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February 11th, 2008

Daughter of an Alcoholic

...continued from "My Name is Shanna, and My Father's An Alcoholic"...

As far as dysfunctional families go, I always felt we were very lucky. We weren't abused - our father didn't go into drunken rages and beat us or slip into alcohol-induced blackouts and touch us inappropriately. He was not completely cruel and he didn't hit our mother. In many ways, as odd as it may sound, I felt contrite complaining at all. I honestly didn't feel I had the right; not when so many others were truly suffering at the hands of their drunk dads and inebriated husbands.

In never occurred to me - perhaps to none of us - to feel indignant about his drinking and how it negatively affected our lives and our peace of mind. In many ways, too, as it was the only life we'd ever known, it all seemed rather commonplace.

Now don't get me wrong, we weren't happy about it; we certainly weren't accepting of his condition - we fought, begged, cried, rallied, and pleaded for him to slow down or stop the drinking. It was always to no avail, but we never stopped trying.

Still, we just never felt we had any right to really complain. There were things in all of our relationships with him that were lacking, no doubt, but he provided for us financially and didn't beat us. How sad that situations in life can be so bleak as to make you feel privileged that they just aren't worse? It was always, yes, Dad is an alcoholic, but...we were forever making excuses for him; maybe because we ourselves just couldn't face the awful truth of how he was not only killing himself but destroying our family and home life. After the worst had blown over and he - yet again - said he'd "try to do better", we'd convince ourselves it wasn't that bad and that things would get better and, hey, he's not really that bad, not like all those other drunks and alcoholics.

We pin-balled back and forth between knowing he had a horrible disease that was destroying us all and convincing ourselves he just had "a little drinking problem" that was no more than a small nuance of day-to-day life.

And, oh the faith we all had! The times we believed - because we truly wanted to believe - that he really would be better and really would change. So many times he said it; so many times we let ourselves believe him. And every time - without fail - weeks and sometimes months later, he would be right back to his old tricks and we went through the heartbreak and disappointment yet again. We always gave him another chance, and he always ruined it. He was incapable of making any change that involved less or no drinking, and that was simply that.

Around the age of fourteen, I asked my father if he would - or could - stop drinking were the consequence the very real and true alternative of losing us - his wife of nearly fifteen years and his three children. For once, he was honest. He thought about it and then looked at me with the saddest - yet resolved - look in his eyes and said, "I don't think I could. I don't think I could give up the drinking for anything."

"Even for us?" I remember asking, tears in my eyes and my voice catching in my throat. Why ask? I knew the answer, and it hurt - oh, it hurt.

"I just don't think I could," he said, sadly.

We both cried, then, and he hugged me and apologized - not for saying it, but because it was true.

I was aware our family was dysfunctional and that we had problems - but I never believed our problems to be that much worse than anyone else's. Looking back now, I see how little I realized what was going on around me and how deeply it was affecting me. It's something I see my younger siblings, both now young adults, coming to terms with themselves. It did affect us, it did hurt us, and it did scar us.

Dad's only real role, other than financial supporter, in our family was disciplinarian - which he did well, even if at times he overdid it. We were well-raised and respectful children. Though we got tons of love and support from our mother, among many other things, stern discipline was all we got from our father. He provided for us and put us in our place, and - other than believing us little slaves who could be ordered to put up his boots and bring another beer - that was the extent of his fathering.

He was never proud of any of our achievements because I can't honestly say he was ever really aware of them. I remember Christmas mornings - always a joyous time of year because of Mom's enthusiasm for the holiday and the time she put into making each one special for us despite being married to Scrooge - him looking confused at every gift we unwrapped and bombarding Mom with questions such as "She's into that?" or "When did he start playing with that?". He didn't know our interests, likes, or dislikes. He had no idea of how we did in school or which subjects we excelled in or were our favorites. He knew only the friends of ours that came over to visit, and to this day has trouble remembering our birthdays.

My personal relationship with Dad was more strained than that of my two younger siblings, and my brother and he had no relationship to speak of - the two could not, and still cannot, stand one another. He was fond of my younger sister, though, and out of all of us, showed the most interest in her. For whatever reason, he liked her and though he had little to do with her, she seemed safe from the harshness he showed to me and the chastising my brother endured.

I was a disappointment because I didn't do things the way he thought I should, which was in opposition to his "my way or the highway" attitude; my fierce independence and determination to walk to the beat of my own, odd little drummer was like a slap in the face to him. He was a very controlling man for all his apathy towards us.

