On Growing Up With Parents Who Were Both Alcoholics


I grew up with two alcoholic parents. They weren’t always alcoholics, and even when they were, I wasn’t old enough to fully comprehend the spectrum of alcoholism; social, binge, consistently just plastered. I also didn’t realize that there was a bit more to the puzzle that was my childhood, and alcohol wasn’t the only substance running through the veins of several family members.

My mom had two personalities: she was my mother, and then she was what I called “loopy mom”. We called her loopy because my sisters were young and I had no explanation for her behavior when she had been drinking or partying because half the time I didn’t know she had been, though she was literally a different person. It was as if her entire being was constantly in a pile around us and we were scrambling to clean it up before anyone saw. My father was smarter.

We are an upper middle class family, and while my parents divorced when I was 15, the alcoholic nature of my childhood just sort of remained one of the few constants in my life despite a rapid series of changes, divorce being one of them. Ironically, there was never a time where both my parents were just out of commission. Whenever one was off the rails, the other was stepping up to take care of us the best way he or she knew how. It would last until the moment one of them got it together, at which point the other parent clocked out and it was his or her turn to fall to pieces.

The bulk of my childhood, as best I remember it, was my mom leaving the house around 10, despite my heavy hinting that I would sacrifice just about anything for her to stay home. My sisters and I would crawl into her king-sized bed, the one my parents used to share, and as they would drift to sleep, one on each side of me, I would watch TV with every light on. I memorized the Nick @ Night line up, and I grew to match the TV show that aired at a particular time with my level of anxiety. If Roseanne had been on for over an hour, it was far too late at night to remain calm and I was praying to hear the door open. The sound of the front door opening and keys hitting the counter was my saving grace because by that point my eyelids were so heavy I could turn off the TV with one hand and hit every light with the other, passing out before she stumbled to the stairs.

With my father, things were a bit different. He rarely went out to drink while we were at his house for the weekend. However, because I was so used to staying up waiting for my mom, I developed insomnia beyond repair by age 9. And one of my biggest fears was being the last one awake in his house. With my mom, I had no choice, but with my dad, I found myself greeting him after he returned from work by rushing to him and rather than saying “hi dad how was your day?” like most children, I would say “Hi dad, are you tired?” When I was younger, he understood this fear, and would answer “Not one iota. I am totally awake.” But dare he fall asleep, I would raise hell to keep him awake long enough until I exhausted myself from the argument that would unfold as I begged him to stay up and drink coffee. I was so exhausted by my efforts by around 2 or 3 am, at which point he was awake and livid, and would knock out. And the cycle would continue.

When my mom was hospitalized after a drug and alcohol induced mental breakdown when I was 15, it was the end of alcohol for her. And I finally had my mother back. Actually, back is the wrong word. I had a mom for the first time in recent memory. And around that same time was about when I lost my father. My mom was a social alcoholic and my dad was a binge drinker.

At the same time, being in high school, I was discovering the perks of Midwest binge drinking with a bunch of teens for myself. And I loved it. Somehow I never grew to be a kid who connected alcoholic parents with my own consumption of the drink. The two were separate in my mind. My dad never hit bottom, but he did eventually stop drinking when I was a freshman in college, after it became so bad he was legally ordered to stop (the details of which belong to a much longer story for a different time). Every day, he calls his probation officer. Once he does, they have 8 hours on the clock and could potentially call him up, randomly, and order him to be tested to see if he has been drinking. It’s like a game of risk. He had a menthol cigarette once that showed up in a blood test, and I had to vouch for him saying it was mine, which was the truth. He takes it pretty damn seriously. At least, that’s what I tell myself. He has to, right?

I have two amazing parents. They pick and chose when to be amazing, usually based off of when one parent is faltering. Both of my parents are recovering alcoholics. My mother is very into AA, and my father is not. I drink socially, as do both of my sisters, in the way that people our age do. I often find myself in situations where I can’t stop drinking, and I wonder what and who I am becoming. Mom? Dad? Both? Neither?

Alcoholism runs through my veins the same way the rest of their genes do, but I have never once thought I would sit in an AA meeting. Recently, I have been drinking more and having more fun doing so. Going to bars, dancing, and I haven’t been happier. I don’t know if it’s the drinks or the people I share them with. I never drink alone. I found myself wondering these past couple of days why such a sudden change in my behavior. I also wondered why I didn’t care. And why I still don’t.

I woke up this morning after drinking from 1pm to 4am to celebrate a friend’s birthday, something I have never once done in my life. I went home with someone from the bar, and laying there at 6am in his bed, I found myself contemplating this life of mine, and the choices I have made to lead me to this point. Two parents who spent most of my life drinking pretty irresponsibility until I began following the same path and sobriety hit them. That’s how I understood my family.

Tonight, I discovered that my father just broke his sobriety after nearly 18 months. March 30 was his birthday, and he turned 56. He called my sister drunkenly the night before from Arizona, where we have a vacation home. We all called to wish him happy birthday. He didn’t answer, and nobody has heard from him. Part of me is angry, part of me is sad, part of me wants to help him. Part of me wonders if he is alive, in jail, sleeping it off or puking it out. And then there is a part of me that just wants to live my life as if I never grew up swimming in liquor. Never grew up opening the fridge to find nothing but beer. Never grew up picking my father off the ground or just begging him to stop drinking. Never grew up craving the sound of my mother coming up the stairs with smeared make up and slurred words. Part of me doesn’t care. That’s the part of me that is the strongest. The part that will have a drink tonight because I can.

Because alcohol just exists the same way I do. Because I am an adult and so are my parents. All of us human and flawed. And people will be people whether they are your mom or dad or a stranger in a bar whose bed you end up in staring at the ceiling with all of these misshapen perceptions of your past, present and future swirling through your head after far too many Irish car bombs. And as they say in AA, I have to accept the things I cannot change, change what I can, and know the difference. I’m learning to do just that.

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