Drinking from the Final Straw

Trigger warnings: alcohol abuse, child abuse, graphic descriptions

“We were addicted to the blueprint
But we threw it in the flames and now we’re never gonna trace it
You, you lied
Ha ha ha ha I was right all along
Good job, good job
You fucked it up…
Now you’re walking on your own
Rain falls down, I’m not answering my phone
I got to phase you out my zone
Hope you realize now that I am never coming home
You were meant to be alone.” –Charli XCX

Many people who were, like me, abused in the Christian-homeschool-patriarchy movement, still maintain at least moderately rocky relationships with their parents. I gave up, in the end, because of the events surrounding how my parents started drinking.

One day near the end of 2013, I visited my parents’ house. Mom was in bed, recovering from her last miscarriage. She’d saved the fetus, named him Ezra Mark, dressed him and taken pictures, and buried him in the backyard. What shocked me the most, though, was that she had a bottle of Jack Daniels on her nightstand.

“Mom, why do you have hard liquor? I’ve never seen alcohol in our house.”

She said something about dealing with the pain. She was referring to both the emotional pain of losing a child, and the physical pain of blood loss. She insisted, though, that she was only taking small amounts of it as a medicinal solution.

I accepted this answer. After all, I drink alcohol sometimes. I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

On the 6th of January last year, mom’s sister Debbi died suddenly. She was only 52, and she’d practically raised my mom and her brothers and sisters, because my maternal grandmother was, as previously mentioned, addicted to alcohol. I asked for time off work so that I could travel to Minnesota for my aunt’s funeral.

Mom was losing both a sister and a surrogate mother, and she turned to alcohol with the shock and grief. I’d always taken care of my mom, but she was making me worried. We ordered drinks on the plane. When we got to my paternal grandparents’ house, she asked me to sneak more liquor for her from their cupboard. It didn’t matter what it was – she had no taste preference, it was to numb herself.

Within weeks of our return to Colorado, dad was drinking, too. They had wine regularly, and there was a twelve-pack of beer in the fridge. When I asked about it, mom said that since she couldn’t have kids anymore (a statement I never got full clarification for), it was okay to have alcohol now.

Again, I accepted this. I didn’t accept alcohol for myself until I realized there was space between alcoholics and people who completely abstained. The problem was, mom and dad had never seen someone demonstrate moderate drinking. I assumed that they only drank when I was there, which was once or twice a week.

Once in the spring, we built a bonfire in the backyard and roasted marshmallows. Dad was acting strangely – less mature than the kids. He wanted to burn a whole door, and he threw it on the fire, scattering sparks and making the fire spread and smother. When I told him he was being dangerous, he laughed at me. My brothers and I nervously sat him down and contained the fire ourselves. It would take me months to look back on that night and realize dad had had at least three drinks, and was playing with fire around children.

By the time I started to get suspicious, I realized my parents were showing all the red flags of addiction: denial, minimization, and defensiveness.

Lydia was living with them again, but only kind of. She slept on the floor in the girls’ bedroom for a month, so technically she didn’t have to pay $500 rent. Mom sometimes lamented that Lydia didn’t have a bed to sleep in, but Lydia knew she didn’t mean it. She lived there to be around the kids. I couldn’t take the way I felt suffocated there.

Lydia started counting drinks when she wasn’t busy with work. Dad said to her, “I’m not an alcoholic, I just have a couple of beers in the evening.” Whenever Lydia voiced criticism about the alcohol, dad took her outside and yelled at her – for the first time in her life, he swore at her regularly. My parents weren’t being themselves, and it was getting dangerous.

Dangerous, because if you can’t admit that you’ve had a few drinks, you can’t admit that you need to wait before driving, or stay away from fire. Responsible drinkers keep count and stay accountable. The house felt less and less safe.

