Humans tell stories because narratives are extremely powerful. Narratives can help us overcome adversity or survive disaster. Unfortunately, they can also trap us in unhealthy situations, or lead us into catastrophe.
When I was a kid, the narrative prevalent in most of my extended family was that alcohol caused all of my dad’s problems. It was certainly true that on days when he started drinking early the rest of us did everything we could to stay out of his way. If dad was drunk before nightfall, it pretty much guaranteed that someone was going to get a beating. But those weren’t the only days that he was like that. The only reason people outside the immediate family could hang on to that narrative was that if he wasn’t actually drunk, and there were people outside the immediate family present, Dad would remain on his best behavior. They didn’t know that, drunk or not, he was just as likely to slap or punch any of us at any time if he thought we were out of line.
And what constituted being out-of-line was difficult to predict. For me, it included doing anything he thought wasn’t manly, for instance.
Even though Dad rejected any suggestion that he should drink less, their narrative that it was all alcohol’s fault dovetailed nicely with his own rationalization, which was simply that nothing which went wrong in his life was ever his fault. Someone else was always to blame. That wasn’t the only notion the narrative dovetailed nicely with…
Many relatives on both sides of the family attended fundamentalist evangelical churches, where drinking of any sort was considered a sin. This both reinforced the narrative that alcohol was the root of Dad’s problems, and was itself validated when he acted out while drunk. Other aspects of the religious framework enabled his abusive behavior, because enduring the abuse was seen as passing a test from god. The belief that god never allowed us to face anything we couldn’t bear implied that not enduring it with a cheerful spirit meant that we weren’t sufficiently faithful and therefore deserved the abuse.
It was messed up all around.
After my folks divorced, Dad had yet another car accident while driving drunk, and this was in the 1970s when laws were finally barely beginning to do more than slap wrists over this sort of thing. Plus the accident happened technically on company time, because he was driving back home from a job site halfway across the state when it occurred. So he received an ultimatum from his employer, as well as a judge, to attend AA meetings and meet other conditions.
Once he had been sober for a year, I began to hear from relatives nearby (I was a teen-ager living 1200 miles away and quite happy to have him out of my life) that he was a changed man. He wasn’t abusing the family (his second wife and their three kids) any more. And I should be proud of him! That, of course, turned out to be complete hooey. In fact, I got the best proof that it he was still abusive straight from him some years later. He called me one day (and he never called me) all angry, because one of my sisters had gotten a restraining order, forbidding him from being around her children (his grandchildren) without supervision, because of an instance of him slapping my then two-year-old niece.
But that wasn’t what had him really pissed off. According to him, not only had my “ungrateful” sister “lied to the court” by saying that Dad was an abusive person, but our other sister and her brothers had also gone to court, having heard about the first sister’s order, and asked for restraining orders to protect their children from Dad. So at that moment, of all my father’s children, I was the only one who didn’t have a restraining order out on him. And truth be told, at that point the only reasons I didn’t was because 1) I don’t have children and 2) I live 1200 miles away.
I wasn’t in regular communication with any of my siblings at that time, so I only know Dad’s side of this incident, though I got a few more details from some other family members nearby. I also heard at least one version that said they hadn’t all actually gotten restraining orders, but had merely indicated they were thinking about it.
The truth is that Dad, sober or drunk, is an abusive person. Decades of sobriety hasn’t changed that. The extended family has additional explanations for why he is the way he is. But in the end, he’s an angry, bitter, controlling man. When he was drinking the alcohol made him less likely to restrain himself in some circumstances, but that’s all.
The “it’s all alcohol’s fault” narrative, hasn’t lost all power to affect me. For instance, Mom (who has been divorced from Dad for more than 40 years and also lives at least 1000 miles from him) is still convinced that Dad isn’t a bad person, he was just led astray, in part because alcohol has demonic powers.
So, for instance, some years ago, as my various health issues progressed, there was a point where my doctor recommended that I drink between one and three glasses of red wine a week. Mom found out and had a major freak out. She called me in a panic to demand, “Doesn’t your doctor know your father is an alcoholic!? If you touch alcohol you’ll become one, too!”
Mom was operating under the delusion that I never drank. I fully admit that I had allowed her to believe that because I knew what her attitude toward alcohol was. Make no mistake, I am aware that alcoholism can run in families (though the evidence is still out as to whether it is a matter of genetics or environment that causes it to do so). I know that even without a family history, anyone could develop an addiction. So, even though I do like a good cocktail or a nice glass of Montepulciano, I limit the number and frequency of my drinking. I also watch myself. I check in with other people (such as my husband who doesn’t drink at all) about whether I’m drinking too much.
And I have some rules. I know that following these rules will never guarantee I don’t develop a problem, but I keep them, nonetheless. One of them is that, while I can have beer or cider while watching football games, I never open the first beer before noon. Even if my favorite team is playing at 10am and is behind 31 points before half-time. Yes, this is directly a result of the one time when I was ten when Dad gave me the beating that resulted in a broken collar bone and gashes that required stitches. For a long time I didn’t trust myself to drink beer at all while watching football, my memories of that and similar incidents were that disturbing.
I have a rule about the maximum number of drinks I can have if I’m not out with friends, as well as rules about how many drinks I have with friends—though now that I’m on insulin and having to check my blood sugar regularly, those rules are redundant. I have the all-important rule that if my husband tells me I’ve had enough that he’s always right and I never argue. There are others, the specifics of which are of interest to no one but me, I’m sure.
What I’m getting at with all of this is: it’s been more than 40 years since I had to live with the man, and still I worry that I might turn into him. The scariest monster my subconscious can conjure is not my Dad drunk and armed and looming over me when I was too small to defend myself—it’s me, acting like him toward someone else.
It’s sad that his greatest influence on my life is to have been such a wretched example—an object lesson of what I never want to be like; a warning of what I could become if I’m not careful.