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A Woman’s Silent Suffering

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

...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...

Daughter of an Alcoholic

Monday, February 11th, 2008

...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...

My Name is Shanna, and My Father’s An Alcoholic

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

It's no secret; in fact, everyone that knows me knows it. So I'm certainly not stepping out of the family-member-of-an-alcoholic closet or anything here. The reason I'm even writing about it at all is to help others who might be in a similar situation and feel alone, distraught, and confused.

I learned, from the handful of Al-Anon meetings that I've attended, that one of the greatest healers is the knowledge that you are not alone in your suffering; that, in fact, others are going through almost the exact same thing. Sitting in those meetings, listening to the stories of others whose loved ones were alcoholics and what it had done to them, was like listening to myself. I had always known that others suffered at the hands of their alcoholic loved ones; I had no idea the suffering was, however, so very similar.

Knowing is one thing; experiencing it is quite another. And it was the experiencing - hearing other peoples' similar tales - that gave me comfort and put me on the path to healing, acceptance, and forgiveness.

It is my hope, then, that sharing my story will help others in the same fashion; that reading about another's struggles with the same problem will aid my readers in coming to terms with, and beginning to heal from, their own broken hearts and homes.

For as long and as far back as I can remember, my father drank to excess. Drinking was the most important thing in his life; it came, without exception, before his wife and children.

It was many years before I realized there was anything wrong with this setup; I simply had known no other way. My earliest memories are of my father not coming home from work or being where he'd say he was going to be, my mother sick to her stomach with worry, and him eventually strolling in very late and very drunk; at which point my parents would fight for hours with much screaming and many bitter tears.

A running "joke" between my sister and I - when seeing a loving or doting (or even slightly interested) father on television - was to say, "Daddy's don't do that!" We would laugh, but not without a bit of irony. The fact was, our daddy didn't, and it was something - as we grew older - we were all too well aware of.

You can't truly miss that which you've never had, so I cannot say we were ever sad that our father wasn't a father, and obviously didn't care to be. We joked about it and noted it with sardonic observation, but to say we mourned our lack of a father figure would be incorrect. It was simply the way it was - it was the way he was - and we, as children and even teenagers, never truly realized that we were being cheated or that our lives were lacking in any way.

After all, he was there physically, most of the time, and he provided for our family without fail. We knew he worked hard and that the hard work was done for us to provide for us, and by that, we knew he loved us; it seemed to be enough - it had to be, for it was all there was. Even with the knowledge that all of the hard work and sacrifice was enormously resented by him, that it was all done more out of a sense of moral duty than any notions of familial love, still, it sufficed.

We knew, in that way that I suppose you just inherently know things about your own blood, that he loved us, in his way, as much as he was capable of loving anyone or anything other than beer; maybe not enough and maybe not right, but he did love us.

Regardless of that knowledge, the heart - especially the heart of a child - wants more, and with that wanting, we fell into the trap that millions of others that have relationships with alcoholics always fall into: We walked on egg shells and bent over backwards in countless, futile attempts to gain his notice, approval, and love.

In doing everything you can to place your importance ahead of the alcohol's, you set yourself up for continual disappoint and a lifetime of exercises in futility. The worst part is, it takes years before you realize the continual cycle of disappointment and hurt you are putting yourself through, if you're lucky enough to come to your senses at all; some never do.

The sad truth is, nothing anyone can do will make the relationship work if the alcoholic doesn't face his or her problems and begin to fix themselves. We love them, and we want to help and we believe we can fix them; we cannot.

...to be continued...