My Imaginary Father

Recently I came across this photograph of my father. It was taken in 1952, three years before the movie Rebel Without a Cause came out. My father was James Dean before the real James Dean had truly “become” James Dean.

My Father, 1952.jpg

I can see why my mother had married him two years previously. He’s got that sexy, brooding, bad-boy look about him that every 23 year old girl falls for.

Fortunately, most of us snap out of it.

I suspect that by the time this photo was taken, the honeymoon was long since over. My father was drunk in this picture, just as he had been in every other picture that was taken of him as an adult. He was even drunk in his wedding pictures.

My mother had lived a rather sheltered life. Her parents weren’t ones to drink to excess. Her dad protected her as much as he could, right up until his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in World War II. My mother was 17 at the time, and the family was plunged into poverty.

She carried on, living with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children in a tiny house that was barely bigger than most people’s garages. I’m pretty sure she got married simply to get out of there. Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire.

She stayed married to my alcoholic, physically abusive father for 17 years. You can’t say she didn’t try. They were divorced when I was 3 months old.

I never met my father. He didn’t send me a single card or letter or gift. He didn’t pay a penny in child support. I never heard his voice. I couldn’t have picked him out of a line up.

My mother didn’t talk about him much unless I asked. She did say that he was an alcoholic and that’s why they got divorced. She said he was a sharpshooter in WWII, and that he sometimes liked to shoot blue jays out of the tree from the top floor bedroom window of our house. (The neighbors must have loved that.)

I didn’t know he used to beat her until long after she was dead. I didn’t think about the fact that they’d been together for 17 whole years until recently. There must have been quite a few stories that went untold.

With that kind of an information vacuum, I was free to make up stories about him in my head. I used to think he was strong. I used to think that if he had been in my life I’d have been protected and loved. I used to think I was worse off because of his absence.

I don’t think those things anymore.

Now, I just think he looked like James Dean.

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To the Drunk Who Sat behind Me

I had been looking forward to seeing Arlo Guthrie in concert for months. Sure, this would be my 20th time seeing him since 1980, but that’s because I sort of view him as the milepost for my development. I grew up with his music. I still have several of his albums (remember those?) gathering dust somewhere. I’ve been at different stages of my life with each passing concert. I was excited about experiencing his wit and wisdom now that I’m finally at a place in my life where I know I’m exactly where I should be.

That, and the man is 71. I have no idea how many more mileposts he’ll be present for. Each concert becomes all the more precious due to the passage of time.

And concert tickets do not come cheap these days. While I’m in a better financial place than I have been in the past, I still have to sit in the nosebleed section. I still have to drive around and around and around in hopes of finding the cheapest possible parking. I still think about the many other things I should be doing with that money. Concerts are a luxury.

So you can imagine my irritation when I settled in to my seat at the theater and the alcoholic who was sitting behind me started acting up. (Lord knows I’ve made my opinions about alcoholics quite clear in this blog.) The woman would not shut up.

Not only would she not shut up, but she actually increased her volume to be heard over Arlo’s singing. And she kept shouting Wooo Hooo! (Not that I’m opposed to that. I’ve Wooo-ed my share of Hooos myself at more than one concert. But not in the middle of the entertainer’s enjoyable stories. Not 10 times during the same song.) No one came to hear your Wooo Hooos, lady.

She ignored my dirty looks. She ignored my leaning forward and cupping my ear. She ignored my husband’s polite request for her to keep it down. In fact, she got louder. Because the world revolves around her.

That’s why I know she’s an alcoholic without knowing her personally. Only habitual drunks go out in public and make a$$es of themselves, despite the disapproval of every single person around them. Only alcoholics are oblivious to the fact that they are ruining an expensive night out for everyone within earshot of them. Only alcoholics can be that freakin’ selfish.

I sat there and fumed for about 4 songs. I kept telling myself to not give her that power. I kept telling myself that I was there for Arlo, not for idiot. But she was so loud. So unbelievably loud.

Finally we moved to some empty seats even higher up in the nosebleed section, and had a wonderful time. Arlo never disappoints. He’s an American icon, just like his father Woody Guthrie was.

I noticed that Drunky McDrunkerson did not return to her seat after the intermission. I don’t know if she was passed out in the bathroom, or if she was asked to leave, but I guarantee you, she wasn’t missed by anyone. I just hope she didn’t drive home.

