Voices on Addiction: Family Tree

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I’m the first in a long line of resilient Midwestern women not to marry an alcoholic, but to become one. The shadow in the veins of the men in my life slid for generations through both bloodlines and took shape in me.

My mother married an alcoholic. Her mother, Charlotte, married an alcoholic. Charlotte’s mother, my great-grandmother Leora, married an alcoholic. I wonder if Leora’s mother, Lottie, married one, too. The generational compass points that way.

I’m talking about this now because I’m ready to understand the pain they carried. I’m ten years sober. I want to know.

I never thought to ask my grandmother Charlotte whether her husband’s drinking caused her pain. She never spoke about it. No one did. The men did the drinking, and the women managed the men. It was only later in my life that I learned Charlotte’s own father drank. Her version of her father’s death was that he’d been hit by a bus. My mother’s: that he’d stepped in front of one.

I can’t remember my grandmother ever using the word “alcoholic” to describe her husband. It might not have occurred to anyone to call him that. He savored life, down to the dregs. He commanded. In pictures from his thirties and forties, he is tall and broad-shouldered, with a full head of wavy black hair. There he is after the war, arm around my grandmother in a banquette at a night club in Denver. There he is, standing on the prow of a sailboat he chartered, puffing a cigar under the Caribbean blue sky. There he is in his corner office, partner in a law firm downtown Chicago, wearing a bow tie and boutonnière. His father was a florist, so he wore a flower in his lapel every day for the nearly fifty years he worked at the firm.

By the time I came along, he was in his seventies, and just a few gray hairs swept across his sun- spotted head. He wore black reading glasses on the tip of his nose and had grown a robust belly, pants belted unashamedly around the middle. He still seemed like the six-foot-two pillar of strength and authority my mother described growing up with. My sister and I believed he knew everything. Late afternoons, we knew we’d find him behind his custom-built bar in the basement, prepping for cocktail hour. We’d sidle up on the wicker stools and ask for “the regular.” He’d serve us soda pop in little plastic tumblers and dishes full of salty sunflower seeds. Sometimes we’d dare each other to ask him a big question, like “how do cameras work?” We knew the elaborate answer could take an hour, and the game was to see who could hang in there the longest before excusing herself. Often, I found myself drawn in, stopping him every few minutes to ask more questions: What’s an aperture? What happens if you use the wrong film speed? Did you really build your own underwater camera? Always, he had an answer.

These are the snapshots, washed in the ruddy warm tones of the 1970s and the cooler hues of the 1980s, I keep of him. My grandfather fading, but still full of knowledge. Bigger than life. Awake.

They don’t tell the whole story.

For as long as I can remember, I watched him nod off at the dinner table, drowsy with bourbon and wine. His life was Sunday-morning Bloody Marys. Martini lunches. The five o’clock cocktail hour. Wine with dinner. Night caps. As the women cleared the dinner table, he’d rumble awake, push back his chair, and return to the basement, installing himself once again behind the cocktail bar. By late night he’d be close to passing out again, chin bobbing on his chest, his hulking form listing forward and backward. The older he got, the more precarious. Once he crashed into the wall of glassware behind his red vinyl bar stool. My grandmother would call to him on the intercom: “Gilbert! It’s time for you to come upstairs now!” The next squawk was impatient. “Gilbert. Finish up now.” When he failed to show, she scowled and went down to rouse him. “Gilbert!” she’d snap from across the room. His bald head would pop up, and he’d mumble something about the late hour.

By the time I was ten or so, whenever I visited my grandparents, I tried to save my grandmother the trouble. As she was diligently flossing and dabbing on Oil of Olay before bed, I’d duck downstairs to shake my grandfather awake. Sometimes, I managed to coax this wobbly giant of a man up the stairs. Sometimes, I gave up.

She lived this way for years.

