About a year after the sentence “indelible on the hippocampus was the sound of their laughter” became a rallying cry for all women who have been ridiculed by the boys and men who hurt them, I was folded up, legs over head, on a couch strewn with candy and popcorn, having sex with my very drunk boyfriend, eyes closed, mouth gaping open until I felt his hand shove a Twizzler horizontally down my throat like a rope gag. When my eyes pulsed open I saw his face looking back at me, laughing.
We were in our forties. This wasn’t a frat party. He’d been nonchalantly drinking since noon and his kids were now asleep in the next room as he got progressively more sloshed. When I screamed at him and asked what the fuck he thought he was doing, he laughed again and said, like a cartoon man-child, that I had been laying on more Twizzlers and didn’t feel the one he put up my butt. Reader, I let him keep fucking me for another dissociated five minutes during which I was absorbing, with every cell of my body, the precise moment when I knew I’d never allow this person to enter me or kiss me or caress me again. Because even though I loved him, I had to feel how hateful that laugh really was as it imprinted on my brain’s circuit board in order to quit his lousy whiskey dick forever.
It turns out that I don’t have a “bottom” when it comes to people. This is the term we use in recovery to identify when an addict loses enough, hurts enough, is destroyed by shame, bad health, and circumstance enough to seek treatment—to agree that they are powerless and need accountability. I don’t have a bottom, according to my therapist, because I watched my mother not find hers before I was stolen away from her at age eleven and taken to this country to become anyone but “an alcoholic slut.” My dad’s words, not mine. I don’t have a bottom because I had my spine broken by my father and had to lie about why I almost lost the ability to walk for the rest of my nonexistent childhood. I don’t have a bottom because I watched my mother get raped while she was passed out drunk. I don’t have a bottom because I, too, was raped while going through immigration in Italy, a year before I got my period.
I can make more lists, but they’d all amount to a formula in which no one deemed my mother worth helping so that she could be well enough to protect me, to shield me, to attend to my needs—the better for all the men and boys I came across to try to steal something from me certainly already pillaged before. They smelled the motherlessness on me and that smell is our rotten tomato hate disguised as concern.
I didn’t expect to lose more of myself at forty, to a soundtrack of hoarse laughter, lighthearted and silly to him, the end of the line for me. I had not been truly in love with an alcoholic before. I had never been in love with an abusive man. Shady, withholding, manipulative, depressed, passive, or feckless were the worst of what I’d encountered before. It was on purpose that I didn’t go down any dark alleys where my charming father’s fists could clock me or my mother’s hangover moans and innocent but brutal lies could break my spirit. I’ve always countered back and stood firm against being brainwashed into mothering a man, forgiving a man, or enabling him.
This relationship was different. I stopped being able to find the line to cross. When I met the drunk dad, I started to fall in love with what my mother could have been if she was an entitled American white prick with clout and a support system. I watched him do everything she’d been condemned for, everything that exiled her from me. And I thought about my own exile, what happens to women treated worse than animals, what happens to animals who are thrown out of the tribe. Without a tribe, my mother died. With a tribe, the drunk dad is considered a good dad for feeding his kids an approximation of dinner and speaking of them as fondly as trophies on a shelf. If my mother had behaved like the drunk dad, people would’ve shamed her back into the kitchen, shamed her to go the fuck home, to be less public, to be be a mother rather than the good times girl she was.
The drunk dad owns a local shop, a train station where pretty ladies get on and off, ladies who find it charming, or at least irrelevant to his character, that he is swaying back and forth with hooch in his morning mug after an all-night coke bender, the red of his eye matching the dangling cigarette cherry. His kids are nearby. No one wonders who is caring for them. They will have his back and not embarrass themselves by calling attention to an unsavory portion of his otherwise dandy life. Charmed, I’m sure. My mother? If there was mercy in these women’s hearts, she would’ve been pitied and shoved in a cab, away from their periphery of what’s considered pathetic and sloppy for a woman. If unkind, they would have shunned and ignored her or decided to collectively ruin her chances to be a mother, spreading rumors that her kids should be taken away, that she is not fit to run a business. A lady with half-closed eyes, running a business or leading a public life, is not as romantic or forgivable or even as possible as the drunk dad.
The emotion we receive most frequently when faced with trauma coming back up again is disgust. No longer in fight, flight, freeze, or negotiation, the body recalls the danger and if projected onto a woman’s face, a wave of puke rises in the gut. I have been witness to men dealing with their own self-hatred and disgust by discharging it onto women; the more vulnerable or ostentatious she is, the easier this is to do. She can’t be helped or admired; she can only be taken down or erased, harmed or ignored. If she gave birth, if she is a mother, this will be the first line of queasiness to cross, to square against the roles she plays in anyone’s life. Drinks in hand, nights on the town, appearing timeless and carefree, she is a beast on a cross.
Drunk women are targets. Drunk men can be anything.
He goes down on her; he consumes her; he takes all he wants; he lies about her.
Valiant Prince Potemkin was a delirious drunk who won the Crimea for Catherine the Great of Russia. If the Queen had ever given speeches or attended war room strategy meetings swaying back and forth in her boots the way he had, food in his mustache and oozing devil may care, they would have chopped her head off.
A drunk dad can be a legend. He can be a hero. A prince. He can be forgiven. He can be remembered smelling sweetly of sweat, tobacco, whiskey, and honey… This is an oft repeated memory of many writers—a dad’s perfume can both be that of an alcoholic’s and also bring on the kind of nostalgia we think of as worthy of art. A mother who smelled this way would be rotten fruit, too moldy to eat.
I do not dislike the smell of war on a man, says the Queen to her general.
Go clean yourself, you filthy whore, says the man to the good times girl.
This piece is dedicated to all the alcoholic women and mothers who deserve to be honored, counted, and cared for; and to the Voices on Addiction series and its curator Kelly Thompson, for making space for them here. – Sophia Shalmiyev
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.