Monday, March 14, 2011

Cunning, Baffling

Every now and then, someone wanders into the rooms of Al-Anon at the suggestion of a friend, relative or counselor. They didn’t grow up with active alcoholism, but something is wrong and they’re willing to take their friend’s suggestion because they’re not sure what else to do.

For some reason they can relate to many of the people who share. Maybe they feel a little better by the end of the meeting. For whatever reason, they come back. For a long time, they still may not think alcoholism is their problem.

If they come long enough, more is revealed. I have seen this happen. They learn about an alcoholic grandparent who died before they were born, say. Or some equally obscure seeming connection. It hardly seems it could have anything to do with the problem at hand. Or could it?

Alcoholism is a family disease. I heard that for the first time when my mom found her way, briefly, to AA. I had no idea what that meant, and if she explained it to me I don’t recall. Later, when I learned more about alcoholism, I thought it meant that the disease was genetic because it tends to run in families. And that much is true.

I’ve heard it said that alcoholism can skip a generation. And I believe that is true of active alcoholism. But today I don’t believe the disease is dormant in those “skipped” generations. I think it just goes underground.

Al-Anons are good secret keepers. Once, I heard someone share that her husband bought a car that didn’t run and had it towed to their home rather than admit their car had been repossessed. Another’s mom stopped to buy her new clothes on the way to school because none of the ones she owned were clean.

We learn to paint the fence white.

So maybe Grandpa’s drinking was so shameful that it didn’t get discussed. Instead, Mom or Dad, believing that alcohol was to blame for all their problems growing up decided that they would shield their children from the effects of alcoholism by banning alcohol from their home. But even in a sober home, the behaviors remained. Active alcoholism may have been replaced by workaholism, perfectionism, eating disorders or depression.

Even though they wanted nothing more than to do better for their kids, they passed along those isms that are so common in families of alcoholics. But alcohol was never discussed. So the kids grew up knowing something was wrong. They just didn’t know what it was.

Even as an adult child of two alcoholics, I didn’t know what the problem was. I knew I didn’t get “the manual.” I didn’t learn the social skills that “normals” take for granted.

My response to growing up in an alcoholic home was to retreat into myself. I read. I lead an active fantasy life in which I was loved and popular, and my life was perfect. I learned to enjoy my own company.

Though I didn’t develop the compulsion to drink, in my own way, I became emotionally unavailable.

Even knowing about the alcoholism in my family of origin, I didn’t make the connection. I know there was some pattern of failure in my relationships, but I didn’t know what it was. A friend of mine related a “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine tries to figure out what all her failed relationships have in common and can come up with nothing. They next scene, all her former boyfriends appear together in an AA meeting.

I thought about this. Took inventory. Was sure that wasn’t the case for me. Not all of my failed relationships were with alcoholics. But my friend suggested I attend Al-Anon, and I went. I loved it, but at every meeting I felt compelled to explain that even though I was no longer living with alcoholism I really did belong there because of my childhood. I couldn’t see that alcoholism was behind my current troubles because I thought I had left that behind. Eventually I stopped going.

It took my daughter’s alcoholism and addiction to bring me back to Al-Anon. This time I stayed long enough to discover that all those personality quirks that I thought were just how I was “wired,” were, in fact the result of this disease.

Today, I can see that all my boyfriends may not have been alcoholics, but they were all emotionally unavailable. And they all had alcoholism in their families.

By the time I understood all this, the damage I did as a parent was already done. My daughter did not grow up with active alcoholism, but she was affected by the disease. Even though I wanted more than anything to be a different kind of parent to my daughter, I couldn’t pass on what I never got.

I don’t kid myself that had I found recovery earlier, my daughter would not be an addict/alcoholic. I know I didn’t cause the disease. And I don’t believe I can arrest or eradicate it, even in recovery.

But I can have awareness. I can learn tools. In a sense, I got “the manual” in recovery. I don’t get to decide not to have this disease. I have to accept that. But I can manage my disease just as I might manage diabetes with diet and exercise. I don’t have to lose a limb to this disease. It doesn’t have to kill me.

I can also talk about what I’ve learned. I can share my story so when that bewildered newcomer walks in the door, they don’t have to feel they are the only one who feels the way they do.

I can tell them they belong. I can tell them to keep coming back. Just as I wished someone had told me.


