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February 21st, 2008

A Woman’s Silent Suffering

...This is the third part of the My Drunk Dad series; click the link to read the first two entries...

On Saturday, March 19, 1977, my parents - Johnnie and Pam - were wed in a small, quiet ceremony. To say the wedding was rushed and hardly prepared for would be an understatement; the decision to marry had been decided on the preceding Wednesday, the 16th. They were both nineteen, soon to be twenty in that same year.

It was a union of necessity that began under pressured, unhappy circumstances; a foreboding of the misery that the match was to create in the lives of the couple and their future children.

The reason for rushing into marriage was my own impending birth. My mother, on Wednesday, March 16, 1977, had found out she was just over a month pregnant. With my father's insistence, and his family's pressure, my mother - numb and despondent - walked down the aisle and joined her life to my father's. The few wedding pictures there are show my mother looking anything but the happy, blushing bride; in fact, she looks sullen and somewhat stunned.

The only clear thought I believe she had in those chaotic and bewildered few days before learning she was pregnant and becoming a wife was that she did not want to get married. In shock over learning she was with child, she allowed herself to be pushed down the aisle. It seemed the right thing to do, what should be done, and she went to her fate with no protesting.

I believe she tried to make the best of it, yet it was in their very first week of living together as a married couple that my father did not return home from work one evening. There was no call and no indication that anything was amiss; he simply did not show up. My mother's worry and distress turned to anger and hurt when he strolled in a few hours late...drunk.

He had stopped by friend's and stayed drinking with them and saw no reason why she should make a fuss about it. His reason for not calling, he insisted, was why deal with an angry wife before completely necessary? In his mind, she would be angry if he called to express his desire to drink at a friend's house rather than come home and she would be angry when he showed up home, later, so why not wait and deal with it then? This was to be his excuse, quite satisfactory to his mind, for the remainder of their marriage. Even after she promised not to protest, and just asked that he let her know he was alive and safe, he refused to ever call and let her know of his actions or whereabouts.

The best way to describe their marriage was tumultuous - a veritable roller-coaster of high ups and low downs. When they got along, they were like two high schoolers in love, unable to keep their hands off each other and madly in love. When they were fighting, which was much more often, they made each other miserable and argued loudly and often.

Matters were not helped by the fact that they were complete opposites who never should have joined in marriage.

My father was a free spirit who regularly enjoyed evenings out drinking with friends. He had no desire for married life or fatherhood, and didn't exert much energy or effort into either. He was outgoing and social, and maintained a large circle of friends. His ideal evening was hanging with buddies after work and coming home to pass out in front of the television after the children were put to bed.

My mother was the complete opposite. She was shy and often withdrawn, and after marrying and having children, maintained few, if any, close friends. Her life was centered around her home, her family, and her children. An ideal evening was spent at home taking care of and enjoying her children, then - after putting them to bed - relaxing in a hot tub with a good book. She was not social and had no interest in partying while leaving the kids home with relatives or babysitters; something my father constantly badgered her about doing.

He resented her homebody mindset and constant attention to their children; which he felt left little time to attend to his own needs. She resented his frequent absence from the family and constant drinking. He felt she wanted to control him and end his free-spirited ways. She felt he wanted to change her and force her to become more social and leave behind their children as an afterthought. They were never able to meet on any middle ground. She wasn't willing to be somewhat more social and he wasn't willing to be somewhat more family-oriented, and so, they were forever at odds.

As the years rolled by, things became worse. As his drinking escalated, it became a real problem for my mother and our family. She knew it was affecting us - and terribly so - but felt powerless to stop or change it. He would promise to stop or slow down, and would for a few weeks or months. Yet always he returned to the drinking and their fights became more virulent and much more frequent.

I remember countless nights sitting up with my mother, while my younger siblings slept, as we worried about whether or not Dad was alive or dead after having crashed his truck into a ditch. There were times we went out driving around and looking for him, peering through the inky night down the driveways of his friends' homes to see if he was there. I remember being anxious and worried, but doing my best to comfort and reassure my mother; he was fine, he would be home any minute now...

