Not many people today are old enough to remember vaudeville, but one of the most sad … and parodied as humor … scenarios was the typical morality play, where the ragged little girl walks into the neighborhood tavern and sings to one of the drunks,
“Father, dear father, come home with me now,
The clock in the steeple strikes three.
The house is so lonely, the hours are so long,
For poor weeping mother and me.”
Although the sickness of alcoholism can affect any member of the family, even today, the usual real life scenario presents the father as the drunk. It comes from the fading tradition when he was the sole breadwinner, and the stay-at-home wife and kids depended on him totally to provide enough income for their survival. However, if you look at the statistics of today’s liberated lifestyles, and you may find the mother, either the homemaker with the secret bottle or the career woman who drinks her lunch hour, is just as susceptible to alcoholism.
We’re also seeing rising statistics of children in their early teens who find alcohol easy to get, and eventually fall into the addiction. As never before, this generation of teens is exposed to all kinds of blatant use of alcohol and other drugs by their peers, as well as by their free-wheeling heroes in sports and the entertainment industry. Statistics also show that children brought up in homes where the mother and/or father are alcoholics, their chances of falling into the addiction are at least twice as likely as children who haven’t been exposed to it in the home. I should know.
My personal connection with alcoholism is in two parts. My father, as my mother told it, was a very popular singer. He had toured successfully with musical comedy troupes for a decade before he opened a little neighborhood store. He decided to settle down to marry, raise kids and lead a normal life. However, because of his marvelous voice, he was always in demand at local taverns to perform. This was in the mid-1920s, just before radio became part of family life, and many singers made extra money by performing at parties and pubs. My father enjoyed the acclaim the limitless free drinks. He became an alcholic.
My mother said he never got staggering drunk and needed a little child to beg him to come home, but she did say his drinking addiction caused his physical condition to deteriorate. His kidneys, weakened by alcohol, became diseased. There were no antibiotics in those days, and shortly before his 34th birthday, he died. My mother was left with three children, age nine, six and three. Because of my father’s drinking and free spending over several years, we had no money, and as my mother always termed it, we were “sheriffed”. Which simply meant creditors hired sheriff’s deputies to come in and clean out our furniture. We had a very rough time in poverty for the next decade.
The second part of my story is that a year after World War II broke out, at age 17, I joined the Navy. Following boot camp, I was assigned to a base in San Francisco. It was a wonderful city then, and still is. My monthly pay of $55 was more money than I had ever seen before, and I was determined to enjoy every penny of it, because I knew I’d be shipping out to the war in the Pacific at any time. With the help of a fake ID card, because the legal drinking age in the city was 21, I proceeded to do what my father had done two decades before. I became an alcoholic.
Maybe there’s something to the theory that children of alcoholics have it in their genetic make-up to fall into the same addiction. Whatever the reason, for a kid who had just tasted a few glasses of wine until age 17, by 18 I was a certified, falling-down drunk. Fortunately for me, I never went into the city alone, always with a group of other sailors. Somehow, when I had too much to drink, the others got me back to the base intact.
Many the time I arose to walk or was dragged by buddies to morning muster still wearing a filthy, stained uniform. While our chief petty officer was an old Navy hand and sympathetic to young idiots who drank too much, I still had to spend many extra hours on dog watches, scrubbing pots in the galley and swabbing decks in the barracks. But, as soon as I could get to the city, I was off on binges again.
The kindly old CPO … he must have been at the advanced age of 35 … finally took me aside. First he told me, because of my behavior, he was suspending my liberty indefinitely. This meant confinement to the base, and not incidentally, being forced to dry out. This meant kicking alcohol cold turkey. I was terrified, because I had heard stories of drunks going blind or insane from the sudden loss of alcohol to their very dependent systems.
However, the CPO and another sailor opted to stay with me for what became a two-day ordeal. Whenever I started raving or kicking around, they dragged me to the shower room, uniform and all, and held me under the cold spray. I really admire those two guys, because besides trying to kick and bite them, I was losing everything I had eaten during the previous week in all directions. Finally, I passed out, and they cleaned me up, took me to my bunk and babysat while I slept for 24 hours. I woke up weak and shaky, but totally sober for the first time in several months. When I was assigned to a ship and sailed out to the war in the Pacific, I was cured. It has been nearly 65 years since that time, and except for an occasional glass of wine, I never touch alcohol.
In conclusion, although my teenage alcoholism didn’t hurt anyone but myself, that experience and in my growing up years without a father, I came to realize how the addiction can destroy a family. Often the most devastating effect is the loss of economic stability, which not only means career problems, but also the added burden of medical and emotional help required to help the alcoholic.
The other factor, which may have influenced my descent into alcoholism, is that adult family members who become alcoholics set poor examples for their children. The parents’ destructive behavior negatively affects all relationships with each other and inevitably hurts the children. The situation only gets worse as the children grow up and must face more than enough hardships as adults, including the inclination to repeat the process, as I suspect I did.