The legal drinking age was 18 when I grew up, the DWI laws were much more relaxed and I remember going to the local drug store when I was 16 to buy my dad a case of beer with only a note or an excuse that it was for him. I was always around alcohol as a kid – Dad definitely was the life of the party back then, and the free-flowing beer seemed to be the fuel that stoked his fire. While I had easy access, I was never much for drinking to excess. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve been drunk in my life. I suppose I knew (even as a child) that my dad was a functioning alcoholic and not something I wanted to mimic.
I have vivid memories of my dad coming home from his factory job every day, sitting on the couch before dinner cracking open his first beer. This turned into five or six beers. The fact that it was 3:30 in the afternoon and that his “habit” had become an “obsession” should have been a clue that he had a problem.
Beer was my Dad’s escape from the heavy load he was carrying, and I’m sure he felt he earned the right to drink after work everyday. The life he took on when he married my mom was an enormous challenge, a full-time strenuous factory job, weekend work in the family business and two kids within three years of getting married. I can’t imagine the pressure he was under.
Dad and I used to be really close. I felt like the son he never had. Being the older of two daughters, I was relegated to being the “tough” one. Working by his side, he taught me how to do everything from shingle a roof to hang drywall to tune-up a boat motor. While lifting up the end of a refrigerator wasn’t my idea of a good time, hearing my father compliment me about being stronger and smarter than any of the boys he knew meant to world to me. I loved the easy camaraderie we established – a bond that felt more like a friendship than a parent/child relationship.
I didn’t think much of it then, but Dad always offered me a swig of his beer as a reward for doing a good job. While that little bit of malt liquor didn’t do anything to me, the steady injection of alcohol into Dad’s blood stream day-after-day severely affected both our conversations and relationship. The one-on-one time I looked forward to each weekend eventually degraded to a loud-pitched demand to “Go cut the grass!” or a slurred “Go get me another beer.” By that time, it was becoming exceedingly clear that his overwhelming desire to obtain his daily “fix” of beer eclipsed most kind words or rational thought. I hated what drinking was doing to him. I missed my “old dad” and somehow thought that I could make a difference.
My attempts to get Dad to slow down were met with a “How dare you?” attitude. My suggestion that “he didn’t need a beer and that there were plenty of more refreshing beverages” set him off on a tirade so fierce, I vowed never to bring it up again.
I had to be a lot more resourceful, so I approached my mom. As Mom rarely had anything stronger than a minty Grasshopper a couple times a year, her response was equally shocking. She defended him in every way imaginable, insisted that there was no problem with my Dad drinking beer, and told me to “Drop it!”
Surely his mom would be more inclined to help, or so I thought. Talking to Gram about her baby boy’s drinking problem was a terrible idea! She and I were really close too. We’d sit out in her sunroom for hours on end talking about everything. This subject was definitely off limits as she reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that I was talking about my FATHER. He deserved my respect and understanding, and that I should mind my place.
I remember wanting to shield my younger, somewhat outspoken sister from the impending disaster. Like me, she realized at a young age that Dad’s moods would shift from happy to nasty with the “tssst” of a beer bottle. As her self-imposed protector, I begged her to not piss him off. Stubborn to the core, she couldn’t keep quiet, and WW III began. As usual, the grown-ups won the battle that day. Not one for confrontation anyway, I decided it would be easier from then on to keep my head down and try to ignore the situation like everyone else.
Dad’s always been the ultimate “people person.” He loved throwing a party, and I’m pretty sure he coined the phrase “the more the merrier.” I remember summers in Canada being filled with one party after another. As each new group of renters arrived, he would introduce himself and set up the next get-together. Unfortunately, even with hundreds of people flocking to his soirees each week, he never seemed to be able to quench his thirst for attention.
I was both embarrassed and angry. All the people Dad called his friends were nothing more than leaches looking for free food and beer. Even though he initiated things, I hated to see people take advantage of him.
Finally, it caught up with him. After years of feeding his alcoholism, the fun-loving socialite became withdrawn and angry. He was quick-tempered and easily enraged. My sister and I tried to stay under the radar while Mom was the enabler and gave him whatever he wanted. By 9:00 pm, he usually had enough to drink and passed out, with snores equaling the decibel level of a jackhammer.
Eventually my Dad started to drink beer before and after dinner – often going out with his friends in the evening for “a brew or two.” That’s when things started to get a little crazy. “Passive Mom” quickly became “Clingy Mom.” Every time anyone left the house, she grilled us on where we were going, what we were doing and when we were coming home. My sister and I had to check in as soon as we arrived home, and if we were a minute past curfew, there was hell to pay. Dad’s late-night bar-hopping was not without consequence either. Every time he went out, Mom’s anxiety would escalate, and we could count on another loud night of fighting.
I have no doubt that the reason I was so eager to get married at 20 was to get away from the unbearable dysfunction that alcohol abuse had created in my family. I just couldn’t bear to watch my once fun-loving, caring and compassionate family fall apart, so I left. I still feel bad for leaving my sister behind, but I didn’t feel I had a choice. I was relieved when she finally escaped the household prison to attend college and work a part-time job. How sad that home was no longer a safe haven for either of us.
Things once again started to spiral out of control when I announced my engagement. That year-long walk to the alter was unbearable. Instead of hope and joy, those days were filled with tears and despair. I tried desperately to maintain a relationship with my parents after I got married, but the only thing that had changed was that I no longer lived there. The same cycle of drinking continued, and no matter how many times I tried to talk to my mom about getting help, I was met with an icy declaration that everything was fine. It wasn’t fine.
I made it very clear that they were always welcome in my home as long as Dad hadn’t been drinking. With a history of alcoholism in his background too, my husband firmly stood behind my decision.
Years went by, feelings got hurt, and ultimately, we just stopped talking.
Finally, it happened…life intervened again. Dad called to tell me he’d quit drinking for good. With all the years of heartache, I was afraid to believe it was true. He’d been sick – really sick. I could hear the gut-wrenching fear in Dad’s voice as he shared how scared he was. He’d been to doctor after doctor, gone through test after test, and ultimately, prescribed a drug that was potent enough to kill whatever bacteria had taken up residence in his body. After a week on the “miracle meds,” he felt worse than ever and could barely get out of bed. A call to the doctor left him with nothing more than a “let’s wait and see” recommendation.
The instinct to survive is a very powerful thing, and thankfully my dad listened to his. He stopped taking the meds and went to the emergency room. The drug he was prescribed attacked his liver, and with it already being compromised from years of drinking, he almost died. The doctor on call delivered my Dad this life-altering prognosis: “If you don’t stop drinking today, you’ll die tomorrow.” That was nearly 30 years ago, and Dad hasn’t had a drink since.
I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for him, but his determination to make things right again definitely paid off. It took some time, but I was finally able to forgive him. Our relationship will never be the same as it was before beer drove a wedge between us, but I’m grateful to have a second chance.
While I haven’t sworn off alcohol completely, I have a healthy respect for the damage it can cause. My husband jokingly says I’m a cheap date when I order one glass of wine with a Diet Pepsi backup. But he understands that even with the memories of that terrible time fading away, I’ll never forget just how thin the line is between sobriety and the edge of the cliff.
Alcoholism is a terrible disease that has devastated so many lives. Have you or a loved one struggled to overcome its powerful draw? Were you able to rebuild your broken relationship or was the damage too great? If my story inspired you, I hope you’ll share it with others.
Read more of our alcohol series.