How a childhood marred by alcoholism was overcome.
My mother was 21 and not married when I was conceived. She drank a lot of liquor at parties on weekends and at other times. My mother considered, briefly, not keeping me, her baby daughter. My father was married to someone else and I have never met nor seen him. After I was born, my mother married another man and was divorced soon after. For the next four years we lived with my grandmother.
An unhappy home
Then Mom married again, and she and my stepfather had another girl and a boy. They both abused drugs and alcohol. I worried a lot about them both. Like many other children of alcoholics, I became super-responsible, severely depressed and withdrawn. I thought if I were a better daughter, things would be different.
As the years went by, Mom more and more wanted the outlet of alcohol. She was the driving force in our home. She had a favorite bar and sometimes we would go with her from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. We drank Pepsis, ate chips and played the jukebox all day while my sister, a cute preschooler with curly blond hair, danced and pirouetted.
I was afraid to let myself have any happiness, because something always spoiled it. Many promises were broken. I was sure that if I were happy one minute, the next minute everything would explode.
Mom almost never went alone to the bar. She usually took a relative with her (one of whom is today a recovering alcoholic). At first the talk would be funny, joking, but as the day wore on, it became morose and often bitter and hateful. We kids didn’t understand it.
Since I was older, I often babysat while Mom went to the bar. If I needed her, I called around to the bars and asked if she was there. Once when I was about 9, my sister 4 and my brother 3, Mom was at a bar and we kids were at home when a tornado hit our area. The sky was awfully black and the wind was strong, and I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. Should I open or close windows? Should we go to the basement? I called around and found Mom. She said she’d come home and not to worry, but she didn’t come home until much later.
A lot of times I was alone with my sister and brother and would hear noises. I would call my grandmother and she would say not to worry or be frightened. So I would turn the TV up loud and not go to sleep for a long time. For years after I left home, I had to have a TV or radio on when I was alone. I needed the background noise.
Our home life was very unstructured. There were no set schedules for eating or sleeping. We moved a lot. I attended five different schools before I reached the sixth grade. Mom put up a good front, pretending that everything was OK. She threatened me and told me never to tell anyone about what went on at home. Her moods swung violently.
I used to daydream about what it would be like to live in a happy home. I’d dream about TV and movie stars being my real father, because on the screen the characters they played seemed so kind and affectionate.
I didn’t like to play with dolls much. I already was saddled with the real thing with my siblings. I would feed, clean, dress and discipline my sister and brother. My brother once called me “Mom.” I had the chance to take drugs, but I was terribly afraid of a chemical substance controlling my mind.
I read a lot — I didn’t go anywhere without taking a book with me. I wanted to forget my real life, so I read novels about fantasy, romance and mystery. I daydreamed about the stories I read, only I was the main character. I never read the newspaper (except comics) and never watched TV news. I wanted the world to be a better place than my home was, but the news was always depressing.
I was afraid to let myself have any happiness, because something always spoiled it. Many promises were broken. I was sure that if I were happy one minute, the next minute everything would explode. Frequently Mom would get upset about something and it would build to an explosion. Then she would scream at the top of her lungs. Those were frightening experiences — being screamed at, having your hair pulled, being forcibly shaken or hit. Once she took plates out of the cupboards and threw them at a wall, breaking them. Then she went to the bar.
After many of her explosions, there’d be a present for us kids on the next day. Once she wrote a message in crayon on the wall, “Mom loves you kids.”
In the eighth grade I stopped telling Mom I loved her. I just didn’t believe anymore that she meant it when she said she loved me. It got crazier and crazier — an emotional roller coaster that never could be predicted. We tiptoed around, trying not to upset any unexpected moments of peace.
I’d come home from school every day and not know what to expect. Sometimes the house was dark and empty. I shudder at that memory — it seemed so cold. But even that was preferable to the screaming and fighting. I never brought friends home for fear of what might be happening there.
One summer my stepfather’s sister came to visit and she and Mom spent most of the summer at the bars. Mom got involved with a man and I was appalled. “Mother,” I said, “is this the kind of example you set for me?” That summer was one of the worst of my life. I ate and ate, and ballooned up to 197 pounds. I was using food as a comforter — as a substitute for love. I was miserable. My stepfather slept all the time. Mom drank. My sister and brother spent most of their time at friends’ houses. I considered suicide a few times. But I just couldn’t do it.
When I was 18, I left home and went to college 2,500 miles away. It was a turning point in my life. But I had a long way to go to recover from the first 18 years of life. After I went away to college, Mom divorced my stepfather. Emotionally, I was a wreck. At college, I got involved with the wrong friends. I did poorly in school, even flunking out one semester. I was still on that emotional roller coaster, looking for a rock to lean on.
I was highly influenced by whatever was going on around me. I was extremely sensitive to others and everything they said (even if what they said wasn’t true). I was extremely loyal when others weren’t in return. Once I had a boss who was an alcoholic, and I couldn’t deal with it. It was like living with Mom all over again.
I could not even understand God’s love for me. I felt I was unworthy of love. Why would anyone want to be my friend? I found it difficult to express affection and warmth, and if some people were nice to me, I was puzzled as to why they liked me.
If Mom said ugly things on the phone or in a letter to me, I was depressed for days or weeks at a time. Then I wouldn’t be able to study. I had a job to help pay for college, and many times I couldn’t show up for work because I’d be unable to face the day, the people, or myself.
I lived in fear that one day I would turn into my mother. I didn’t drink, smoke or swear, and I struggled to hold my weight down. But then one semester at college it all came tumbling down. I was overwrought with worry about family, school, work and friends, and I began to eat excessively.