Every time they fought, I was in the next room, quietly listening. If it became too heated or threatened to boil over into physical violence, I would rush into the room and stop them. Usually Dad would be shaking my mother in an attempt to calm her down - she had quite a temper (that I inherited) and in raging frustration would often throw things around the room. He never hit her, not then. Physically violent contact such as that, though rare, would come later.

My mother and I were friends much more than we were mother/daughter from as far back as I can remember; something that happened as a result of the both of us trying to fight and make sense of the darkness that was taking over our home. We worked together to control and try to fix Dad and, also, to keep as much of it from the younger ones as possible; we, also, gave each other much comfort and support in those trying times. In a world that saw my father as a wonderful person who, they concluded, must also be a great husband and loving father, my mother and I also shared the same dark secret and the burden of an awful truth; we knew the true Johnnie - the selfish, controlling, cruel, and absent man that resented us and did everything he could to be away from us - making us miserable when he was forced to actually be with us. Together, living that silent lie, we bonded; we were prisoners in the same bleak cell, suffering silently outside the awareness of the outer world.

After fifteen or so years, my mother's resolve began to break down; the realization of fighting a losing battle dawning on her with every passing anniversary. She stopped fighting, and, eventually, she stopped trying.

As the marriage's dying throes convulsed around them, she made a last ditch effort to save it. She did love this man, and - more than anything - wanted to save him from himself; she wanted to help him, which is a deep rut that all family members of alcoholics fall into. She knew the Johnnie he could be, the one everyone else saw, the one he could be when he wasn't drinking and focused his attention on her and their children. She suggested counseling, bought audio marriage therapy tapes he could listen to in his truck, she read self-help/save your marriage books to him in bed at night, she begged, she pleaded, she tried...and she failed. He simply would not budge, did not care, refused to listen - after all, it was all her fault in his mind.

It was her fault he was miserable. It was her fault he drank. It was her fault that everything he ever tried to do failed. She nagged him, tried to control him, and never helped him with anything. In his mind, this was reality; even if it there was no truth to it. Every alcoholic needs their scapegoat - their "reason" for their behavior and their drinking, someone else to blame it on. For my Dad, that person was my mother.

The more resentful he became of her, the more cruel their partnership became. Eventually things went from bitter arguments to outright emotional and mental abuse. My strong-willed and fiery-tempered mother soon broke under the mounting wall of resentment-fueled pressure, and their marriage became one only on paper. Long gone were the days of happy times and silly loving; this pattern in their relationship sputtered out completely.

Their home life became cold and bitter. Words and barbs were traded between them laced with venom; to hear a kind word spoken in the others' direction was rare. They despised one another and made no efforts to hide it. As snippy and spiteful as my mother could be, it was my father's treatment that cut the deepest - and was the reason she was so bitter to begin with. His comments were cruel, harsh, and unfettered - to put it lightly, I've seen people treat their dogs better.

He made awful comments about her weight, not because she was overweight (she is not and never has been), but because he knew how self-conscious she was about it. He regularly, when irritated or angry with her, called her "ugly" and broke her down with repeated quips about how "no one would ever want her"; a favorite line to spew at her was that he wouldn't touch her "if she were the last woman on earth".

She didn't take the insults quietly, but yelled right back at him with equal venom; eventually, however, they began to sink deep into her psyche and, as she approached her mid-40s, became an increasingly depressed, bitter, and gray woman. She felt happiness would only come to her at the time of her death, and hope for the future had all but died within her. She didn't care how she looked; she wore frumpy clothes and never did her hair or wore make-up. Still a beautiful, petite woman forever mistaken for our sister instead of our mother, she attracted the looks of men everywhere she went but was oblivious to the attention; she never believed us when we pointed it out and honestly could not fathom anyone looking at her in any interested way - her self-esteem had been brought that low.

At this point you are wondering, why did she stay? What compelled her to remain in such a loveless, hurtful, and abusive relationship with a cold-hearted, cruel alcoholic? One has to understand a few things; let me try to explain and make the picture somewhat more clear.

