A Family Disease

When I was new I attended a few Al-anon meetings at the suggestion of my sponsor. I went to work through the resentment of my father who showed up at the top of my fourth step resentment list. I learned that alcoholism is a family disease. I learned you don’t have to be a problem drinker to suffer from alcoholism — at least from the ism. We all became ill, but the disease manifested in each of us differently. My father became more and more controlling as the years went on. I crossed the line into active alcoholism and all that entails. My sister, needed to have everything perfect in her life. She was a straight A student. I remember her crying when she got a “B” on her report card. My mother was consumed by bitterness, but suffered in silence. She never complained, but the pain was etched on her face. I didn’t know my family suffered from alcoholism. I knew we were not like a TV family, but for most of my life I thought we were pretty normal.

My sister and I left the craziness of our family home as soon as we could. I ended up in California and she moved to Boston. During the next twenty years, until my parents died in 1994, we made the pilgrimage home to Florida for a week at Christmas. Invariably, at least once during the week of our visit, there was a family blow-up fueled by my father’s drinking that doomed our family Christmas. It usually started with dad deciding to have his fourth drink before dinner. All was well as long as he stayed at three, but once he took the fourth all bets were off. Mom knew this best of all. I remember her standing behind him with an angry scowl as he sipped his fourth drink. Looking back I sensed they must have had many arguments about dad taking that fourth drink. At some point during dinner, dad would make a comment — a veiled attack on either my sister or me. So sensitive were we to his life-long criticism and control, so sick were we ourselves, we just couldn’t let it pass. The argument started as soon as we spoke up for ourselves and another beautiful family meal was ruined. I don’t believe dad was trying to start an argument but, like me, he just couldn’t let anything go. He found something not to his liking with one of us and he just had to tell us about it. The dinner ended half way through with my sister in tears and my mother choking on bitterness. I stormed away from the the table angrily vowing never to return. We made believe we patched things up before we left, but the week left us bruised and battered.

Like clockwork we received a letter from dad a week or so after we returned home. He always typed them, single space on his old Remington manual typewriter. In carefully worded paragraphs he apologized for his part, but was quick to point out where we had been at fault. He defended his drinking. He justified taking the fourth drink saying he felt free to drink a little more while my sister and I were there. He announced, despite everything that happened, he was not ready to quit. I don’t know if my father ever sought help from his drinking. I do know that his need to be right, his frustration about life and his inability to keep his mouth shut resulted in him becoming estranged not only from his wife and children, but from friends and relatives. The reason I know this is because I became just like him before I was graced with a moment of clarity that led me to Alcoholics Anonymous.