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Orbiting a Dying Star: My Father the Alcoholic

There is no escaping the orbit of your parental stars. Like it or not, you’re stuck with your family of origin. For those of us challenged with self-destructive alcoholic parents, we’re doubly challenged. First, not to become alcoholics ourselves. And secondly, not to marry or partner with an alcoholic. I have narrowly avoided both of those pitfalls, but I have suffered from other challenges related to my role as the youngest planet in orbit.

How Do We Learn to Drink

As far as I know, from stories, my father learned to drink while a member of a fraternity in college at the University of Pennsylvania. My brother, who took up the same Figi banner, and alcoholic banner, began his drinking journey much earlier. He would tell us during the later years of his life, that he began smoking and drinking at fourteen. And like the rebel that he was, he brought one of my sisters into the club when she was around the same age. He was an enabler. A promoter. And though he tried to teach me about drinking in my teens, I resisted. He was eight years older. I didn’t care what his friends thought of me, and I didn’t like the taste of beer at all. I poured the Lone Star beer into the stream while they weren’t looking.

What I remember about my childhood home, while my father was still married and in the house with us, was his volatile temper. At an early age, I learned that my dad was unsafe. Being near him when he yelled and taunted my mom or my brother was enough to teach me how to hide. I would run from the house when the shouting started. I built a stick and stone fort in the woods, and I would hide there with my sword drawn and my heart quaking. Some nights my mom would have to call me in for dinner because it had gotten dark outside. I was terrified. (See my post about my fear of anger.)

As an adult, I still don’t deal with yelling very well. And I have a difficult time expressing or even finding my own anger. Oh, it’s there, but it’s something that I avoid. I avoid it in others. And I avoid it in myself. Anger scares me. You could say, I’m anger avoidant.

How My Dad’s Drinking Shaped All of Us

The mythology around my father and brother’s relationship is epic. Here’s how my mom told it. A young family of a successful doctor living in Houston, with one daughter. Life is good. Mom proudly delivers a second child, this one a boy. Young father does not take to his new namesake. Was it the chaos of being a young physician? Was there something about my brother that my dad didn’t like? There was no answer that anyone could fathom. My dad’s business was taking off, and in the growth and excitement of his success, he began drinking to “unwind” at the end of his day. He would often have several drinks before heading home.

Not long after I was born the drinking and the pressures of work, raising four kids, and building a huge house on the lake, began to crush all the fun out of our family unit. We didn’t look forward to dad’s arrival home from work. When I was around six years old my mom decided it had to stop. Risking everything, she asked my dad to choose the family or the bottle. A day later she departed to Mexico with my oldest sister. My dad had argued for keeping both.

The Tearing Down of Christmas

One of the earliest memories I have of the upcoming divorce was the first Christmas after my dad had left the house and was living in an apartment. Suddenly the enormous Christmas tree in the enormous house was not so cheery. There were plenty of lights and ornaments, but the bright packages under the tree had been cut to about 1/4 of what we typically found on Christmas morning. I was stunned. I was also the only child in the house, my brother and sisters were much older, and I’m sure their reaction was more of disappointment. Mine was disbelief. If this is what it was going to look like without dad around, I wanted Dad back.

Of course, at six, I didn’t have much of an understanding of what was happening. The foreshadowing of that first Christmas is telling. My dad went after my mom in court with a fury that only a spurned and actively drinking alcoholic could gin up. He tried to destroy her in court. In theory, he was fighting for me. But, he was really fighting to hurt my mom. “If she’s going to divorce me,” I can imagine him saying, “She’s going to feel the pain and loss that I’m feeling.”

The next three years were a blur of distortions and court wranglings. Because my dad was so intent on giving my mom NOTHING, he spent several years trying to WIN the divorce. He did not win. (I understand how the family laws were put in place to protect stay-at-home moms from their asshole spouses.) But the damage was done. My mom was terrified of losing everything and becoming homeless. She did her best to protect me from the war, but I was the only kid still in the house. It was her and me against the world. It was grim. And it was during this time that I learned how anxiety and depression.

Escape Velocity

It was not easy to escape the pull of my dad’s demise. I learned not to drink. I learned that Al-Anon was for the families of alcoholics, but it was not about the alcoholics, it was about getting ourselves connected with our higher power, and with our purpose and healthy response to the stresses of the world. And, then my dad died.

This was not the end of the struggle, but it was the next stage of the journey. Now, we could be mad at him, we could discuss his failings, and we could “theoretically” let him go. It wasn’t that easy. My brother continued his self-destructive drinking and crashing cars. My oldest sister suffered a major mental break that ultimately took her life. And my other sister and I tried to forage on with flawed marriages that led to two beautiful children each.

The dark gravity of my dad’s drinking still weighs on my family as I watch my son struggle with his own darkness and rage. It is my hope that with positive modeling, and at least one supportive and healthy parent, he will find his own way to a happier life. My daughter is also playing with drinking at her first year away at college. And while I am powerless to stop it, I am maintaining a hopeful and supportive presence. “At least drink a glass of water between drinks, when you’re out.” She laughs on FaceTime as she’s heading out to the parties.

Finding My Way

I enjoy a drink every once in a while. But it’s not very often. It’s simply not my refreshment of choice. I’d rather have bubbly water. Always. I will make a choice to drink with someone. But I have never found drinking alone to be a fruitful or pleasant experience. And of course, it’s not only about alcohol. One of the things I learned to self-medicate with is food.

My mom was a great cook. As she suffered and worked through all the troubles in her life, the kitchen would light up with great Southern comfort foods. And I learned that food = love. So, I sometimes use food as a comfort. It’s okay. We’ve got to eat.

As I continue my quest to be a healthier and happier parent, I can give my kids my own stories. I can share the adventures I’ve been on. I can hear their stories and not pass judgment. I am glad my daughter trusts me to share all the ways she’s diving into the drinking culture. It gives us an opportunity to talk about it. And, as I tell both of my kids all the time, “I do understand.”

Namasté,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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