My mother, though feisty and short-fused at times, is passive not aggressive. She hates change and is absolutely uncomfortable uprooting herself from her regular patterns and comfortable routine. Worse yet, she's a natural caretaker; a lovely trait she inherited from my grandmother. She's a worrier, and has so many other things on her mind at any given moment - usually involving taking care of others - she leaves little to no time or thought for self. It was too much to think about, leaving him and starting all over and so she concentrated her energy elsewhere - taking care of her children and helping them grow into young adults and fussing over her aging (but still sprightly) father. In some ways, too, my father had knocked her so low that she didn't feel she was worth any extra effort on her - or anyone's - part; subconsciously she felt that he was right, she couldn't do any better and no one else would want her.

There was also, you must understand, the family member of an alcoholic's deep guilt (which Dad impressed upon her constantly) and irrepressible urge to "help", "protect", and "fix" the drinker. My father, I have learned in the last year, has two ways of getting what he wants - forcibly or passive-aggressively. When badgering and demanding don't work, he resorts to an underhanded manipulation using guilt and our love for him; he can be a complete, selfish jerk one minute and a crying, doleful broken man the next. You bounce between feeling anger towards the bastard and feeling sorry for the piteous creature. He used both measures relentlessly - and effectively - on my mother for almost thirty years; one can only begin to imagine the conditioning her mind, emotions, and very spirit has undergone in that time.

In stressful and dysfunctional living situations, you tend to adapt for the purpose of survival. You accept the surreal as normal, the sickness as reality. My mother coped with her painful, difficult marriage to an alcoholic by, first, ignoring it and focusing all of her energy on her children. Then, as we grew older and developed lives of our own, she realized the broken state of the relationship she had with her life partner; she tried to fix it, and it all blew up in her face. Now, broken herself, she accepted her fate and, once more, attempted to focus her energies elsewhere. Why didn't she leave? Because it was all she'd ever known (she married at nineteen), because she couldn't imagine a better life or a healthy relationship (which she had never experienced) , because - despite it all - she loved my father and held on to the ever-dimming memories of when he was sober and they got along (hoping those times would become the norm instead of the exception).

It's hard to sum up thirty years of living in a single blog post, but I have done my best. My father, for all his other faults and his horrible failure at being a father, has earned the majority of my ire for what he has done to my mother. Through it all, she wanted nothing more than to love and be loved. She - despite his protestations to the opposite - took care of him, his finances, his everything. His clothes were always washed, he was always fed, and cold beer was always in the fridge - he had a comfortable home and well-adjusted children to come home to because of her. Yet to this day all he can do is bitterly gripe about how she "did nothing" and "ruined his life".

Soon, their marriage will be over legally - the final nail in the coffin of a long-dead affair. They have not lived together for over a year, but the marriage itself was over long before they decided to separate. Only now, after years of gaining strength and beginning to feel respect and love for herself once more, is my mother beginning to realize the long road of healing that is ahead of her; only now does she realize just how deeply my father scarred her mental and emotional being. I have seen her grow and blossom - out from underneath his dark, degrading cloud - into a wise, tender woman who is now, for the first time in thirty years, getting to know herself. My pride at how far she has come is immense - it is inspiring to see the grace, hope, and strength with which she looks down the road to recovery she knows she must walk. For so many years she turned away from her demons, yet now she stands ready to face them, ready to slay them, ready to begin living. I have no doubts that she will heal.

As for my father, he continues to blame my mother for his shortcomings and problems. She rarely even talks to him unless absolutely necessary, and everyone makes it a point to ensure she doesn't have to see him and that she doesn't have to be alone with him (he will jump at any chance to start a fight with her and berate her). Since leaving home, and not having my mother to watch over him and reign him in somewhat, he has wasted away thousands of dollars on alcohol, foolish purchases, bad business decisions, and women and been arrested for three DUI's in 2007 alone. His "mistakes", as he calls them, are still - somehow, in his mind - my mother's fault. He continues on a depressing-to-watch downward spiral - a complete contrast to the bright, uplifting soaring and positive route my mother's life is now taking.

I wish the best for both of my parents, naturally. Yet where I see my mother growing and gaining, I see him only failing and falling. Years of abuse to himself, and his family, have brought him to this sorry state, and there is - honestly - little hope left for him.

For my mother, however, life is just beginning...

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