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By Karen Miller
I know this might sound morbid, but sometimes I wish my Dad had died quickly, like in a car accident or maybe of a heart attack, so everything would be easier to understand. But that’s not what happened. He died of cirrhosis, due to alcoholism, when he was 45. I was 24.
These are the facts. I process this information pragmatically. His life started. I entered when he was 21. Our lives overlapped for 24 years. Now my life continues and his life has ended. Facts are easy.
As the child of an alcoholic, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to define myself as something other than the child of an alcoholic. I’ve always felt a sense of otherness about my upbringing. I knew from a young age that something was “off.” There’s a lot of abstract tension in an alcoholic household. The disease lingers in the air like a fog. It’s difficult to explain this to people who didn’t grew up with the disease in their homes.
The disease is always lurking in the corner, waiting to torment me when my defenses are down. That’s the way the disease works. It stays in the background and reveals itself at the most important moments. The celebrations in life like graduations, holidays and birthdays are supposed to be carefree and enjoyable, I think.
For an adult child, these events almost always trigger stress. I’m powerless in so many ways, so I’ve learned how to dodge and run away from the disease. The unfortunate consequence is that I can look back and see that during the times in my life when I was supposed to be happiest, I was incredibly anxious instead.
There have been periods in my life where I’ve convinced myself that I’ve overcome the alcoholism. I would swear that I had learned, grown and moved on. After all, it was my Dad who was the drinker, the abuser and ultimately, the one who died from the disease, not me.
So what if our household was dysfunctional while I was growing up? I’m not a child anymore. Never mind that he would drink and drive with our whole family in the car. Shit happens. Forget the fact that he spent his life savings on drugs and alcohol instead of giving my sister and I money for college. It’s in the past.
Of course, it’s way more complicated than that. He was also an extremely loving and intelligent person with a quick sense of humor. He taught me all kinds of things, including the rewards of being compassionate toward others, the beauty of being outside in nature and the commitment to being true to oneself, regardless of what others think.
Now, I can see more clearly how intensely he fought his own battles. He hid a lot of details about his childhood from me, including the alcoholism that he was exposed to. His own grandfather and uncle died of cirrhosis when he was growing up. I realize that he became a full-fledged alcoholic in his teens. He started drinking at a young age and I’m sure that one of his greatest fears in life was to see me turn into an alcoholic and repeat the same patterns that had plagued so many people in his family.
Cirrhosis is a gradual disease. It takes years for it to run it’s full course. I don’t know how many interventions we staged or how many different attempts he made at rehab. There were DUIs, jail time and countless hospital visits. It was devastating to watch my Dad battling cirrhosis, the physical manifestation of his alcoholism and simultaneously battling addiction, the inability to stop drinking.
When I started to understand that he was actually going to die, that it wasn’t just another false alarm, I thought in the very back of my mind about how now I would finally be free to do all the things I’d ever wanted to do. I would be successful, communicative and fun! I would let go of all the anxiety and insecurities that had held me back. I would be the woman who I was always meant to be. I believed that the disease would die with him and that he would be at peace and my family would have some sort of definable closure.
But after he died, I realized almost immediately that the disease hadn’t gone anywhere. It was still taunting me and pervading my life. I became angry because I really believed that somehow the nervousness and the shame would be absolved. I knew that none of it was my fault, yet I still felt guilty. Those same feelings of helplessness and isolation that I’d experienced since childhood had seeped permanently into my adult life.
I wanted to talk about my issues, but the issues themselves prevented me from talking because there’s so much secrecy and guilt rooted in alcoholism. The paradox is difficult to understand and even harder to surmount. There’s a lot of covering up and excuse making, too. There’s a lifetime supply of what ifs and if onlys.
Recovery and all the false starts get deep and complicated and it takes a lot of energy to try to wrestle with the disease. There’s this feeling of desperation, like thirst. The deep desire to be alleviated from the thirst never seems to go away. Indulging in self-pity can be debilitating. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like if the disease had never been a factor.
While so many of my peers have established careers, marriages and interesting identities as adults, I’ve been doing a different kind of growing up. I’ve been searching for my strength. I’ve challenged myself to become more introspective and I’ve allowed myself to start facilitating the healing of my inner child. Being the adult child of an alcoholic means you’ve survived a hell of a lot. You’ve come through the battle and you’re not quite home yet, but you’re making your way there. I’m making my way.
After a lifetime of living with alcoholism and all of the weird repercussions that go along with it, even though the alcoholic in my life has been gone for years, the disease still lingers. The disease will always be there. I’ve locked it out of the house and it sits on the front porch waiting patiently to sneak back in. I feel it walking behind me on the sidewalk, hovering in the background. I can sense its presence in so many moments, and I know it’s just waiting for the opportunity to disrupt my psyche again. Usually, I manage to outsmart it.
Ultimately, there is power in my thoughts. I’ve realized that gradually, I’m starting to translate those thoughts into better actions. I’m learning to accept the disease as a factor in my life, without letting it define my life. The disease can hang out on in the driveway and I can wave to it as I pass by. I can give it a peripheral glance and remember how much it taught me about my capacity for love and forgiveness and understanding.
And now, I can recognize others who live with the disease outside of their homes too. We are like old friends from the neighborhood, who remember each other as children and our only feeling is pride because of how much we’ve grown.