My asthmatic brother was a disappointment because he was never into sports (Dad ran track and played football in high school) and wasn't, in my father's eyes, "manly" enough. Being the baby of the family and the only boy, who also had asthma and suffered from dyslexia, my mother doted on him, and Dad resented it - often belitting him by calling him a "mama's boy". The truth is, the hours upon hours my mother spent with Johnnie every single evening doing his homework with him and teaching him how to study and read despite being dyslexic is the reason my brother is about to graduate college today. Dad, however, felt her time would have been better spent drinking and spending time visiting friends with him.

I say he wasn't abusive. That isn't exactly true. At the time, we thought "abuse" covered physical beatings and blatant sexual inappropriateness. It never occurred to any of us that we were suffering through emotional and mental abuse. It wasn't until years and years later we realized the damage that had been done, and the brainwashing his manipulative, controlling actions had put us through. For all his inattentiveness and disregard of his family, he made his presence known enough to train us in classic alcoholic fashion; life was spent trying to please him and keep him happy, and we often felt we must be at least a part of the cause of his drinking.

Guilt was common, and shame. Everyone loved our father. He was the perfect gentleman, neighbor, church member, and friend. He was a hero to some people. A volunteer fireman who was active in his community and our small church - he spent much of his time away from home replacing light bulbs for elderly ladies and helping friends build their new homes. Everyone knew they could count on my Dad; he was never more than a phone call away. Though we loved, and respected, this aspect of him - to and for others, he really was a great man - it was more than painful to smile at the kindly church ladies as they sang his praises with a, "You all are so lucky - he's just so wonderful!" We would smile weakly and Mom - poor Mom - would smile, nod, and agree, "Yes, we're very lucky".

It was soul-destroying to live that lie; to be the only ones who knew the truth and to know, had we spoken out, no one would have believed us. "Not Johnnie!" we could almost hear them saying, "Why that kind, helpful, heroic, generous man?! I just can't believe it!"

My father once ran across a busy highway to help a young man that had just been hit by a car - he took off, with no thought to his own safety. When a power line once fell across the road from our home, he ran out into the night and almost lost his life running in front of an oncoming car to stop it before it rolled over the live wire twitching in the street. He was known in the fire department, and our small town, for his selfless acts and renowned everywhere for his vibrant, generous personality and steadfast loyalty in friendship. He was charming, smart, handsome, and kind to all he met.

Oh, how we loved that Johnnie! He was the Johnnie everyone else knew and loved, but we were proud of him and very proud to be his family. It was with pride that we would tell people we met we were "Johnnie Blank's children", especially when they, upon hearing it, broke into a big grin and announced they knew him or had heard of him and went on to talk about what a great guy our father was.

Behind closed doors, however, there lived a very different Johnnie Blank. This Johnnie - when he was even at home at all - did not enjoy the company of his family. He resented having to spend time with us and only enjoyed himself if he was drunk whilst doing so. The things he so readily ran out and did for others - fixing broken objects, replacing light bulbs, working on a car, etc. - he would put off or simply not do for us; in fact, he would get very aggravated when our mother even dared to ask his assistance in such matters.

It wasn't always awful, please don't think that. There were fun times and I do have some fond memories of time we spent together as a family. Yet, the majority of the time, he was grouchy and irritable if sober and embarrassing and obnoxious if drunk.

I remember life in the late afternoons, after we were home from school and before he would return home (which was usually late and sometimes after we'd gone to bed). We, my mother, my siblings, and I, when he was not there, had such fun times together. There was laughter in the home, joy and contentment. As soon as his truck pulled into the drive, though, the mood darkened. Everyone scurried off to their own rooms, and he and Mom often fought.

Yet those times when he was absent we were the most happy. Our mother, bless her heart, was the complete opposite of my father. Where we were an afterthought, if a thought at all, in his life, we were my mother's life. Her children were everything to her and everything she did was for us. Our happiness and safety were her primary concern and it was one of many areas where she and my father clashed and fought relentlessly. She was interested in our lives, encouraged our interests, and was an active part in our daily lives until I left home at the age of eighteen. She was not only our mother, but our friend, confidante, pal, and protector - she was also a fellow prisoner in the hell that our life would, at times, become.

For all the pain we suffered, it was a thousand times worse for my mother, who took the brunt of it. He may have ignored us, but to our mother - as the years wore on - he could be brutally cruel. She was - and still is as they go through a long-overdue divorce - his scapegoat and his excuse. Every alcoholic needs one; their "reason" for drinking - because to admit they drink of their own accord is to admit they have a problem, and what alcoholic is going to do that? The scars of almost thirty years living with a manipulative, cruel, and uncaring alcoholic have left harsh scars and deep wounds yet to heal upon my mother's spirit and soul. Her strength is amazing, and her heart - still able to love and care for the piteous creature my father has become - is humbling and awe-inspiring; she is a remarkable woman. But that, is another story...

...to be continued...

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