This post was originally posted last year, just after the death of singer Whitney Houston.
To me, the greatest love of all is between a parent and a child. No matter how much we as parents think we love our children, the love they feel for us is even greater, and we have a huge impact on their lives and futures. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Bobbi Kristina, the 18-year-old daughter that Whitney Houston left behind. Through the years I’ve kept an eye on her in photographs – probably because she reminds me of myself, growing up with two alcoholic parents, being their ‘caretaker’.
Caretaker: A word that makes me cringe.
When you become a parent your greatest love is your children. But when you’re an alcoholic-addict parent, your greatest love is your drug of choice. No matter how remorseful you are, no matter what your best intentions are, or how much you say you love your children. Everything else, and this includes your children – takes a backseat to your addiction.
No child should ever have to worry about their parents. It’s supposed to be the other way around. But in an alcoholic family, everything gets turned upside down.
When I heard that Bobbi K. was taken to the hospital to be treated for stress and anxiety after her mother died – I just, well, I understood.
She has a long road ahead of her.
There were photos of her allegedly taking drugs – snorting cocaine, smoking pot. My heart sank. I hope she doesn’t go the route her parents went – but statistically the likelihood of a child of alcoholic-addicts becoming an alcoholic-addict themselves is huge. The likelihood of them marrying alcoholic-addicts is also huge.
For me to recover from the deaths of my alcoholic parents, I had to do a lot of soul-searching, a ton of therapy, and go to a shit-load of Alanon meetings – for years. I went to my first Alanon meeting at 18, the same age Bobbi is now. I also had to get that I could never touch alcohol or drugs myself or the same doomed future awaited me.
So that’s what I did. I knew from a young age that I didn’t want to live – or die – like my parents.
It wasn’t easy, but it was simple.
Here I am now – a grown woman, leading a normal life, raising my children. My children will never have to worry about me like I worried about my parents. They will never have to sponge up the toxic debris left in the wake of a parent’s ism.
I’m still watching members of my family struggle with the family demons – drugs, alcoholism, mental illness. There are ongoing dramatic efforts to get people into rehab, phone calls with interventionists, suicide attempts, concern over the possibility of future suicides (plural), hospitalizations, the tsunami of lost opportunities, lost futures…all the unfair shit that accompanies addiction and mental illness.
It’s beyond awful, especially because after my parents died I really thought that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. Alcoholism is an inherited psycho-social-bio disease, one that’s passed down through families in many different ways, not the least of which is biochemically and genetically.
Many of you know that I wrote a semi-autobiographical novel – the story of a young woman on the verge of adulthood who’s coming to terms with the impending death of her alcoholic mother.
Writing it was cathartic for me. It took me six years. It was one of the things that helped me to recover me, because a primary unspoken rule in alcoholic families is don’t tell the truth. So I grew up accidentally perpetuating a lie – not being able to put into words the devastation that I was seeing all around me, yet at the same time becoming an unusually honest person, and, ironically, a writer – honest to the point of rudeness. In groups, although I’m hearing what’s coming out of people’s mouths, what I’m really hearing is the sub-text: the psychological stuff they’re not saying but are communicating (and this is exhausting; it’s one reason why I can only take so much group activity). I’m always the one to point out the proverbial elephant in living rooms – and this is exhausting too.
It’s the kind of honesty that is hard-won, the kind that grows in response to ongoing denial – a lifetime of denial, really.
I’m including a scene from my novel below that depicts the high-level of denial in an alcoholic family. The worse the alcoholism – the bigger the sense of denial that engulfs its family members. I wonder about all the hoops of denial that Bobbi Kristina has had to jump through. How many bathtubs did she pull her mother out of before this final tragedy? How many times did she try to wake her up, put her to bed, try to help her stop, threaten her, call the doctor, deal with her hangover, pick up her prescriptions, throw them down the toilet, get her into rehab? How many times did she go to her father for help and encounter denial?
Denial is huge. It’s one of the things a family rearranges itself around so its members can cope with alcoholism. I know this now, but it was really tough to deal with growing up.
In the scene from my novel, which really happened – we had taken my mom to a mother’s day brunch at a fancy restaurant even though she was clearly dying. I had wanted to drive her to the hospital instead of to brunch, but no one would listen to me. It turned out that my mom was so sick that a stranger had to call an ambulance, and the EMTs came and took her out of the restaurant on a gurney. The thing is – the rest of us were also very sick too – but in a different way, maybe the same way that Bobbi Kristina is sick now: sick with another person’s sickness, brain-damaged by denial.
We all sure could have used an emotional gurney.
Excerpt from my novel
Since we had taken the manager by surprise, like guerrilla soldiers, we were already on our way to our table in the center of the room before he could think of a way to stop us. My mother tried to sit at the first table we came to, a family of five – two boys, red heads, a girl with Care Bears clips in her hair, the yuppie parents – but somehow I lifted her off the chair and navigated my skeletal, near-death mother through the now silent dining room to our table. By the time Raj helped me to get her into a chair, my tears were coming. They came hard and fast and I couldn’t stop them. I was aware that the people in the dining room didn’t want to see a dying woman and a sobbing one, but I couldn’t stop crying.
“Well,” said my father, passing out menus, dropping one in front of Dee, Mr. Jowl, Raj, Sigrid, Garcia, and me. I couldn’t bear to look at the canned cheeriness on his face or the perspiration on his brow. He was on autopilot, in uber-denial, smack-dab in the middle of his own colossal nervous breakdown.
I could do nothing but watch everything as if it were a movie and try to pretend that I was alone with my mother in a hospital room. I knelt beside her. I took her small cold hand in mine and tried to warm it between my palms. The room was hot and close but she was so cold. Did somebody turn off the air conditioner? Could I maybe find a blanket? Suddenly it smelled muggy and bad; the gardenias had begun to stink like they were decomposing and we were all going to choke to death. Time had passed—was it a minute, or an hour? Was it eternity? The slender woman was crouching beside me. Dee, Garcia, Mr. Jowl and Raj sat frozen. Did they know what was happening? Had time stopped? After scanning the menu, my father told the family at the table beside us how good the butterfly prawns were, but somehow he said this in slow motion.
“I’m an off-duty nurse,” said the woman. She patted my back gently, and I sobbed harder, hiccupping with despair. “It looks like you might need an ambulance. Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“Yes, please,” I said in the voice of an expectant child who was about to get an unimaginable treat, an ice cream sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Like an angel, this woman had appeared from out of the hopelessness of that dining room. Where had she come from? Why didn’t she go to my father, or Dee, or Raj? Why had she come to me?
By the time the paramedics arrived, my father was involved in an argument with the manager, who had suggested that our party should leave the dining room and wait in the foyer.
“Wait for what?” he said, removing a pipe from his front pocket and tapping it into his palm. “We haven’t had our prawns yet.”
“For the paramedics to finish up,” said the manager. “And I’m sorry, Sir, but we have a no smoking policy.”
I should have known that by then my father had lost his mind, too, but I didn’t think to know until much later. He had every right to lose his mind, just as all of us did. On that day, instead of knowing this, I behaved as if I expected him to give me something that he was incapable of giving. I expected him to be rational, or subdued, or logical, and he was none of those things.
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