With that failure I lost what little respect I still had for myself. I felt I was alone and that no one cared. The eating comforted me. It filled a void. It covered pain, disappointment, fear, loneliness. And it could have been alcohol, for the way I was using it. I didn’t know it then, but I used food like my mother used alcohol.
I am still critical and negative about myself. When I complete a project or achieve a goal, I always find some flaw in what I did and dismiss any good. I never used to take pride or happiness in anything I did. Sometimes now I still don’t. Recently I saw some pictures of some creative work I did two years ago. At the time I thought my work was disastrous. But the pictures attest that the work I did was as good as the work of any professional — which is what I am!
I look back at high-school and college pictures of myself and see such a different person than I did then! I was even pretty, though I didn’t know it. No one had ever told me that I was pretty (except my then future husband, but I just didn’t believe him). There was always some flaw to concentrate on.
I have spent the last 11 years re-learning how to live. Getting away from the situation at home was a major help. I had to cut the stranglehold of the attitudes I lived by while growing up — even if it meant not having anything to do with Mom. It is sad, but for the past few years I have had almost no contact with her. A professional person told me that, given the amount of alcohol she now consumes, there is not a time of any day when she is not intoxicated, even if she is not drinking at the time. I think even my newfound happiness upsets her.
I wish and pray she would stop drinking and be happy, but I’ve learned that she has to make any changes — I can’t do it for her. I know she feels alone, but she is so belligerent I can’t get near her. The thing is, Mom had a marvelous potential to be a great success in life. She has a fine mind and many wonderful talents. She can be funny, sweet and giving.
What happened? Somewhere along the line she allowed the alcohol to take control. When she drinks, she is another person — mean, argumentative, vindictive, and selfish. I used to think Mom hated me (why else would she neglect and treat me so badly?), but now I realize it was the alcohol talking.
Our lives now
My sister is now 24 and a successful salesperson. My brother is 23 and a chef for a major hotel-restaurant chain. Neither of them uses drugs. They are becoming more positive about themselves and their lives. I am 29, happily married and run a small business. I lead a productive and meaningful life and look to the future with excitement. I now know I can succeed.
The three of us have at last established more of a mature, enjoyable, loving relationship between us. We stay in close contact, respect each other’s work and share each other’s successes and failures. We talk about the way we grew up and the changes in our lives now. Most of all, we have become a network of support for each other.
My struggle to overcome
My road out of the negative situation in which I grew up began when I, around age 14, saw that the world around me was operating on many false assumptions. I realized that the choice of how I would live was up to me. I found that following the principles of the Bible was the way to true happiness. I developed a deep faith in God.
I’d come home from school every day and not know what to expect. Sometimes the house was dark and empty…it seemed so cold. But even that was preferable to the screaming and fighting. I never brought friends home for fear of what might be happening there.
Following the ways of God helped me counteract what had happened to me growing up. I thank God for the special love and friendship he has given to me through my husband. I feel as though I had to grow up all over again, and my husband has been there supporting and understanding and helping. It’s not always been easy, but we both try to live the way of give and not get.
Adult children of alcoholics often repeat in their own lives what their parents did, and I held off having children for some time for fear they would grow up like I did, victims of problems my parents’ mistakes created in me. Now I know they won’t because of the things I’ve learned.
I am responsible for my life and what I think and do. Life doesn’t have to be the way it was growing up. I suffered because my parents made mistakes and not because I did something wrong. I was not responsible for Mom’s drinking. Or raising my brother and sister. Or making the situation better.
I cannot change others, only myself. Getting out of the situation helped. Seeing how others lived, traveling widely and watching friends’ families taught me to broaden my understanding of family life. I have learned to choose my friends intelligently.
Not dwelling on others’ predictions of failure helped. When getting counsel from others, I had to determine if their viewpoint was wise. What was it based on? Following biblical principles is always the wisest course of action. I had to learn to not believe everything everybody told me (you may think everyone knows this, but I didn’t learn it until my late 20s!).
I still read voraciously — even newsmagazines, keeping up with world events. I read books on how to improve myself. I have sought to discover my real talents and have had education to improve my skills. I now meet and talk with a variety of people, so I’ve had to learn social skills — how not to be afraid of people and how to talk to others.
Sometimes that old fear rushes up into my throat when I have to meet and talk to someone I don’t know, but I force myself to stick out my hand and introduce myself. It’s uncomfortable at first, but I know sometimes they are as afraid of me as I am of them! When I say the wrong thing, I try not to condemn myself. I used to constantly rake myself over the coals for past mistakes. Mistakes happen, and I’m human, after all.
Being positive is the hardest thing of all to do, especially when things go wrong, but I learned to place momentary disappointments in proper perspective. The important thing is how I handle the situations. I try to find workable solutions — not run away and try to escape through overeating. Because of travel, marriage, college and life experiences, I’ve become more assertive, more confident, more comfortable with success and being happy. More outgoing in love and affection.
Last, but not least, I have learned how to use food in the right way, overcoming an addiction brought on by emotional upheavals. It was a new concept to me to find out that food is just fuel to keep the body alive! Growing up, it was everything else — love, warmth, happiness, a friend.
A message of encouragement
For all of you who are adult children of alcoholics, I would like to say, “You are not alone.” There are millions who feel the way you do and have similar experiences. You are not crazy. Don’t give up — your life can be happy. What happened to you in your childhood does affect your present adult life, but don’t dwell on the past.
Learn to care for others less fortunate than yourself. Give of yourself — it’s the only way to heal the hurt, the pain, to learn about love and to overcome emotional handicaps. If you become wrapped up in yourself, it will only get worse. Don’t spend hours recriminating yourself for real or imagined faults.
I won’t lie to you — it’s not easy. You’re fighting with yourself, and with an untold number of monsters from years past. But it is worth it — you are worth the effort!