So, if you happen to be reading this, you drunken fool, please know that you looked like an imbecile, and everyone around you was resisting the urge to punch you in the throat. You are not liked. You are not appreciated. You are not the life of every party. In fact, you are the death of many of them. You owe us all a refund. You owe Arlo an apology. You should be ashamed of yourself. And now your horrible behavior has been immortalized in this blog. I’m sure it’s one of your highest achievements. How sad for you.

Arlo Seattle 2019.jpg

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Stop Calling Alcoholism a Disease

In the interests of full disclosure, I have zero tolerance for alcoholics. Zero. (I’ve written about this before, and you can find that post here.) I’m also not a doctor, so please don’t consider this post to be medical advice. This is just me fleshing out the unpopular side of a debate that people have been avoiding for decades, to wit,

is alcoholism a disease?

There is no other disease that I can think of that compels you to take an outside substance into your body. No one calls smoking a disease. Smoking can cause many diseases, but it is not considered a disease in and of itself. Alcoholism, too, can cause diseases. Liver disease, for example, and an alteration in brain chemistry that makes it harder to resist alcohol, which is considered by many to be a brain disease. But there is no disease vector on earth that caused you to take that first drink, or even the second one.

Yes, alcoholism can run in families, but that doesn’t make it a disease, either. That speaks to the behavioral aspect of the addiction. You learn coping skills from your family. Unfortunately, not all coping skills are good ones. And yes, your family might be more susceptible to the brain disease that makes alcohol harder to resist, but still, starting to drink was your bad choice. That brain disease couldn’t get in there until you chose to introduce that substance into your body.

The definition of disease, according to the Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. is as follows:

disease

 [dĭ-zēz´]

a definite pathological process (in other words, an organic process occurring as a consequence of a disease) having a characteristic set of signs and symptoms. It may affect the whole body or any of its parts, and its etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.

On the other hand, the definition of addiction in that same dictionary is as follows:

addiction

 [ah-dik´shun]

  1. thestate of beinggiven up to somehabit or compulsion.

  2. strong physiological and psychological dependence on a drug or other agent; see alcoholism and drug dependence.

So, why does society want to call alcoholism a disease?

Because the hallmark of addiction is an unwillingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. If it’s a disease, then it’s not your fault, right?

But a much more nefarious reason is that calling alcoholism a disease props up the first step of the Twelve Step program. The first step is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Until you buy into that step, you cannot really proceed to the others.

Yes, I’ll concede that alcoholism can make your life unmanageable. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? But are you powerless over it? No.

Yes, you are in the throes of addiction. You need help. And part of that help should lie in therapy, so that you can learn how your choices brought you to this terrible point in life, and also so that you can formulate alternative coping skills to use in times of strife. You will also need medical help to get past the withdrawal, and all the ravages that alcohol has caused in your body.

But those are actions you must take. You. No one else. So that’s your power. It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. But you don’t have to do it alone.

Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t want you to feel power. It’s a multi-billion dollar a year industry that has weaseled its way into the vast majority of the addiction programs in the world. But their dirty little secret is that, in a good year, that program is only 10 percent effective. (Read more about these scary statistics here.)

If alcoholism is a disease and AA is the cure, and it’s only 10 percent effective, then somebody better get back to the drawing board in a dang hurry.

They also want you to think that you’re an alcoholic for life, so that you’ll continue to grind your way through the Alcoholics Anonymous money mill. But think about it. With most other diseases, there’s either a cure or, ultimately, death.

Alcoholism shouldn’t be considered a life sentence. It should be seen as a problem that needs a solution. You need to attack the behavioral, psychological and physical aspects of it, and there are ways to do that other than AA. But you can’t find them if you’re too busy working on being powerless.

Rational Recovery is the program I recommend. It teaches you to identify your addictive voice and come up with actions or responses that will allow you to be a healthier, happier you. But part of that is taking responsibility and taking action. Take back your power.

The first step is to stop calling alcoholism a disease. No more excuses. Take responsibility. You are not diseased. You are not a disease. You are not powerless. If you continue down the path of alcoholism, destroying your life and the lives of the people that you love in the process, that’s your choice. But stop hiding from the fact that there are other choices.

I know this post will probably ruffle feathers, but it has been boiling up inside me for a long time, and I had to get it out there. I wish more people would speak up.

Choices

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Whoa. My Parents Loved Each Other.

I know this is going to sound awfully strange to those of you who were lucky enough to grow up in intact households, but for the first time, at age 52, it recently dawned on me that at some point in time, my parents actually loved each other. And now I’m having to reframe my whole concept of what my mother’s life must have been like. It’s surreal.

