When Parents Abuse Alcohol
by Richard Maffeo
Linda: "Mom and Dad got drunk in 1956 and stayed that way until about 1982. Oh, what they missed! My mother quit work as a pediatric nurse because she couldn't cope, and then acted as if it was because I was born that she had to stay home with me. My parents worked different shifts, so this was a lie, but I bore the guilt anyway.
"Mom's paranoia grew as I grew. When I hit my teen years, it was at its worst.
If broken out with acne, I was taken for syphilis tests. I was subjected to prodding by a pediatrician to make sure I was virginal -- more than once -- because I had been 15 minutes late from school. If I had straight A's in school or joined a sports team, I was a show-off. If I didn't get A's, I was a potential drop-out. Nothing I did was right.
"Sometimes she backed into a corner of the kitchen with a knife to her throat, threatening me that if I didn't straighten out, she would plunge it into her artery. Often during the middle of the night she'd slam a beer glass on the table hard enough to waken me. She did it again just after I fell asleep once more, often screaming at the walls about how bad I was. It was a near-nightly occurrence, and I almost never slept.
"My father sat in front of the T.V. or went to bed and ignored it all. He was too drunk to worry, or possibly to even hear.
"They are dead -- both of them. Dad first, then Mom. The day of her funeral, I looked in the cavernous hole they were about to put her into and realized I had spent my teen years in a hole like that -- years that should have been the time of my life. I looked into the grave and said out loud, 'It's not my fault. I didn't do this.' My sister and brother, who had been through the same thing, nodded in agreement.
"We said our tearful good-byes way too soon. But the results of their addictions will never leave us."
Rebecca: "Almost every teen is embarrassed by their parents at some time, but only the child of an alcoholic parent can understand just how humiliating it is to have a drunk parent.
"My mother didn't take care of herself. She often smelled repulsive, had oily hair and wore soiled clothing. As she grew older, she began losing her teeth and didn't care enough to see a dentist. Her complexion was also affected by the abuse. Her reddened, swollen face made it seem as though she had some sort of skin disease. It was difficult for me as a teen to go shopping or to a restaurant with her because I knew people were staring. I suspected they knew why she looked that way. I'm age 34, and I'm still uncomfortable when I have to be in a public place with her. And that always makes me feel guilty.
"Not only are the physical effects dramatic, the psychological effects are worse. Since she couldn't always take care of me, I had to make do on my own most of the time. Electric bills and phone bills went unpaid, and there was often nothing to eat in the refrigerator. She never locked the front door before passing out in the evening and often left all the lights on in the house, along with the T.V. set. I remember going around at night, closing the house up and shutting everything off.
"What bothered me most, though, was how dirty the house was. We had cats -- three at one point -- and my mother never bothered cleaning the litter pan. When there was no more litter for them to go in. they'd go pretty much anywhere they could. Dishes were always heaped in the sink and left stacked on the counters, along with empty cans, bottles and moldy glasses. This made it difficult for me to have friends over. I didn't want people to see where I lived.
"I would lock myself in my bedroom which I kept as clean as I could. It's no surprise that I'm a clean-freak now. When we visit their house today, I have to clean it before I let my kids sit anywhere, and I usually end up insisting we stay outside.
"The worst moments came when dates would come to pick me up. Usually guys feel the need to make a point of meeting a girl's parents. Since my mother and stepfather are extremely friendly people (especially when they have a good buzz on) they often insisted the guy come inside, and they'd offer him a beer. So, when I had a date, I had to fill a guy in before he came to get me. Sometimes I'd hardly know the guy, and I'd have to give him details of my life that I would have rather remained secret.
"I still love my mother. She's my mother. But I have to admit it helps that we live so far apart (I live across the country).
"I tried getting my mother to stop thousands of times, but she still doesn't understand she has a problem. She eagerly discusses her husband's alcoholism and even accuses him of drinking on the sly, but she stubbornly holds on to a belief that she doesn't have a problem at all."
Scott: "I was 22 when my mother died. She had been a closet alcoholic for years. I didn't really know she was sick until she was in the hospital. She died about three weeks later.
"How did it affect me as a teenager? Well, I thought everybody drank like my mother did. She started drinking at lunch, drank all day, probably drinking at least a fifth of whiskey. She never acted inebriated, worked every day and always seemed in control. The effect on me is still hard to describe after all these years (I'm age 38 now). I think she was dishonest and emotionally barren. Her primary goal was to make sure she always had a drink. She set her whole life around it.
"She was never mean to me. In fact, she had more of a laissez-faire attitude. When I was in high school, she let me have drinking parties at our house nearly every weekend. She occasionally drank right along with us. At the time I thought this was totally normal behavior, but now that I'm an adult with kids of my own, I see the absurdity of it.
"When she was in the hospital, the doctors told my dad there was nothing more they could do. She was going to die in 3-4 days. My sister and I made the trip to Iowa to see her in the hospital. When I got there and saw her lying in bed, confused, jaundiced, withering away, I couldn't cope. I hung around for about 20 minutes and then called up a friend who was in town. He met me downtown, and we talked for about 4 hours until it was time for me to head back home. I couldn't face my mother in that bed. It was one of the lowest points of my life."
Suzanne: "I remember having mixed feelings about my dad. I was disappointed in him -- he was no longer my big strong daddy, protector of the family. I was scared for him, especially when he constantly threatened suicide. I was terrified I'd find him dead in our apartment. I was so angry he couldn't seem to "get it together" -- to admit he had a problem and ask for help.
"My dad was an alcoholic for most of his life. When I was in college, he and Mom could no longer hide his drinking. He slammed doors, screamed curses at Mom and me and broke the furniture. He was drunk almost 24/7. One time he pulled a gun on the family. Mom got it away from him, but years later, after he got sober, I asked him, 'Do you remember that? Did you really intend to kill us?' He said, 'Yes.'
"Mom and Dad almost divorced. The worst part about that was I was trying to recover from mental illness at the same time. Because of those two stresses at the same time, I've had an unreasoning fear of chaos that has lasted for over 20 years.
"The last coherent words Dad spoke to me (by then he was dying of Alzheimer's) were 'you're my best girl' -- followed by a bear hug. I loved my dad."
Any of these could be your children's stories. Perhaps one of them is.
That's why it's time to stop the excuses, the rationalizations, the denials. Your children -- whether they are five years old or fifty -- need you to do it. You don't want to leave them a legacy of heartache and sorrow. Nor do you want them to stare into your grave and shout, "It's not my fault."
Help is available. Even if you've tried and failed before, try again. Your children love you. They fear for you. They long for you to hold them in your arms and be their parent.
Richard Maffeo is a registered nurse in the U.S. Navy, currently deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.