This wasn’t your typical meeting. My mother, 3 sisters and I were meeting to discuss, for the first time, a plan for challenging my father into sobriety… and the meeting was long overdue. Alcoholism has many victims—family members who are witnesses to the devastating toll that the disease takes on the alcoholic and the less obvious damage that it has upon the alcoholic’s spouse and children.
Finally, after 20+ years, enough was enough. This meeting was a last ditch effort to save my dad (and perhaps save our family) from the ravages of a disease that refused to ease its grip on him. Years of my dad’s Alcoholics Anonymous meetings accomplished little and our pleas to get help were met by deaf ears. Dad did not want help from this disease and we knew an intervention had almost no chance.
A Shocking Epiphany
But on a wing and a prayer, my mom, 3 sisters and I took a chance. An intervention with an alcoholic takes planning and the pre-intervention meetings with an addiction counselor focused on the impact that our dad’s alcoholism had upon each of us. When my turn came, I shared with the group—for the first time—a feeling that I had since my childhood: that I was the one to blame for my dad’s drinking.
The counselor nodded his head in understanding and in a matter-of-fact way, responded that it is common for children of alcoholic parents to blame themselves. In fact, I was told, it would be uncommon for the child of an alcoholic parent to think otherwise. Children of alcoholic parents assume they are the cause of their parent’s disease.
I looked down at the floor in disbelief as I began to question whether my life-long assumption was true. Hard to believe after 20+ years of accepting blame for my dad’s drinking, but I began to think that maybe I was not at fault. The logic made sense—my dad’s drinking was a choice that he made and my mother, sisters and I were powerless to stop it. We were simply witnesses to a horrible disease.
Words of gratitude wouldn’t be enough. For the first time, I knew that I had done nothing wrong. I could not have stopped my dad from having a drink and with the power that alcohol had on him, he had almost no control. Even if the intervention did not stop my dad’s drinking, I left the meeting that night knowing that years of guilt were lifted from my shoulders.
A Coping Mechanism that Didn’t Work
The counselor told us that families create coping mechanisms to ease the burden of having an alcoholic parent. And in our family’s case, our coping mechanism was to deny that dad’s alcoholism had any effect on our lives. My mother, sisters and I simply pretended as though the problem did not exist.
Denying my dad’s drinking problem could not always be avoided. Every so often, I would find my father passed out on the couch in our living room and I would carry his lifeless body over my shoulders to his bedroom. But most of the time, my dad could take care of himself and just wanted my sisters, mother and I to avoid telling him what to do.
None of us had the slightest clue of the impact that my dad’s drinking had upon us. I applied the coping mechanism to every relationship in my life—no one could hurt me if I didn’t get close to them. My relationships were superficial and I cannot think of a single occasion that I expressed genuine weakness or vulnerability to anyone.
The Hidden Impact of Alcoholism
The results were predictable. At age 25, I was a closed book with the inability to express genuine emotions or feelings. Just like my dad, I didn’t want to change my ways and I knew that no one could hurt me if I didn’t let them see who I was. Life was okay, I thought at the time, but I now realize it never really was.
In the days leading up to the intervention, it occurred to me that my way of coping through denial could change. I was just beginning to understand the impact of alcoholism and how it affected my relationships and my inability to share feelings and emotions. If I could just share a few of these feelings with my dad, just maybe I could make a change.
An Intervention that Changed My Life
On the afternoon of the intervention, my expectations were low. I knew my dad would resist treatment for alcoholism and might not even stay in the room to listen. Each of us, in turn, told my dad about our experiences with his alcoholism and how it made us feel. My dad listened stoically.
When my turn came, I turned to the only emotion I had at that moment: anger. If dad would not go for treatment right now, I would not forgive him. This was, I told him, a small favor to ask and I needed an answer right now. In just a few minutes, I unleashed pent-up anger from years of hidden emotion…and it felt damn good.
At the end of the intervention, my dad asked if he could leave and promised to someday get treatment. Sadly, that day never came. My dad died at age 70 in January, 2005.
A Story with a Happy Ending
To this day, my mother and sisters tell me the intervention was a failure– we didn’t accomplish anything because dad didn’t stop drinking. In my view, they are wrong. While the intervention didn’t stop my dad’s drinking, it changed my life. I understood, for the first time in my 25 years, that I no longer had to bear the guilt for my dad’s drinking and it was okay to share my feelings and every so often get hurt.
Within months of the intervention, I met my future wife. For the first time in my life, I began sharing little bits of my feelings and thoughts with Lisa and to my surprise, she didn’t laugh at me. Things just might be okay, I thought. Turns out, things are great—Lisa and I celebrated 21 years of marriage this year and I count as one of the greatest blessings in my life that she loves me.
I was tempted to keep this story locked away or share it with only a few family or friends, but I knew that wouldn’t be right. If you know a child of an alcoholic parent, you might consider sharing my story with them.
photo credit: Mi palabra no es antidoto si mi acto es un veneno. [Gris Medina – La luz, Music video by Alvaro Arregui] via photopin (license)