You see, my parents were divorced when I was three months old. I never met the man. He never once sent me a birthday card or a Christmas present or paid one dime of child support. I never heard his voice or held his hand.

For many years I assumed this was no big deal. You can’t miss something that you never had, right? But as time passed, I realized that I definitely did miss out on something. I never had a feeling of safety. I never felt as though someone had my back. I had no positive male role model to show me what I should look for in a partner. (Unfortunately, the presence of this particular man wouldn’t have provided those things anyway, so there’s really no use in speculating.)

Growing up, I did have a natural curiosity about my father. I’d sometimes ask my mother about him. To her credit, she never bad-mouthed him, ever, other than to say that he came back from WWII as an alcoholic, and that’s what eventually caused their split. It wasn’t until years after she died that I found out (accidentally, from a cousin) that he beat her, too. So I came to view him as a bad element that had been excised from my life. Good riddance.

I never really thought about their history, as an actual couple.

Then, very recently, I was contacted by a very nice lady who said that she was my father’s goddaughter. That was a shock. I didn’t even know he had one. Apparently, her parents and mine had been great friends, and her father had been a photographer. She had tons of pictures of my parents from the 50’s. Would I like them? Uh… yeah!

When the envelope arrived, I sat holding it for a long time, kind of afraid to open it. I had no idea what I would find inside. More of the story, no doubt. But would I like the story more or less because of it?

She had a lot of pictures, indeed. Pictures of my parents on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, my mother’s head on my father’s shoulder, both smiling blissfully. Trips to Montreal. Their wedding reception dinner. A picture of my mother, sleeping contentedly amongst a pile of coats on someone’s bed. And a picture that may just have been the moment my father proposed. He is kneeling, gazing up at her adoringly. She is looking happily down at him.

I have to admit that in all the photos he looks intoxicated, and he most likely was. That didn’t surprise me. All the pictures I have of him are like that. But I wasn’t expecting the adoration. That was new.

My mother’s parents were not alcoholics. I suspect she didn’t know what she was in for. She didn’t realize what havoc that blissful intoxication would eventually wreak on her life, and by extension, the lives of her daughters.

Hope springs eternal. Love conquers all. Until it doesn’t.

But those adoring looks still rattled me. Now, instead of looking at my father as a bit of mold that had to be cut out of an otherwise perfectly edible loaf of bread, I had to see him as a rusty knife that left behind a painful wound that never properly healed. My mother moved on, yes, but in all likelihood she got her heart trampled in the process. I don’t know why that had never crossed my mind.

When my father died, my uncle sent me the contents of his wallet. It included a picture of my parents on their honeymoon. My whole life, a life he never experienced, he had carried a picture of a woman whose world he had shattered, whom he hadn’t seen in 25 years. I think that’s incredibly tragic.

Niagara_Falls_-_Ontario,_Canada_-_August_11,_2015_05

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On Leading Horses to Water

I have this unique gift. I know what’s best for everybody except, perhaps, myself. At least, that’s the reality I choose to live in much of the time. It’s really easy to look at people’s lives from the outside and come up with quick and easy solutions for them, isn’t it?

The real challenge is keeping one’s opinions to oneself. Usually that comes with age and experience. I must admit I still struggle with this sometimes.

For example, I know an amazing young lady who is talented and charismatic and creative and intelligent and thin and beautiful. She should be the queen of the world. But she drinks. A lot. I mean… a lot. As far as I know, she doesn’t let this impact her work, but it looms large the rest of the time. It breaks my heart. I want to shake her until her teeth rattle. “You have so much going for you! Don’t do this!”

I know another guy who hates his job and is constantly hunting for another one. He looks good on paper. He’s extremely intelligent and capable. He gets lots of interviews, but he never gets hired. He can’t understand why. I can. His personal hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. He looks and smells like he has been living in a cave his whole life. He’s actually kind of scary, if you don’t know him. From an employer’s point of view, this has to be a bit off-putting. If you can’t be bothered to take care of yourself, how can I assume you’ll take care of your job? I’m all for self-expression, but it can sometimes be self-destructive.

And then there’s this guy I have a crush on, who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in me. I mean, Hello! I’m amazing! I’m fun to be around, interesting to talk to, nurturing, non-smoking, fiscally responsible, great in bed… I’m a freaking catch! In other words, perfect for him. Why can’t he see that?