  1. My counselor recommended Al-Anon to me because my so to be ex-husband had a drinking problem. I didn't have alcoholism in my immediate family but my mother had died of cancer when I was a child. The chaos this caused our family simulated the effects of alcoholism. The elephant in the room the lack of any routine. Late nights at the hospital and my dad's denial that she wasn't going to make it. No one was aloud to talk about it. I spent those years trying figure out what was wrong and my grades suffered. I felt right at home in Al-Anon and in relationships with alcoholics.

  2. Kathy thank you for sharing and also for your encouraging comments to me. Blessings.

  3. You sure hit close to home with this one! I came to Al-Anon because of my son(s), but along the way I've discovered that my mother, who died of cancer 25 years ago, was probably an alcoholic. I'll never know, and in the end it doesn't matter; I'll just keep going to meetings, learning, and growing.

  4. Thanks for this. I have been thinking a lot about these things recently. Wondering if I am being a bit fanciful in my reinterpretation of family history.

    Your post is very reassuring.

  5. Thank you, reading this post brought chills to me. My son just got out of rehad 2 weeks ago and I was horried to talk to him on the phone and I could hear the pills in his voice. I couldn't believe it - so soon. He called me the other day and said that yes he had made a mistake but was getting back on track. Not sure I believe him - heartbroken :(

  6. Hi Kathy,
    This post is very relevant for me right now. I just had a visit with a relative (my Mom's niece) and found out that my Mom's brother was an alcoholic, too. I had always focussed on my Dad and his side. It was all throughout my Mom's side, too. So sad the pain alcoholism has inflicted on so many in my family tree.
    So glad you are back and sharing. :)


  7. This post was amazing and just what I needed to read today, it's funny how these things happen and how life moves for us...that as we recover and work the steps there are still many bumps in the road that we have to address, we have to confront and deal with, or otherwise we are running from reality, not the place to go or be.

    Thank you for this graceful reminder and post.

  8. Yes, I knew that I chose those you were emotionally unavailable. I am glad that I found my way to Al-Anon and have learned about me and how to relate better to others. It has been a life saver.

  9. I really felt this post deep in my gut and can relate so well to the not becoming an alcoholic which I felt kind of "noble" about... That I was able to avoid that but the behaviors are there and they are in my other children and I am going to be so much more aware of that. I am going to have my oldest daughter who is 18 read this. I am bewildered by the choices she makes in investing in a relationship whether it is a boyfriend or a school friend. Her choices follow a pattern and I know she is totally unaware. This has kind of knocked the breath out of me. Can we change these patterns just by being aware of them?????

  10. "by the time i understood all this, the damage i did as a parent was already done."

    kathy, me too! but this past year has wrought miracles in my relationship with my daughter. i'm sure you're experiencing that too! excellent post as always! thanks for sharing!

    btw, i searched for your email and came up empty. would you mind sending your email address to me? mine is

  11. I'm trying to find out why so far it appears the rehabs are not promoting family nd life events as a recovery process. Familys r shut out. When a person n rehab comes out, they didn't have to deal woth anything other then recovering from the drugs. They yes get groupo on feelings nd emotions, but if the family says anything about what s going on n life, or something the recover doesn't like thy can walk away or hang up b as rude as they want. A sponsor gets to connect w the recover the family nd daily events r not really addressed. No wonder they relapse

  12. Where r meetings that both the addict nd non addict can attend together to have sessions on how to handle both peoples emotions. Tired of being told go to al anon while the addict goes to their meetings w their sponsor. Where s a promotion for togetherness with yor loved one. I've already been alone, I've already got into arguements becus of not wanting to enable that person. Where is a joint unit program for both people. What is the point of a rehab that teaches the addict about feelings nd the addict can say they have learned about feelings but shut a person out nd not deal with anything. So that when they get out of rehab nd say they were pressured by lifes responsibilities bcus they didn't have to deal with anything n rehab and we do. Where is the groups for both side to connect with each other to moved together as one family unit

  13. If you or a loved one continue to struggle as I did, you can't watch as they slowly kill themselves. You need to give them guidance and that's what I am here for, and truly believe its what my purpose is now. Don't be afraid to call or text for help, just know help is there.
    Call or text 978-854-3342
    My name is Connor