Guest Infact: Growing up in an Alcoholic Home.
I am no longer surprised by the number of people in the scientific community who have lives touched by alcoholism. Not when, over and over, I’ve seen it, heard it, and been privileged to talk to those who either drink too much, or love those who do. This community, the online science world, has become my virtual home. And it’s a beautiful home to have. Which is why I offer to give a home to these stories, here.
There’s a line in this piece about not knowing how to not be alone. This is how. Share your story. We’re all taking one step at a time. Take the next one with me. We are the light in the dark.
Growing up in a home with violence and alcoholism/polysubstance abuse is often something one just survives, in the best case scenario. When I was younger, they told me there was a typical set of different roles that children of alcoholic families tend to exhibit in school, in the family, in society. I may have shifted across that list myself at various points, trying to find something that brought a bit more sense to my life. It was like trying to endure all the normal difficulties of growing up, with the added complication being that while my peers were sailing on fairly smooth waters, I was attempting (failing) to hide the fact that my life was a hurricane. I never got to just be a kid.
I won’t beat you about the head by recounting the succession of terrible moments that bring me to my current position in life. I’d prefer not to think about it myself, much less write any of those things down. So when I say it was awful, that there were felonies and frequent 911 calls and courtrooms and guardian ad litems and shelter homes, I’m sure you can imagine enough without the need for a trigger warning label. I’m fortunate to be alive, and it took some drastic actions on my part to ensure even that. Contrary to what people typically seem to think on the rare occasion that I openly discuss the issue, though, the biggest impacts were not the physical ones. Far from it. Injured bodies can heal- most of the way, most of the time. That last injury may have socked it to me for half my life, but I’m working on it. No. The betrayals, the failures, the constant dread, the life without trust and without emotion- these were the things that will stay with me forever and still actively make it hard for me to live a semi-normal life on a regular basis.
Eventually things reached a point where I just knew I had to leave. I found myself alone in a wide world that I was completely unprepared to confront. This lack of preparation was in part due to the lack of care and guidance that I received- because all the attention was on the alcoholic, all the time. It was in part because I was still just a kid. But most of it was because I had never learned how to trust anyone. I had a very small number of very close friends, but I had distanced myself from all but one or two of them even as the worst events of my tumultuous young life bore down upon me. The world is an ugly, intimidating place when you’re alone and unable to figure out how to NOT be alone. I somehow stumbled through that phase of my life on wits, independence (I had never learned to rely on anyone else anyway), and a couple friends’ and coworkers’ couches when they brought me to their homes- though there was much suffering and many second chances I should not have received. I had to come to grips with the concept of living life for the future, since I had lived my early years as if there were no more birthdays after 17 or so. And once I made it a ways into my “new” life, those earlier experiences ended up making me pretty ferocious in my pursuits. Most people don’t have the life experience I had by age 18 or even 21 or 22, so my general demeanor and approach to the world terrified some of my peers in the higher education game. It was probably better that way anyway, honestly. But it was terribly lonely.
Let me say that for all the pain I’ve lived, I haven’t failed to inflict pain on others- people who love me regardless of my feelings for them, people who I love back, random strangers I’ve encountered. The alcoholic-codependent relationship I witnessed growing up was a pretty poor model of how adult people treat each other. There was the typical pattern of escalating drama followed by peace, waiting in fear for the other shoe to drop. I thought life was one extreme or the other, and hadn’t learned to operate anywhere in the middle ground. So even after finding someone who was patient enough to teach me (and wait for me to learn) how to interact like a functioning adult, the complexities of interpersonal relationships are still mostly beyond me. This most trusted person in my life has learned to live with the feeling that I hold him at arm’s length, though that is not how I intend to approach our relationship. I’m sharp and unavailable to most people who don’t know me very well. The people who I am available to, I can either be far too needy, too critical, or too you-name-it. I learned this at some point and started overcompensating, so that makes things even more screwed up because I always compensate incorrectly. I am terrified of rejection or abandonment, of failure and disappointing those who believe in me. I’m a mess inside but I try to hide that, to varying degrees of success.
You might think that at least forgiveness is a part of my social skillset. You would be wrong. And I am okay with that- how the parties I left behind feel is really not my concern. I have decided to focus forward and lead an interesting life since I have a life to lead. I’ve been a part of many different groups (workplaces, schools, internet) along the path to where I am today, and I’ve met many good people along the way. Whether they knew my history or not, I’ve taken a lot of good away from healthy interactions and healthy friendships. I like to say that I haven’t let the alcoholic in my past win- instead, I’m a high-functioning dysfunctional person who has managed to scratch out a halfway decent existence and find some level of personal and professional fulfillment. Even if my experience of the world is permanently colored by someone else’s alcoholism, it’s my world now.