The bottom line is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. If someone wants to be an alcoholic, look like a Neanderthal, or overlook true love, there’s nothing I can do about it. People have the right to walk their own paths. I don’t have to like it.

I get the “can’t make it drink” part. That’s obvious. But I often still try to lead those horses to the water. I really have to work on that. It’s a waste of time for them, and frankly, it makes me look like a pompous ass. Sometimes horses just prefer to roam free.

wild horses

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M.A.D. — Mutually Assured Dysfunction

I have a distant acquaintance who is a very self-destructive alcoholic. Watching him is like witnessing a train wreck in slow motion. And it’s even more tragic because when he’s off the sauce, he seems to be able to lead a very successful life. Alas, he’s almost never sober.

A couple years ago he met an absolutely gorgeous woman and they’ve been together ever since. She does not have a drinking problem. At first I really wondered what she could possibly see in this man, but now I think I have it figured out.

The evidence is plain to see on his Facebook page. He never posts on his own page. Not ever. But she does, almost daily. And it always seems to be about what they’re doing together, and how happy they are, and lots of heart icons, and invariably a photograph of the two of them in each other’s arms, in which she is beaming ecstatically and he is quite obviously three sheets to the wind, complete with drool.

It’s really kind of pathetic. He’s all about the booze, but it seems she’s all about the control. If you need to be in control, what better partner to have than a man who’s in a completely passive stupor all of the time? She is clearly calling all the shots. And every Facebook post has this underlying message: “He’s MINE.” She couldn’t be more obvious if he were the fire hydrant and she were the dog.

They are completely intertwined in their own codependent universe. As long as she’s in control, he can drink. And as long as he drinks, she can be in control. It’s almost as if two parasites are feeding off each other. But surely such a system cannot sustain itself forever. It completely lacks protein.

dysfunction

Another Rant About Alcoholism

One of my most popular blog entries is Why I Hate Alcohol, and I genuinely thought I’d gotten all my anger about the subject off my chest when I wrote it. It turns out that that is not the case. Far from it.

The other day, someone who calls himself “Dad” commented on another one of my blog entries, Do You Know This Child? Help Solve a Mystery. In that one, I mentioned that my father told some outlandish stories about the war, and that because he was an alcoholic, I never knew him. “Dad”, without knowing me at all, implied in the comment section that my disbelief of my father’s stories is probably “what drove him over the edge.”

Okay. Hoooo. Wow. That still pisses me off to an unbelievable degree. And when I have such a strong reaction to something, my first instinct is to take a closer look and ask myself what about the situation is pushing my buttons.

First of all, I hate being misunderstood, but in this case that was probably my fault for not clarifying my relationship. When I said I did not know my father because of his alcoholism, I didn’t mean he was present in my life but always “in his cups.” I meant that because he was such a mean drunk and a worthless fraction of a man, he left my family when I was three months old. I never met him, never got child support from him, never received so much as a phone call or a Christmas card my entire life. So yeah, I suppose I didn’t make myself quite clear in that entry. I literally didn’t know my father.

But what really makes my head explode is the implication that, had I known him, I could have in some way “driven him over the edge.” The man came home a drunk from a war that had ended 20 years before I was born. I’m sure he had PTSD, and that was a contributing factor, and that’s tragic, but making the assumption that the blame for one’s alcohol abuse lies somewhere outside oneself is the worst of all alcoholic excuses.

No one forces someone to start drinking. Not once did anyone hold a gun to the man’s head and pour the gin down his throat. Millions of people have experienced horrors and not tried to pour alcohol over those memories.

I’m sorry. I know this probably won’t be a popular sentiment, but dammit, the bedrock of being an alcoholic is selfishness and irresponsibility. Without those two things, you don’t destroy your life and the lives of every person within your sphere of influence. Full stop.

Alcoholics are very adept at blaming the rest of the world for their problems. The whole “poor me” thing may as well be tattooed on their foreheads. But I refuse to feel sorry for an alcoholic. I don’t care how often people try to call it a disease. It’s an addiction, which is a mental health issue, and yes, more often than not one will need help to conquer it. But unless and until you admit to yourself that you have made the bed that you so frequently pass out in, no healing can take place for you or anyone who has the misfortune to love you. You can’t clean up your mess until you first take ownership of it. Grow up!

“Pushed him over the edge,” my ass. Sheesh.

Furious_Smiley_Macro_by_somadjinn

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