Notes From The Child of an Alcoholic

I never thought I would have an alcoholic parent. Hell, no one in my family really drinks. There’s no alcohol during the holidays or a casual glass of wine at dinner. As I got older, I realized this was because everyone in my family either didn’t like the taste or had gone to rehab for liking it too much.

My father has never been drunk or really done drugs. One night he took a lot of Vicodin for a headache and told me he loved me. That was fun. My mother never really drank either until she divorced my father. Then she drank a lot.

The first time I saw her acting drunk I was ten years old. My mother was stumbling around in her nightgown with a sheepish grin on her face, and I was totally confused by her behavior. I had never seen a drunk person before. I had a vague idea of what it might be like from watching movies but I certainly never expected to see it from my own mother. I just asked her why she was acting so weird and then my older sister accused her of being drunk. My mom denied it with this look that I quickly grew to despise. She honestly looked like a mongoloid. Her mouth was silently agape and her eyes were cross-eyed. Her whole face just drooped.

I went to bed hating her that night. The next morning she took me into her room to apologize for being drunk and told me it would never happen again. Of course it was a lie and after a few months of increased drinking, she stopped apologizing for being wasted. She was an alcoholic now and we had to accept it.

When your parents do awful things to you when you’re young, you deal with the trauma in strange ways. My brother, for example, freaked out when my mother started to drink. One night when she was wasted, he started to furiously clean the house, and when I asked him why, he just said, “Because Mom doesn’t like it when there’s a mess, Ryan. She likes things clean.” It was obvious to me even at that young age that my brother honestly thought that having a clean house would stop my mother from drinking. Coming home to no messes would make her less stressed out and therefore less likely to drink.

By the time I reached high school, my father had moved to Los Angeles and my mother’s alcoholism had gotten worse. I used to joke that we had become the family from Party of Five. There was no parental guidance. Her house had become run by teenagers. My brother had begun to filn pornos in the back room (seriously) and I was having sleep overs with my boyfriend and snorting Xanax in the living room with my friends. Where was my mom during all of these shenanigans? Locking herself in her room with a bottle of vodka. She would only remerge for a midnight snack.

Xanax snorting aside, I never really did drugs in high school. In fact, I was an academic nerd enrolled in AP classes. Doing well in school was very important to me. In retrospect, I realize how lucky I was to have ambition and goals because I could’ve easily flunked out of school and my parents wouldn’t have been able to intervene. What would’ve happened if I needed some actual guidance, someone to light a fire under my ass? I wouldn’t have gotten it.

I hated my mom in a way that I’ve never hated anyone else in my life. By the end of high school, we barely spoke to each other because every time we would start, I would just scream at her and would have to leave. Things got even worse when I went away to college. My mom moved in with her boyfriend in Northern California and expedited her downward spiral by drinking all day every day. On the rare occasions I would visit her, I would be frightened by her frail appearance. Her body would even start shaking if she didn’t drink alcohol. At this point, her drinking had become Intervention status.

I tried to help her. I talked to her so many times about her drinking but she would just deny having a problem. Her denial was so strong that she would be holding a glass of vodka and tell me it was water even after I had tasted it myself. It was so bizarre. I would be like, “Mom, that’s vodka. I just drank some and almost threw up!” and she’d be like, “Nope. Water.” It was impossible getting through to her.

Things came to a head in a very dramatic way in 2007 when I got hit by a car. My dad had driven up from L.A. to take care of me. He was amazing at getting everything together, talking to the best doctors and my teachers so I could finish exams while I was on morphine in the hospital. He really came through for me. After three weeks, however, my father needed to return to work so we made plans for my mom to take over. I had been released from the hospital and was recovering from a skin graft. I was nervous for my mom to act as a caretaker but she was a nurse so I thought I’d be in good albeit drunk shaky hands.

When my mom showed up to my apartment, my father and I were stunned by what we saw. She had become stick thin and was barely able to walk or talk. In short, she was not the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman we were expecting, and it became clear that there was no way she would be capable of looking after me.

After spending two hours at my house behaving like a zombie, my mother fell backwards into my walk-in closet. The doors had come down and she had hit her head on the floor. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I’ve never written about it before and it feels strange doing so now, but it’s important because that day was what made her go to rehab. She hit rock bottom the second she disappointed me. Meanwhile, I’m just laying in my bed with blood oozing from my leg watching my mother passed out on the floor, thinking “Um, this is a bad moment in my life.”

She’s been sober ever since, and every day I hear her voice without the slurs is seriously a gift. And in a weird way, it made me getting hit by a car feel okay. Even though it robbed me of a lot of things, it was the reason my mom got sober. If it weren’t for it, who knows if my mother would’ve sought help.

My mom and I have an insanely close relationship now. It’s like she disappeared for ten years of my life and now we’re reacquainting ourselves. It hasn’t been a completely easy process though. After my mom got sober, I still had all of this anger towards her, but I didn’t feel like I had the right to vocalize any of it. She had done the impossible and gotten sober. Vocalizing my hurt would only upset her, right?

I realized that I was allowed to be hurt though. By not talking to her about my feelings, my anger would just manifest in strange ways. Like this one time she came to stay with me in L.A. and accidentally broke my channel changer. I flipped the fuck out. I started to scream at her and called her a fucking idiot. She started to cry, and I had to collect myself. It was then that I realized that this had nothing to do with the channel changer and everything to do with her alcoholism. I’ve started to talk candidly with her ever since to avoid such blowups and it’s really helped.

My feelings towards drinking have been shaped by being the child of an alcoholic. I’ve had friends who are alcoholics and have been freaked out by their behavior. Being around people with unhealthy drinking habits just takes me back to my drunk mother and I can’t handle it. I’ve even ended some friendships or distanced myself because their behavior was too painful for me to experience again.

I’m very controlled with my drinking. Sure, I get wasted and vomit once a year but I always am aware. Being a Virgo and growing up exposed to alcoholism has made it impossible for me to do something like blackout. Bummer!

Time is a funny thing. My family started out as a very tight unit but when adolescence hit, we all kind of fell apart. Today though, I feel like we’re closer than ever. You can thank sobriety and perspective for that, I guess. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Cristiano Betta

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.

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