Our story mirrors millions of others. Alcoholism follows a pattern, and addiction causes a ripple effect throughout a family. Our story is presented in first person; the facts, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, are given in brackets.
Our family’s story began about 20 years ago, with my son.
“When did you start drinking?”
You said you were seven when you drank some beer at a friend’s house; you liked it and how it made you feel.[The NIAAA says, “People who start drinking at an early age—for example, at age 14 or younger—are at a much higher risk of developing alcohol problems at some point in their lives compared to someone who starts drinking at age 21 or after.”]
Your father and I separated and I filed for divorce when you were 10. Did you drink because of the divorce? We had psychiatric evaluations. You chose to live with your father, who was probably an undiagnosed alcoholic. The court gave your dad physical custody. You had access to liquor. I heard of teenage drinking parties in the apartment. When your father drank during our marriage, he often said it was because of me. After we separated, he said he drank because of you. It took 3.5 years to finalize the divorce. You were already out of my reach by then.[“Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism does indeed run in families.”]
You admitted to the parties and the easy access to alcohol; the anger over the divorce, over school, over restrictions, and over how hard life was.
You were not yet 18 when I came home to hear an answering machine with your voice that said you had taken 90 xanax and drank from a whiskey bottle. Your dad wasn’t home. He had gone to get burgers. You called to say, “Good bye.”[“Alcohol problems are highest among young adults ages 18-29 and lowest among adults ages 65 and older.” Also, “Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person’s lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms.”]
It was within the hour that I called your apartment number and got your dad. He said you were sleeping in the family room. I said you had overdosed. He called for an ambulance, and they arrived a couple minutes before I did. The police were there, with the ambulance. You were slipping into unconsciousness. They intubated you and loaded you into the ambulance. I followed you to the hospital.
A pastor talked to your dad and me. We talked about donating your organs. Your dad walked out and went home around 4 a.m. So did I. We couldn’t do anything else; we didn’t know what to do.
I returned at 11 a.m. The nurse was fixing your IV’s and said you hadn’t regained consciousness. I held your hand and talked to you. You opened your eyes, and they widened in a moment of panic when you realized they had a tube down your throat to help you breathe. I told you not to pull on the tube; it was a necessity until you could breathe on your own.
Oh yes, there was a glorious moment that you had survived. However, it was just a moment in time. The alcohol took over. You played the trio of your dad vs. me vs. your grandmother. You stole money; you got into trouble with the police many times; you had another near-suicide attempt. You took grandma’s car without permission and drove 65 mph the wrong way until the police stopped you with a blood alcohol content of .39. You blacked out and never remembered that.
I didn’t know people could survive with an alcohol content that high.[“An alcoholic can’t be forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such as a traffic violation or arrest that results in court-ordered treatment.” Also, “Alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.”]
You had $1 million dollars under your dad’s insurance and spent it all in hospitals, recovery programs, and rehabs. You were in jail 13 times that I know of before you turned 21, and your parole officer would no longer communicate with me because of privacy laws; you were no longer a juvenile.[You don’t have to wait for someone to hit “rock bottom” to act…. You must stop all “cover ups,” and you can explain to the drinker that you are worried about his or her drinking. “Use examples of the ways in which the drinking has caused problems, including the most recent incident.”]
I went to many programs. I went to AA meetings and Al Anon meetings; I went to family counselors. I went to an inpatient co-dependency program for five days. I learned that I could not stop your downward spiral, and I learned that most chronic alcoholics lose the battle and their lives to alcohol.[Support groups help family members understand that they are not responsible for an alcoholic’s drinking and that they need to take steps to take care of themselves, regardless of whether the alcoholic family member chooses to get help.]
I stepped back from all of it. Then you “disappeared.” Whereas we used to get “crisis calls” from jail, rehab, hospitals or prison, the calls stopped. After 3, 4, and 5 years, we gave up ever seeing you again. We figured you had skipped the state, changed your name, and, without ID (which you kept “losing” through robberies or moves to homeless shelters), you had probably died some place as an unidentified person.
Then, the other day, I got a letter with your name printed on it, from yet another rehab. It invited the family to join in counseling yet again.
No. No more. My bottom line is no more involvement unless and until you get your life together; you must be sober for at least 6 months with a job, a return address and phone number. I mailed my reply yesterday. I hope you take my letter seriously. Those are my final words.
If people can learn from others’ personal experiences – to beloved alcoholics everywhere – please know that your alcoholism is absolutely devastating to the whole family.
*[17.6 million people in the U.S. –about 1 in every 12 adults—abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent… “Alcoholism can be treated. Alcoholism treatment programs use both counseling and medications to help a person stop drinking…” “Alcohol treatment works for many people.”]
Fact Source for items in brackets: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/FAQS Updated February 2007. Retrieved 4-26-10.