5 Things I’ve Learned From My Alcoholic Family


I’m not an alcoholic, but I have addiction in my genes: My father and grandfather are both recovering alcoholics. The older I get, the more I’ve realized how much I’ve absorbed from their examples. Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away:

1. The desire to drink doesn’t go away. At my grandfather’s 90th birthday in 2013, the waitress asked if he wanted a drink. “I want one, but I’m not going to have one,” he said with a smile. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that he felt that way. I assumed that over the many years he’d been sober, the urge to drink had dissipated, that somewhere along the path to sobriety he simply “got over” that impulse. Hearing that changed how I think about my own life, along with the general topic of addiction. I had known logically that there isn’t a simple cutoff point for desiring a drink (or drug, or whatever your addiction is), but the reality of what that means in people’s actual daily lives fully sank in.

I realized that you don’t have to have all the answers for your future mapped out or try to predict how you will behave. You just have to make the best possible choices each and every day. That sounds simple, but is much more challenging in practice. Hearing my father echo those words when we were offered beer at breakfast recently solidified that concept for me. “One day at a time” is one of the AA slogans I’ve tried to adopt in my life, even though I’m not in recovery. It helps me every time I start to feel panicked and overwhelmed by a work project or financial issues or my life seems to be stagnating. I get so wrapped up in what feel like insurmountable problems I can’t figure out how to take one small step in the right direction, similar to Kimmy Schmidt’s “the next ten seconds” rule on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which she applied when she was trapped in an underground bunker by a cult leader and later, after she escaped, taught to her boss.

2. It’s never too late to change your life. Both my father’s and grandfather’s first marriages were affected by their drinking, and both had to go through their own ups and downs in order to conquer sobriety. It didn’t happen the very first time they realized they had a problem, but took trial and error. I’m proud of both of them not despite their addiction issues, but because they kept trying until they figured out what worked for them. My father graduated from college at age 61; my grandfather published his memoir, My Private War, in his eighties. I often get down on myself for all the things I’ve failed at, from dropping out of law school to books I should have written and didn’t, which doesn’t help me tackle what’s happening right now, but leaves me mired in the past. When I was a teenager, my dad used to point out houses and say, “If I hadn’t drank and gambled, you could have grown up in that house.” Perhaps that’s true, but by then it was a very moot point. I work hard to learn from my past, but not be controlled by it.

3. There’s no “wrong” reason to be an alcoholic. For a long time, I had the idea in my head that my grandfather, who was a POW for a year in Germany during World War II, had a “good” reason for his drinking, but that my father, who didn’t serve in the military or have any similarly traumatic event that I know of, didn’t have a “good” reason for his alcoholism. I thought there was some kind of hierarchy in terms of who is “allowed” to have these kinds of problems, and that way of thinking affected how I viewed others in my life, as well as myself. When I had an alcoholic boyfriend, I wanted to be supportive, but found myself struggling with wanting to tell him to “just get help,” as if it were that easy. I wanted there to be a simple source of his drinking, so there could be a correspondingly simple solution. And even though I’ve learned from my family that you can only make that kind of change when you want to, not because someone else wants you to, I still hoped that my ex would get help because of me. This probably hindered my ability to truly help him.

4. Just because I’m not an alcoholic doesn’t mean I know how to drink responsibly. I am not an alcoholic, but I sense that I could be. There was a time when drinking was a crutch I used to feel more comfortable in social situations, to get up the courage to flirt with someone I liked, or to make myself seem more exciting, which is the main reason why I’ve limited my drinking the last few years to once or twice a year, if that. Any enjoyment I received from it was subsumed by what I felt it was giving me, until it became not an add-on, but a necessity for social interaction.

Sometimes I’d tell myself that since I didn’t drink alone, or every night, or whatever other random barometer I chose, it wasn’t a problem, but it was. It didn’t matter how much I was drinking per se, but that I was drinking for the wrong reasons (wrong for me, not for anyone else).

Also, I am not good at moderation, to make a giant understatement, and I’ve come to accept that fact. I would rather not drink than try to limit myself. Similar to the previous lesson, I know I don’t need to justify my not drinking to anyone or, on the occasions when I do have a glass of champagne, feel guilty, as long as I am fully aware of what I’m doing. I’ve found that my issues with hoarding have many parallels to alcoholism, with belongings instead of beverages trying to fill what I feel is missing in my life; perhaps that is how my addictive personality manifests itself most strongly. I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that just because I don’t have the same issues with alcohol as my family members, it’s all smooth sailing for me. Even as I’ve tackled the worst of my hoarding behavior, just as my family members may still want a drink, I struggle daily with keeping my hoarding tendencies in check.

5. There’s more reward for sharing your problems than hiding them. Recently, my father tried to order me out of the room before telling a story involving his drinking days. “Why do I have to leave and everyone else gets to hear it?” I argued. He let me stay, and it turns out, the story wasn’t all that shocking. I wasn’t proud of him necessarily for his actions, but knowing about them helped give me insight into how much he’s changed from the seventies to now. I don’t think anyone is under a particular obligation to disclose their addiction issues, but doing so can help bring awareness. Certainly, having seen how my father’s drinking affected my childhood, I know that’s not what I would want to offer my future children. If I have kids, I plan to be open about the struggles I’ve had with various aspects of addiction, while allowing them to make their own choices.