MY MOTHER DIDN’T LOVE ME!”

In the absence of a weapon, she took off her shoes and slammed them against my desk.

Next she grabbed my textbook and ripped it down the centre like the Hulk tearing his shirt in half.

The woman that stood before me was not my mother. She was the host to an alcohol-infused demon.

At 24 I didn’t have the self-control to step away from the situation before engaging. I was angry and resentful. I was struggling to find my next step in life, and I was hopeful that this PhD program was it. I was frustrated to be taking this exam in the first place, and was completely unprepared for it. Having my mother attempt to derail this opportunity even further for me was something I could never get past.

At the time, I did my best to ignore her, to be a better person. But there is no being the better person when alcohol is involved and you have spent the vast majority of your life putting up with this type of bullshit abuse.

I carefully placed my laptop and glasses on the other side of the room and pushed her off of me with brute force. I packed my backpack with the essentials and my torn textbook, and left the building.

I stayed with family friends that night and didn’t touch my textbook once.

The next morning, Christmas Day, I called to see if I was allowed to come home. I was so long as I apologised to her.

At 24 I still wanted to be with my family at Christmas. Despite the fact that I was working full-time and was an adult by most standards, I still felt vulnerable like a child without a family during the holidays. And I hated my mom for making me feel that way.

Present day

I moved to London, England the following year at age 25, and have never looked back.

The distance has certainly helped our relationship.

That is, until recently.

Despite the distance between us, I’ve managed to visit my parents twice a year, spending all my time and money travelling back to Canada.

But my mother has started drinking more and more, and I can no longer stand to be around her.

Our last two visits were rife with tension. It got so bad that I didn’t speak to her for the final days of our trip.

But like many things in life, this is out of my control. It’s like they tell us at Al-anon — accept the things you cannot change.

I can’t control my mother’s drinking. But I can control my exposure to it.

Growing up around drugs and alcohol was very difficult. It wasn’t until I started attending Al-Anon meetings that I realised my anger and control issues were quite common — normal in fact — in children of alcoholics.

As a child in a chaotic environment, you are forever uncertain about what’s going to happen to you because of someone else’s drinking. For my sister and I, this was certainly true.

In addition to the sweater story, there were countless episodes of abuse and neglect, which dramatically impacted our confidence and sense of security. I still struggle with anger and control issues, and my relationship with my mother is still strained. I would like to say there’s a point in time when the scars of alcoholism and addiction disappear. I have yet to reach that point.

Perhaps one day I will.

#OneDayAtATime