The Key Ingredient

AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by tonymz

I’ve started the work of recovery, and it has opened a door I didn’t know existed.

You may expect that skeletons were behind this door; but no, those skeletons dance out in the open, disguised as a normal life. What I did find was more like a map, or a key that turned the tumblers and opened my perspective. I tasted a familiar dish and found it different, changed.

Years ago, I started a job at a bank. On my second day, as I was being trained, my bulldog of a supervisor asked me, in a rude and obnoxious way, if I behaved the way I did because my parents were alcoholics. I was shocked and angry and offended and replied with a hot and indignant “No!” For years after this incident, I focused on what a bitch this woman was, instead of seeing the insight in her question.

You see, neither of my parents were alcoholics- not to the world’s eyes, anyways, or at the very least, not to mine. I knew because I had seen alcoholism in my extended family.  Alcoholics drank all the time, and they drank too much.  They couldn’t hold down jobs or keep stable relationships. My cousins and uncles and aunts had issues with alcoholism, but my parents?  They never drank! Sure, there were stories about how dad couldn’t handle his drinking, but that was before I was born. I grew up in a house that never included alcohol as part of the equation, at least not overtly.

My father’s behavior patterns were explained away as personality quirks. He was impulsive, moody and temperamental…but he didn’t have a drinking problem. He was angry and resentful…but he wasn’t an alcoholic.  He was emotionally and physically absent most of the time…but not a dry drunk.  He was intolerant and argumentative and explosively angry…but that was just Dad.  We had to walk on eggshells around him, but some people just overreact all the time…right?

Growing up, I thought these behaviors were normal; I thought of these personality traits as family traits- I came from a fiery, explosive family that was emotionally overwhelming. The lens I was looking out from said this was a viable option, a way of life that wasn’t dysfunctional.  Heck, my mother devoted her life to my father, devoted her life to arguing with him and placating him and banging her head against the wall that was their relationship.  She stopped her own life in an attempt to control his behavior, twisting herself into an angry, depressed pretzel…and her behavior pattern felt comfortable and familiar and problematic and inescapable.

My parents and their behaviors and their relationship was not all I knew. I knew plenty of other families acting out similar dysfunctions.  Growing up in a working poor neighborhood, there were plenty of examples of behavior to mirror my home life; there were plenty of desperate, angry, hurting people doing the best that they could with the resources they had.  Most were doing it with substances, though, so my family felt different somehow…not as obviously fucked up. It was easier to push our problems under the rug when there wasn’t a substance abuse issue blatantly in the family.

As I got older, I knew I didn’t want to live as my parents chose to live, and I made hard choices that were the best I could do with the resources I had at the time.  I distanced myself- first physically, through going away to college and then a move to Mississippi and then a move to Pennsylvania.  Recently, I was able to start getting emotional distance (along with a great deal of insight into the unhelpful behaviors/coping strategies I was still carrying around from childhood) from going to therapy.  I did as much as I could, and made a lot of progress…but still, some piece was missing.  The closest analogy I can come to is that feeling when you’re eating a complex dish and can taste something familiar yet unidentifiable in it; you know the dish wouldn’t be the same without this key flavor, but you just can’t put your finger on the ingredient you’re tasting.

Well, the ingredient, for me, was alcoholism. I’m the child of an alcoholic that lived as a dry drunk. I grew up in a household dominated by codependency and addiction, though there was not a drop to drink.

Acknowledging this changes everything.

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