My mom was an alcoholic who never admitted it nor figured out the recovery part. She and my dad, when they were still together, had an active social life that revolved around and swam in alcohol. Their social set were cocktail connoisseurs and every household had a liquor cabinet or a bar with special decanters (very collectible now) in a multitude of designs from elegant to silly. I remember a trio of glass ones with metal medallions hanging on chains, inscribed with the liquor names: scotch, bourbon, and rye, although I’ve always wondered if anyone actually drinks rye.
Mom drank with her bridge group and the golfing ladies. She had drinks before and after dinner, with dad if he wasn’t traveling, alone if he was. Always self-conscious about her weight, I think she often skipped the dinner part. In that small town, post-war era of “happy days are here again,” the ugly label of “alcoholic” only applied to falling-down drunks, assumed to be winos who lived elsewhere, probably in cities. The prevailing palace lies protected drinkers from self awareness: they certainly couldn’t have a drinking problem if they drank with food or at least mixed nuts; if they never went to bars, if they never drank before noon, unless the golf game ended a little early; if they never drank alone or at least never admitted it. If you followed those rules and never fell down drunk in a gutter, you were just a social drinker, home free.
Raised with alcohol fumes floating in the air and on the breath of the adults surrounding me, I thought that was normal, no more questioning it than a fish questions its pond water. I did worry about my parents driving drunk but I don’t think it occurred to me that they could choose not to drink. I thought getting deliveries by the case from Zimmerman’s cut-rate liquor store in Chicago was the norm right along with the milkman bringing milk and ice cream.
Although I lived in a very nice neighborhood with a lake across the street, we all went to the same elementary school with that kid democracy of somewhat equal opportunity for acceptance, achieving, teasing and bullying, at least in the earlier years. I do, however, remember thinking that it was odd that my best friend’s mom and dad, living in a small rambler in a plain neighborhood, drank mostly beer, so even my burgeoning class-consciousness began through the lexicon of alcohol.
My parents’ liberal consumption and disbursement of alcohol did not extend to their children, such as serving us watered-down wine with a meal as Europeans might do. Our education was sneakier, filching some booze, drinking in giggling secretiveness and paying painfully for our sins of excess. With no knowledge of the fruit of the grape, I learned the hard way my freshman year in college. My roommate and I went with some guys to a party and one of them kept replenishing my giant Coors paper cup with cheap, sweet, red wine. Thinking it was like grape juice, I nervously chugged it down. When the alcohol hit me with a wallop, I cleverly deduced that I shouldn’t consume more, so I would politely take the refilled cup, stumble my way to the bathroom and dump it out, but way too late to maintain sobriety. I had enough brain cells functioning to realize I’d put myself in a risky situation, unclear about where we were, dependent on a stranger for a ride home, one who might have had a different agenda than I did. He did, but I got home safely after threatening to throw up in his car. I learned that alcohol made me quite stupid pretty quickly and that I should take better care of myself which included a lifelong avoidance of sweet wine.
My dad broke the news to my brother and me that Mom was an alcoholic when she was hospitalized for burns after a fire in our house, saying that the doctor ordered intravenous alcohol to keep her from going into severe withdrawal. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) had been founded in 1935, two years after Prohibition was lifted, and Al-anon and Alateen in 1951 by the wife of AA founder Bill Wilson. If those support groups existed at all in our small town, they weren’t high profile when I could have used that wisdom and support. I was naively appalled with the scary label of “alcoholic,” even given my years around all the alcohol use. It changed her in my eyes; I clothed myself in a mantle of self-pity and judgment about both Mom and Dad. It didn’t escape my attention that he took no responsibility for his own role in liquorland. Progressively, I gained the knowledge and maturity to understand in more breadth and depth, with more compassion. She was a very intelligent, creative and sensitive woman with a predilection to the disease who used the socially-accepted drug of choice to self-medicate, to muffle the noise of an ever-changing world she didn’t cope with very well. By all accounts, I should have been an alcoholic, too, but lucked out with a sensitivity to and intolerance for alcohol and drugs which doesn’t mean I missed out on the challenges and learning opportunities presented by other addictive and compulsive behavior.
So, why tell this story? Even with the higher levels of awareness and treatment these days, I’m well aware of the overuse and abuse of alcohol throughout our society, even in our land of 10,000 treatment centers. It concerns me to hear of the competitive bingeing of young people who have been brought up in our society of multiple addictions to excess: food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, TV, sports, you name it. It saddens me to see the effects of that abuse in people around me, for I know how hard it is to get free of the claws of our addictive demons. I’m equally certain their lives would improve without it, but I know that I can’t control their behavior anymore than I could my mom’s. Mom never gave herself that chance, wrapped in denial until she died. What I can do is encourage, without judgment, anyone who is concerned about alcohol use – their own, a friend’s, a relative’s – to speak up, to seek support and help from friends, health providers, counselors, 12-step groups and spiritual support groups. It just might give someone a glimpse beyond their own pond water to let them know, “I see you, you’re not invisible, you’re not alone. I care about you, the whole package, imperfections and all, and maybe you could use a hand. It can get better, one day at a time.”