This week’s Listicles topic over at NorthWest Mommy is a good one (what week isn’t?) - 10 Things My Parents Did Right, chosen by Lisa over at The Sprog. I’m amending it to 10 Things My Alcoholic Parents Taught Me, because that’s basically what this blog is about: me writing about how my alcoholic parents raised and influenced me, yet how I’ve chosen to stop the legacy of the family disease from hurting me or my children anymore, and how I’m stopping the dysfunction from being passed down to my children – as much as I humanly can. Which so far, is a lot.
Today I’m writing about the flip side of alcoholism – the good side. Yes, Virginia, there can be a good side to growing up in an alcoholic home. You learn a lot of valuable things, for starters – compassion, creativity, survival, how to trust your instincts, how to get yourself up and out of the alcoholic family system. Not everything was bad and many things were beyond wonderful. My parents, although profoundly ill with alcoholism that progressed and worsened over the years, were magical, gifted people who loved life and adored people. And many, many people adored them back. Unfortunately, it often seemed to us as if my parents belonged more to the world than they belonged to us, and this was a confusing message, especially during the teen years. A lot of the time, I didn’t feel like anyone had my back.
My father was a good Samaritan who would stop his car to help a stranded motorist at any time – day or night. He regularly picked up hitch-hikers and brought them home to give them dinner and a place to stay – never mind that it may have been dangerous to have a stranger sleeping in the house. Luckily it all turned out in the end – and I have fond memories of learning about life from the bohemian types my parents brought to the house, and who lived with us and told us their stories because they were down on their luck. I learned how to make salad dressing – a classic Italian vinaigrette from scratch – from a young homeless woman my parents brought home and who stayed with us for a few days. And I learned a lot more from her than just making a vinaigrette – like that homeless people aren’t all addicts and weirdos and degenerates. Each one has a story behind their homelessness, a story that matters.
When I was 9 my cousin’s husband left her for her best friend. My cousin had just given birth to their third baby. My parents – always there to help someone in need – flew her and her three children from her home in New Zealand out to California to live with us until she could get back on her feet. She was a classical guitarist and was at the terrible crossroads of not knowing how she was going to survive emotionally, or how she was going to support her young children without her husband, or her best friend for that matter (God, which is worse?! Losing your husband, or your best friend?). I remember her sitting out on the deck for hours, playing that guitar in the California sun like her life depended on it – all while we watched her babies. She stayed with us that whole summer and then returned to NZ, after catching her breath and leaning on my wonderful parents who loved her guitar playing, and who told her often that her husband was a prick and that they believed in her. In fact, they told her: she could do anything she set her mind to (this is the exact same thing they always told me too, and I believed it).
And you know what? That single mama who had been through hell debuted as a solo lutenist at Carnegie Hall, baby. Carnegie Hall.
There were many stories of people my mom and dad took into their hearts and our home because they loved people, and reached out to those in need. I’ve said this frequently here on this blog but it’s so important to me that I’m going to say it again: I believe that alcoholics are unusually sensitive souls who just need a way to turn the volume down on all the things they see and hear. I have never once met a stupid or boring alcoholic – all of them are intelligent, bright-lights – especially after they get sober, but even before. Diamonds in the rough.
10 Things My Alcoholic Parents Taught Me
1. Don’t drink or take drugs.
2. Love is stronger than alcoholism. (It doesn’t matter if the alcoholic never gets sober and dies from their disease – love trumps alcoholism, in the end).
3. It doesn’t matter what other people think – about what I look like, how fat I am, how thin I am, what kind of car I drive, how badly my parents behaved in public, how I appear, or whether I behave like you want me to or not – what matters is what’s at the core of me. The same goes for alcoholics, who are judged mercilessly because they do stupid things, say awful things, embarrass people, get arrested, lie, steal, and cheat, drive drunk, and do despicable, dangerous things that their normal, sober selves, would never do. And then they wake up and do these things all over again. And again. In the end - the ism is not the person, the person is the person. And no matter how far down they’ve sunk, every alcoholic still has at their core a part of themselves that is not alcoholic.
4. Alcoholics are not the sum of their flaws. They are not evil. They are sick and they need our compassion, and if they don’t want our help we can always walk our butts on over to Alanon, a program for families of alcoholics.
The “3 C’s” of Alanon: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.
5. Death from cirrhosis is pretty horrible.
6. Grab life by its throat – there really is no other way to live, because we have only one brief life. Step outside the box, because life is a big adventure.
7. No matter what happens, always have fresh flowers around the house, music playing in the background, and a friendly welcome for anyone who comes to the door.
8. Always have deep compassion for homeless people, for alcoholics, addicts, and their families and children who are suffering because of a loved one’s alcoholism.
9. When the going gets tough, the smart person sneaks off to Jungian therapy (even if their family thinks therapists are lower on the food chain than well, than lawyers; even if their family system is so deranged by the alcoholism that any sign of anyone getting well or finding balance is perceived as a threat).
10. Underneath the alcoholism, I knew that I was the light of my parents’ lives. I knew that despite how alcoholism took them away from me, they loved me profoundly – and because of this knowledge I am a fiercely loving parent who is stopping the legacy of dysfunction in my children’s lives (and if I do say so myself, I’m a pretty damn good parent). Everything I am as a parent is thanks to my magical, unwell parents.
Well okay – and to Carl Jung, and Alanon.
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