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My Bottle and Me

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The product of Jesus’ first miracle has caused problems from His time to ours. What started as a few sips of wine became, for me, a serious alcohol addiction. The story behind my drinking goes back for generations—locked in my genes. We know that the tendency toward alcoholism and drug addiction can run in families. Rather than drinking or using drugs because of poor choices, some develop a full-blown disease which makes them unable to stop without help. That is addiction. In an Irish-Catholic clan, alcohol was always around, especially beer, whether it was green on St. Patrick’s Day or plain ole brown the rest of the year.

The gestation period of my alcoholic self was about 24 years. While she was incubating, I started life with an alcoholic father. Actually, he wasn’t an alcoholic when I was born. My Mother was a school teacher and my Dad was a chemical engineer. They were active in the civic and religious communities of our city, and they happily welcomed my older brother, my twin brother, and me. We played together and prayed together. The term “alcoholic” came to describe my Dad only as the years wore on. Even then, he never fit the “drunk” stereotype.

Living in an alcoholic home was a formula for a hidden life for me. The best way to NOT be a problem in your family is to be VERY QUIET, (Years later I would learn about the “lost child.”) almost to the point of not existing. The parents may be arguing; the brothers may be arguing; but, by golly, I would give silence some part in this house.

It’s hard being a little person in a big person’s world, even in the best of times. Life happens around you, orchestrated by the giants who inhabit your world. I learned early to be helpful to get along. Being a helpful person would always be a positive and negative part of my life. It started early — I helped my twin brother be born first by pushing him out! But always putting others first means putting yourself last. I started to get lost.

As I mentioned earlier, I decided, as best a 3-year-old could, to contribute silence to the household, speaking only when spoken to. This modus operandi continued pretty much throughout my elementary school days. The nuns REALLY loved a quiet student because it was one less child that had to be disciplined. I had row after row of gold stars on the good behavior chart. The problem with always being one way, i.e. quiet, is that it became expected of me. So when I did misbehave, like not finish my homework, the nuns acted as if I had killed the Pope, and a large black mark went on the behavior chart. My parents liked my continued good behavior, as well, and the consequences for misbehavior could be harsh. A failure to finish washing the dishes in a timely manner could mean banishment to my room.

When I was 8, something momentous happened that actually was helpful to me—I got a brother. There was finally someone I could be connected to, who smelled heavenly MOST of the time. Instead of being in my room with the dolls and animals, I could be in the nursery rocking, maybe feeding, this little person. But the birth was a difficult event for the family as a whole. My Mom was really stressed, four kids now, teaching full-time, and doing all the housework. I even won an orchid for her by winning a Mother’s Day contest on ,”How Special My Mother Is.” When Dad was in charge, he left me with the baby a whole lot, while he relaxed with ONLY two beers. Beer drinkers aren’t very good with numbers. Dad only had 2 beers, no matter how many he really had. Even though I was just in the fourth grade, I could count higher than that.

Unbelievably, my older brothers learned to profit from my Dad’s drinking. True of most drinkers, he couldn’t always remember where he had put his “stash”. The brothers would find the bottles and redeem them for a couple of bucks. This would give them a constant supply of cash for candy, comics, and movies. Sometimes the brothers thought it was funny to put beer in the puppy’s water bowl and watch him stagger around drunk. At other times, THEY drank the beer and staggered around drunk. Eventually, they began to drink the liquor rather than returning it to Dad. It was a rite of passage for young males to get in a brawl, especially if the topic got around to Northern Ireland. Many times Mom and I spent Friday and Saturday nights driving around looking for her sons, to bring them home before they “got in trouble”, euphemism for the cops being called. Just as St. Monica prayed her son, St. Augustine, into a saintly life, contemporary Moms were trying to do the same thing.

Holidays were always special. Santa never failed to bring me a present, and I always had a birthday cake. Of course, alcoholics “celebrate” everything: wins and losses, summer and winter, baseball and football, holiday or no holiday, births and funerals. But they always follow the same pattern—lots of drinking, lots of yelling, lots of throwing things, lots of tears and apologies, the firm oath that “this will never happen again.” By this time, I would be hiding in my bedroom with my furry friends. In Oz, Dorothy had Toto. I had my dolls and stuffed animals to keep me company. They were my best friends. They were important to me because I got to tell THEM what to do. This was the single part of my life where I had some power.

