My inner voice has been re-crafting this blog for some time, stopping when my outer voice tells me no. Is it because I feel a bit of an imposter? Yes, my dad was an alcoholic, but my childhood was so good compared to many others. Is it my recognition that many of us have stories related to alcohol abuse, some that feel more important than mine? But – my inner voice argues back – we each have our story. Stories make us who we are. Yes, while my dad drank for the first 20 or so years of my life, he was sober for his final 34, completing a rich life at the age of 84. He taught me grace, forgiveness, strength, hope and an awful lot more. Yet even with that, I have baggage, or maybe simply life lessons. Some that may resonate with others.
And so, it is that any one of us may react differently to trauma, stress and other life challenges. Perhaps the way to eliminate stigma is by accepting that we each choose different ways of dealing with what life deals us, and withholding personal judgement about what path others may choose. Oddly, this statement reminds me of the serious car accident my family suffered, nearly two decades ago, me in Mount Hood Medical Center’s emergency room, awaiting another ambulance to take me to Emmanuel Hospital’s trauma floor. I was in pain, scared, probably in shock, worried about my kids. And yet, I launched two jokes to the ER nurse. She looked at me, appalled, before scolding me. “You know, this is a very serious matter and nothing to joke about!”
While reviewing an early draft of My Music Man, my friend Gordon questioned me. “Dede,” he said. “It’s hard to appreciate what you share about your dad’s recovery late in your book when you don’t describe the difficult times.” I sat on this for a bit and realized. Yes, I had avoided that. In time I returned to my draft and added a few sentences here and there, no more, to help the reader understand. Yes, I was a child of an alcoholic. Yes, I was impacted. My family was impacted. My parents separated, then divorced. And yet – all these years later I was able to be grateful for our dad’s recovery, and my parent’s reunification. (See Love Letters.)
In high school I got drunk. Once. I hated it and still remember how gross I felt in the bathroom of a friend’s house. In addition to being a rule follower, (yes, I did worry about the threat that athletes found at kegs would be benched) I hated the smell of beer. I hated the look drunk people got, taking me back to memories of Dad with that look in his eyes. But I was still a new kid in what felt a sophisticated social environment, and attended parties gripping my red cup, gaining self-confidence to forgo the cup as the years progressed, until finally, most times deciding I had better ways to fill my time. I remember feeling lonely some weekends during those high school years, but eventually more often choosing solitude rather than parties. As I grew a bit older, I’d look at the list of characteristics held by adult children of alcoholics, seeing myself in some, not in others. Even later wondering, how much is because of me and how much because of that and how much because of who knows or cares?
“OF ALL GOOD things Dad did in his life, becoming alcohol-free was perhaps the biggest gift he gave to himself, and everyone to whom he spoke or wrote, everyone he mentored and loved. He wasn’t private about his losses. If he could help one more person in recovery, he would. And he did through calls, visits, and letters to others new to the journey….It is only now, after Dad’s passing, that I seem to be able to fully realize the depth of his struggle: its toll on his relationships, and the acceptance and profound gratefulness he found through his recovery. Dad’s belief in the Big Book and its Twelve Steps permeated his existence. Not until after his passing did I learn of Dad’s favorite passage: “The greatest sin in the the world is standing in the way of another’s growth. The second is standing in the way of your own growth.”My Music Man Chapter 18: My Titan
Sure, the next decade I drank some in college, and later socially, being okay with a bit of tipsiness but never liking the feeling of being drunk. After all, I do like control. In those days, in only a way Dad, then sober, and I could understand, he’d tease me about “being on the sauce again” if I happened to have an alcoholic drink in my hand with him around. He could joke with me because he knew – although I had many of his traits, alcoholism wasn’t one. At least a fistful of times I took the questionnaire to identify a problem with alcohol dependency, always truthfully answering no to each question.
Fast forward a decade later, brain science began to enlighten us about the impact of early drinking, especially binge or “drinking to be drunk,” with particular risks held by those who may be genetically predisposed to alcoholism. I remember sharing this information with our then pre-teen daughters; advising them that waiting until adulthood, or at least college could make a difference on their risk for alcohol dependency. Now, these 15 or so years later, I don’t think it was what I said but more likely, their choice of friends – but I am grateful they didn’t drink in those days of youth. I suspect their grandfather’s well-shared story did make a difference to them.
What about now? As the decades progressed, I’d pay attention to the associations made between drinking and adverse health outcomes: first it was breast cancer. Certainly the evidence demonstrates women can be more affected by alcohol for many reasons, body size, water content, the rate it is broken down in our liver and more. More recently a newer single study associating increased dementia risk with moderate drinking caught my eye. These days we might occasionally spy an article saying alcohol at any amount is harmful to health (e.g., risk of atrial fibrillation). Of course, we can also read about some benefits of health protection for moderate drinking, relief for depression (as long as you don’t drink too much), maybe protection of stroke. As we have learned, especially those of us who take to the internet for news, some studies contradict others. I am certain there is individual variation on alcohol’s effects on us, impacted by our health, mental outlook, age and gender. So really, it comes down to what is right for each individual, without judgement or speculation, we hope.
During the pandemic, we know many Americans have increased their alcohol consumption. While my drinking preference has narrowed a lot in the last decade, landing on truly only liking the taste of hoppy India Pale Ale and an only very occasional glass of red wine. Mostly, if folks are drinking and there is no IPA, I’d rather abstain. Drinking to simply drink is of no interest to me. Maybe it’s a bit like dessert choice for me: if there isn’t chocolate why bother? I might just wait for later when I can find it! And rarely even in the past decade, would I ever have more than one drink, if I drank. About six months ago I had a suspicion that even a single drink affected my sleep, and perhaps even my mood? Yes, looking at the science of it and inquiring with some of my friends, this seems to be a thing especially for women of my age. One study shared by the Sleep Foundation noted that low amounts of alcohol (1 serving per day for women) decreased sleep quality by 9.3%, with some people more sensitive than others. I decided to experiment a bit, but knew I’d miss the taste that kept me drinking. My solution? I found myself a non-alcoholic hazy IPA (alcohol<0.5 %, not 0, which is important for some) that I keep on hand for when I want the taste. Guess what? I have noticed a difference in how I sleep and feel overall. Sure, could be placebo. Who knows? Yes, I still occasionally drink a real beer, especially if I’m at my favorite Ale and Cider House, or more commonly split one with Russ. Usually never more than once a week, though. And for me? It feels perfect. For me. For now.
The best part about all this? I picture Dad laughing at me somewhere. I still haven’t figured out the creative “one liner” he would hasten to share with a kind smile. But I know it will come to me.