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. TC mark

image – Cristiano Betta

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.


More From Thought Catalog

  • Andrew F.

    Thanks for this.

  • azi

    good times.

  • Kyle Angeletti

    brave writing. impressed with the clarity and objectivity you managed to maintain.

  • Brian McElmurry

    Is your brother in the porn business? You mentioned this before, about a website. I enjoyed this.

    • Brian McElmurry

      You should write about your brother

  • J in DC

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Sean Reilly

    Ryan, this was so honest and open, I really appreciated reading this. Keep it up :)

  • yoshiboshi

    And I thought my family was bad.

    I read this and immediately thought of bringing you home and taking care of you.

    • Ryan O'Connell

      Don't feel that way! My family and I are super close now!

  • Sam Sigelakis- Minski

    This was a beautiful, honestly written piece. Thank you.

  • Mikaela Kaimo

    This is wonderful. It shows how strong a family can be, even after hardships. Thank you for sharing this personal story.

  • Gabrielle Bodek

    I know how tough and embarrassing to talk about an alcoholic and/or mentally ill parent. Thank you for your honesty and bravery!

  • Jordan

    Very good, Ryan.

  • Katherine Hatcher

    Thank you for posting this. It was beautifully written and very true. My father is a recovering alcoholic, and has been sober for almost about 9 months. It's the best gift that could have been given to me. And reading this makes me feel so less alone, because the anger-even after they are healthy-is still there. Thank you so so so so much.

  • Ischra

    This was painful to read.

  • Meaghan Zabinsky

    i wrote a piece like this at the gloss – yours is great.

  • Guest

    I am an alcoholic and I live alone. This is really moving and makes me glad, too, that there is no one else to hurt by my private behavior.

    Though I wish I could have the startling turn-around moment.

    Really great piece.

    • Jakis

      Do it. I dare you. I dare you to live. It took my mum 5 days to bleed to death [internally] in the ICU. The surgeons had banded so many veins over the previous year that when she had her final bleed, she pretty much burst internally……if you stop in time your liver can begin to heal. If you don't want to live, there are much quicker and less messy ways to go than slowly killing your liver.

      You're already someway to better – you acknowledge yourself as an alcoholic. Can you imagine what the 'startling turn-around moment' might be? Probably not, maybe like my mother you just present dwell, one day at a time, do something about it another time, worry about it tomorrow. You could take the same approach with abstinence.

      And I don't mean to be patronising – I fully understand what a grip this Disease has on the psyche and the body

      But how much time do really spend THINKING about it – think what the lowest point would be – go there everyday in your mind – see every drink as oen step toward it – and you're only a few steps away.

      Much love and hope to you.

      • Guest

        Jakis, thanks for your response. I wasn't sure about posting here, but am glad I did, if only for your words. Yes, I know I have what they call “a problem” (it's a good day if I can wait until 5pm to open a bottle of wine; some days I only have one), but I can't even think about not having anything.

        I'm scared (esp. as a woman) of what this is doing to me, but—OK, enough. There isn't anything new to say. I hide out because I don't want to hurt anyone or shame myself about the situation I'm in. My friends just think I'm a “flake” because I cancel on them for dinner or whatnot—I'd rather that than show up already tipsy.

        My parents and siblings live faraway and don't know. My ex is faraway, too, and never knew. We never had kids.

        It's just me, here, trying to pretend I'm normal. Then the late afternoon hits.

  • Izzy

    I also have an alcoholic parent. I suddenly burst into tears whilst reading this, which was odd as I haven't cried properly in a few months now despite a lot of shit going down; it's been frustrating, really, as it means I haven't been able to get the release that you get from crying about something. So thank you, Ryan; I needed this.

  • Hotmail

    You should print this out and take it to a therapist so you can watch as she underlines every sentence in the last 3 paragraphs.

  • Jen

    Thank you for writing this. I have an alcoholic parent also, who I'm not sure will ever stop drinking. Oddly enough, I can run the whole spectrum of emotions-from love to hate to disappoint-in the matter of mere hours when dealing with him and his problem. I'm happy to know that there is hope, and I am glad you are close to your mom now. After I got engaged, it took my dad and I two months to see each other, despite the fact we live in the same town. We went out to dinner last week together and had a lot of fun. It made me realize how much I miss the real him.

  • JB

    You were lucky actually. My experience with a alcoholic parents actually got much more insane. And, they are still alcoholics. It's good to read this though and to know that people have experienced at least something similar. It has definitely caused a lot of problems/pain in my life and this feels relatable.

    • Jen

      I understand what you mean by having your experience “get much more insane,” but I think the really troubling part of alcoholism (and all substance abuse) is that for the people around the abuser, it FEELS like there is no end, no bottom, no “much more insane.” Things already ARE so insane. Like I said, I definitely know what you mean by this comment though. I can relate to this article too, and I know how difficult it is to deal with this firsthand.

  • Lido

    I'm so glad that your story ended well. My mum died from alcoholic liver disease a couple of months ago. In some ways it was a relief. So many years of stress, worry and guilt….the grieving is bad, but at least no more emergency dashes to the hospital for the 'mystery illness', no more surprises, no more having to not answer the phone after 4pm because she'd be pissed, no more abuse. She is no more.
    All I have to deal with now is the denial of the rest of the family who, even in the face of the death certificate, will not accept she had a drink problem – alcoholics are tramps who sleep on park benches not middle aged middle class women…in the months leading up to her death, she already looked like a corpse, but nobody would back me up in trying to address the problem. I was so hurt and angry with her that I couldn't do it on my own. I didn't have any love left to help her with.

    I also find being around drunks intolerable, and have severed friendships. I still like the occasional drink, but I try to avoid it because I know I have the potential in myself to become an alcoholic.

  • ThanksRyan

    I wish I could get my dad to get help. I don't think he'll ever stop. It's so embarrassing not being able to have friends over when he's home and I hate having to explain why my dad and I never had those “father-son playing baseball at the park bonding” moments. Thanks for this, I could relate.

  • James Hay

    Thankyou for sharing Ryan. I always feel moved reading your blogs whether it be laughter, realization and understanding but this is the first time I was close to tears. Through all this reading you're becoming a living, breathing Ryan to me… through a computer or phone screen.

  • ricky schitltiiz

    glad to see something sincere, first person, etc.

    good read, although:

    “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.”

    1. snorting xanax has no added benefit over ingesting
    2. reemerge

    • Humblecore


  • Matthew Ballek

    I was expecting a sarcastic portrayal of the stereotypical alcoholic mother but was surprised with something a little more personal. It's really sincere and loved reading it..until the end. “Virgo”, really? You seem more logical than horoscopes.

    Just so you know this made me cry, and not in a “wow this is beautiful” kind of way. It was more of a “holy fuck, it's late, really should be studying instead of convulsing my sleep deprived body” kind of thing. Gha, alchies are the worst, but I think they allow you to understand people better.

    I commend you for squeezing your feelings into those paragraphs.

  • Kay Elle

    My father has been an alcoholic for much of his life. We thought he had hit rock bottom last summer when a blood vessel burst inside his nose and he lost 2.5L of blood. If he had been home alone instead of over at my sisters place, he could have easily bled to death.

    Despite his diabetes, his 2 month rehab stint, his failing liver– he continues to drink.

    It is very hard to voice your anger. I am lucky my mom decided to be sober 12 years ago.

    Thanks for writing this.

blog comments powered by Disqus