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 Active alcoholism may have been replaced by workaholism, perfectionism, eating disorders or depression.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.
My first beer - The voice in my head - Finding happiness
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