Where did I find comfort? In the Church. Literally, in the Church building near our home. The beautiful building and the rituals that took place there were a security blanket. I could escape there anytime when I was older, but the holy days were special for me. The haze of the candles through the mist of the incense, the smell of rose petals strewn about on Mary’s feast days, the music from the organ and the ringing bells, the choir sounding surely like the heavenly voices themselves, the crimson glow of poinsettias around the Church at Christmas. Even my family’s presence together every Sunday gave me the illusion that better times lay ahead. Alcohol seemed far away.

The Church (not the building) was also a stressor because it told this quiet, compliant little girl that she could do even better, and so I learned to feel guilty. Nothing was ever good enough. At home, I picked up the message that, IF there were a problem (and NOBODY was saying there was), it was probably my fault. At school, a grade of B meant I was lazy and could make an A if I studied more. I had always tried to do what I thought Mary would like. I definitely wanted my son to be as good a carpenter as Jesus. Think of the furniture franchise we would have!!

By the time I was 22, my Dad’s drinking started spilling out into the Community. His sister asked me how long I had known of his problem. When I told her, “since I was 3,” she was flabbergasted! When I was 24, my Dad joined Alcoholics Anonymous and ended his relationship with alcohol. Mine had just begun.

As I transitioned to married life, my Mom wouldn’t even let alcohol be served at my wedding reception. When someone said that maybe some guests would like an alcoholic drink, she said they could get it somewhere else!

We started out our married years simply. We didn’t need much, and this applied to alcohol, too. We would buy a bottle of wine to celebrate on New Year’s Eve, and save most of it for the next year. When the Olympics were on, we would have cheese and crackers and some wine when we were watching the Games.

When we added three beautiful children and two cats in the next five years, I was very happy. But bliss led to stress. Added to wife and mother, my roles quickly expanded to include teaching, cooking, cleaning, shopping, budgeting and chauffeuring. I was nurse and pharmacist when the kids were sick,plumber when the toilet stopped up, librarian, tailor, banker/financial officer, confidant, dental hygienist, mental health advocate, volunteer, pet groomer, Cub Scout den mother, and newspaper reporter for the neighborhood association.

When the stress led me to seek relaxation, I found it in a bottle. I thought the ensuing haze helped me cope better. The mystery is always why someone who grew up encased in the painful bubble of addiction would ever put an alcoholic drink to her lips. No one has the complete answer now, but we know chemical dependence is a definitive, diagnosable brain pathology.

Part of the problem was that the pressure to be perfect was almost unbearable, and it got worse because I internalized it. That meant the pressure took on a life of its own. I continued to demand perfection of myself even when others were no longer doing it. I now know that it was codependency thriving under the guise of perfectionism. The only relief came from alcohol.

The role of denial in any major illness can seem incredible to those not involved. Even as wine became my constant companion, I was unaware of anything being wrong. Wine coolers replaced iced tea and became the “new normal” for the drink to cool me off when the Texas heat registered 100 degrees. But, true to the definition of addiction, it remained my choice even when the winter temperature dropped below freezing.

Alcoholics Anonymous was mentioned, but, I mean, how could I join AA when I wasn’t an alcoholic?! Yes, I was having a few drinks, but pleeease, that doesn’t make me an alcoholic. Alcoholics are winos, drunks, bums, homeless people with bottles in a paper bag, mentally ill psychos. I had nothing in common with them.

However, the time of day to begin drinking moved slowly counter-clockwise. “Nightcap” became afternoon “tea time”, and then morning “breakfast drink”. (Memo to self, “Could anyone but an alcoholic face wine and scrambled eggs at 6AM?!)

As I became less able to do—and less interested in doing—household chores, the kids were getting old enough to help out. It’s amazing how much work children will do when you set up tasks as “fun”. I merged these activities with classical music lessons. A whole room was vacuumed and dusted to the tune of Chopin. Dishes washed and put away required a lot of Mozart, while three loads of laundry took place during “The Flight of the Bumblebee”. The reward for completed chores, especially all socks accounted for, was lunch at McDonald’s. It was about this time that I saw the bumper sticker that said: “I love cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food!” A motto after my own heart.

It was still taking time for me to own up to the real description of an addict, which is simple, really: one who has surrendered her life to the control of a substance. When any task in life came along, alcoholism won:
drink or fix supper? drink
drink or go to school play? drink
drink or buy Christmas presents? drink
drink or ??? drink

Daily TO DO list:
1. fix breakfast
2. take kids to school
3. clean house
4. drink wine and cry
5. stop crying
6. pick up kids at school
7. fix supper
8. put kids to bed
9. drink wine and cry, maybe sleep
10. return to #1

As drinking progressed, alcohol became my best friend, with the cats a close second. But I had many acquaintances: “Willie, Waylon,and the Boys,” Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison. John Conlee knew I had”The Friday Night Blues,” which now extended to every night of the week. These men understood my feelings to the core. Their lyrics cradled my lonely heart with love.