The last day went something like this…

I come in the house on a Thursday.
Mom offers me wine.
I turn her down, saying I try not to drink more than once every two weeks.
She looks hurt and suspicious, like I’m putting myself above her.
She adds what would have been my serving to her half-drank glass.
I start counting mentally: that’s two glasses of wine altogether for her, and it’s 5 p.m.
I offer to help with dinner, we talk about work and how my therapy is going.
I give vague, slow answers to her questions.
I watch as she drinks half the glass again, and refills it.
It’s a clever way to lose count.
Meanwhile, dad is outside at the grill.
He’s finished a beer when mom brings him his wine.
When we sit down to eat, mom’s wine glass is full again, and dad is drinking from a non-transparent covered cup.
I wait for him to get up, then I taste his drink. It’s kombucha mixed with wine.
He can’t possibly be drinking for the taste.
It’s 9 p.m. now. They’re both still unfinished with their wine glasses when we do family prayers, bless and kiss the children, and send them to bed.
Dad asks Lydia and me if we want to play a game.
We say no.
Yes, I think you do, he counters.
We really don’t.
But we don’t even know what the game is, he says.
We say it’s obvious that he wants to play a drinking game, and we’re not interested.
He looks dejected and rather disbelieves that we’ve just said no to him.
Before I leave that night, I ask mom: “Do you drink every night?”
She laughs loudly. It’s pretentious and insulted.
“Of course we don’t!”
I turn to my 12-year-old sister and murmur in a lower tone: “Do they drink every night?”
She nods slightly so mom doesn’t see.
The next time I visit, they don’t serve alcoholic beverages.
It’s like they’re trying to prove without words that they don’t drink every night.
It’s too late.

It was early September when Grandma – my dad’s mom, Judy – messaged me to ask how I was doing. I opted for honesty, and told her everything. She used to be an alcoholic, and she’d been a sober AA member for as long as I could remember. She saw what her and her husband’s alcoholism did to her kids. Surely she’d understand that something needed to be done so my parents didn’t hurt her grandkids.

She called me, and I told her what was happening. She said it sounded like alcohol abuse that had gone on for nearly a year, but she conservatively chose not to call it addiction.

She also questioned the validity of my story, because I was only going off hearsay from my siblings and extrapolation. I wasn’t living there and I couldn’t watch my parents all the time, so I couldn’t be sure.

Grandma said she was worried about my parents, since their alcohol use indicated stress.

“But Grandma,” I asked, upset now, “What about the kids? Aren’t you worried about them, too?”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I think you and your sisters have turned out okay. I’m amazed at the resilience I’ve seen in you and your siblings.”

“So you’re more concerned about my parents than about the kids.”

“I’m concerned about my son, and as a parent I want to know why he’s so stressed.”

“Well Grandma, that’s not good enough for me. I’m concerned about my brothers and sisters who are stuck there, and it’s not safe. What am I supposed to do?”

This part of the conversation was well-practiced for her. “I’ve worked with recovering addicts for decades, and we always learn the serenity prayer, do you know it?”

“Yes, I know it. I don’t think it applies here, Grandma.”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

I burst into tears, and for the first time in my life, I vented my full anger at an elder in my family. Elders are to be respected, never contradicted. I broke protocol. “No, Grandma! I do not need you to tell me to answer this with prayer and acceptance! That is not what I need right now!”

She was quick to backpedal, rephrasing her words, trying to find some other practiced line that would please me. I realized that my dad had learned his habit of using all the right words from his mother.

Nobody was going to help me or listen. So I blogged about my parents being abusive. Grandma told me she felt like her heart was going to break, and I didn’t respond. If her heart could break and she could still treat my trapped siblings with indifference, I had no reason not to hurt her feelings.

The day before my dad released the podcast responding to my blog post “Melting Memory Masks,” I met with one of my brothers for lunch. He told me the alcohol was gone. Dad had thrown all of it out, saying that if it meant so much to Lydia and me, it wasn’t worth keeping. I asked why dad didn’t say that to me directly. My brother didn’t know.

Alcohol was the breaking point. It’s what made me realize that I had so few allies in my family, and that I needed to get away for myself. That’s what made 2014 different from all the years before it.