My desire for a life of service got “hooked” when our volunteer fire department needed more members. Since the kids were in school during the day, I signed up. My role as a firefighter gave me elements of excitement that were missing in daily life—smell of smoke, heat of fire, crackle of timber, sense of danger, terror when holding onto the back of a speeding fire truck! A drink when I got home in the middle of the night continued the sense of unreality, which was welcome. The only sounds at midnight were the cats purring and my heart breaking.

Developing along with my alcoholism was major depression. Like the chicken and the egg, I don’t think I will ever know which came first. As I lay awake night after night, I attempted to relieve the pain with alcohol. Of course, this central nervous system depressant only gravely compounded the problem. Major depression is a cruel companion. It eventually led me to believe that my family would actually be better off without me. The reasons for wanting to die made perfect sense to me. I had become too ill to see the irrationality of that thinking. The depression blunted so many of my senses. Life was mostly smokey gray. This was curiously appropriate when I was on a fire scene, surrounded by gray smoke and dancing embers. I felt more alive in the burning building than I did in my own den.

What also gravely compounded my problem was a well-meaning psychiatrist. I was finally in so much pain – obvious to others – that a friend suggested that a Doctor might help me feel better. Boy, DID HE EVER, to the tune of seven prescription medications. And so, instead of being addicted to just alcohol, I also became addicted to medication. I called the pills of many colors my “little rainbow friends”. Just looking at them in my hand, before I even swallowed them, I felt better. I was no longer alone.

It often takes arriving at a place of substantial discomfort before we are encouraged to reevaluate the ways in which we are living, coping and behaving. Changing what you don’t know exists is tough. I could add pieces to the puzzle, but I couldn’t see the big picture. What happened for me? It is known as INTERVENTION. My family and friends got together and confronted me lovingly with the fact that my drinking was out of control, and I was dangerous to myself and others. While I disagreed, I did agree to go into treatment. That day was the beginning of my new life.

In AA, I learned that in the “addicted” brain, something had gone wrong with the reward pathways. Simply put, addictions are the result of our brains losing the ability to recognize that it is time to stop drinking or using drugs. My foggy brain could grasp that. AA says there are only 2 times when you need to go to a meeting: when you want to and when you don’t want to. In my early days, I often used the meetings as a time to get a break from single parenting. The wisdom in the meetings can be so subtle that it took me awhile to figure out that I was actually getting something from them, and beginning to change my life. One day the weather was really bad, but not quite hurricane Irene. I figured that, surely, no one would go to a meeting in this weather, but I called my sponsor to be sure. She simply asked, “Would you go out in this weather to get a drink if you needed one?” Evidently a lot of people answered to their sponsors what I answered to mine because there were about 100 people at the meeting.

If you see someone darting into a Church side door about 8 PM,(the time most AA meetings take place), he/she is probably an alcoholic. But I worried only about the people seeing me go in, not those already there. The viewer, who doesn’t know anything about Alcoholics Anonymous, will be the one to start saying that I am an alcoholic – and mean this to be all those euphemisms I had to deal with myself:drunk, bum, etc. As a Catholic school teacher, I could see the phone brigade networking about my being a morally bankrupt person, who was a threat to their children. The folks already in the meeting know that I have not had a drink for years and am leading a good life.

As I began to lead an alcohol-free life, it just got better and better. The kids were teenagers who, by definition are real stressors to parent’s lives, and now I was divorced and a single parent. I had a counselor and a support group that helped me to see that I was actually doing a pretty good job of parenting and making progress with personal issues. As I continued in sobriety, all three kids graduated from college. With them on their own, I went back to college myself and got a Masters’ Degree in counseling so I could work as a substance abuse counselor. I worked in treatment centers, county jails, and prisons, sharing with others that there IS RECOVERY from addiction. My second son has married and given me two precious grandchildren.

At this writing, it’s been 23 years since I had my last drink. I had the great sadness of losing one of my brothers a year ago to the ravages of alcoholism at age 58. Few outside the AA community understand the significance of the “AA birthday”, (the day you quit drinking), but it is definitely the date of my rebirth. If I didn’t have that date, I would have another by now: on MY tombstone.

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