At his funeral, I read a eulogy, standing at the lectern in the Congregational church. My cousins, all the grandchildren, were lined up behind me. His open casket was to my right. I talked about how he never spoke down to his grandchildren. How he just assumed we could understand anything. How he taught me to dance in the most clichéd yet most wonderful way: by placing my Mary Janes on his Oxfords at an annual dinner dance at the club. “He treated us like ladies…” I began, but the words caught in my throat. I looked over at him. The black reading glasses perched on his nose, a Cuban cigar stuck in his breast pocket, the boutonnière—all of it seized me. I didn’t see an alcoholic. I saw a dapper, brilliant gentleman. A man undone by big appetites. The tears dropped. The words stuck in my throat. My sister gently pushed me aside and picked up mid-sentence.

Prostate cancer, not alcohol, surprisingly, killed him. In his final year, my grandmother took care of him, as she had for decades, cleaning up after him in new ways. She emptied his colostomy bag. She bathed and fed him. She cooked and shopped for groceries. Eventually we hired aides, but she was always on duty. She—and then, as she got older, my mother—was always on duty, in some way.

The night of my grandfather’s wake, the family gathered in Glen Ellyn, our small Chicago suburb, for dinner on Main Street. Winter iced the streets, and a frigid wind whipped our faces. I pulled Charlotte’s arm under mine as we walked.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her. “Are you sad? This must be awfully hard for you.”

“Well, yes,” she said. “But oh, Kristi! The things I’m going to do!”

She had loved my grandfather. But I finally understood, as I steered her across a slippery crosswalk, how long she had been waiting for this freedom. No more colostomy bag. No more finding him slumped over the bar downstairs. No more embarrassment over his slurred speech at a restaurant. No more helping him out of the elastic-waisted pants he’d wet while drinking downstairs. Now she had only herself to take care of, for the first time in her life.

She loved him. We all loved him. But goddamn, he was a lot of work.

My mother married a man, my father, who savored life, too. But in the 1970s her options must have looked different. She broke a generational chain when she divorced him. He loved us all, and we loved him back, but his drinking made life intolerable for her. In her mid-twenties, she had two little girls, no college degree, and a new life to build. And she did, starting as a waitress and parlaying her experience into a long career as an event planner. She never let on to me and my sister that she was scared or sad. In my memory, she just keeps moving, a smile to shield us from truths too hard for little girls.

Could Charlotte have been a single mother to three in the 1950s? With her secretarial school degree and certificate in stenography? Could her mother, Leora, have managed three of her own in the 1920s? Perhaps her legendary sewing skills, combined with tuition from my grandmother Charlotte’s piano teaching, could have kept them afloat. Could they have said to the communities that might have judged them, “I left him because he was a drinker, and I couldn’t trust him. I left because I was tired of being the cook and the maid and the parent and the wife. I left because I deserve someone who is a partner to me in the present, not in the guilty morning.” Maybe they never contemplated leaving. But did they not contemplate all the years they’d endured?

When my mother left him, I didn’t know my father was an alcoholic. I was five and didn’t have that word. I only had whole days missing him. Or, nights like the time my mother had to work a dinner shift at the restaurant and needed him to stay awake for us.

“If daddy falls asleep on the couch before you go to bed, do everything you can to wake him up,” she told me, already zipped into her uniform. I can see her blond 1970s bowl cut, her blue eyes locking mine.

“Shake him. Yell in his ear. Get on top of his chest and pound it with your fists,” she demonstrated, curling her fingers, and pounding an invisible table.

“But what if I hurt him?” I couldn’t imagine pounding on my father’s chest.

“You won’t,” she said. “And if none of that works, go get a Dixie cup, fill it with water and throw it in his face. Okay?”

“But I don’t want to make him mad,” I said. “I don’t want to hurt him.”

“You won’t hurt him,” she said. “I promise. Do you understand?”

I nodded. I memorized the steps, in order, silently, perfectly.

“If none of that works, call grandma and grandpa and tell them to come pick you up.”

They lived in Glen Ellyn, a short drive from our white ranch house in Carol Stream. My mother left for work. Soon after, my father put us to bed.

But I lay awake. The thought of his falling asleep on the long, blue velour couch in our living room tormented me. I felt responsible. I got out of bed and tiptoed into the living room. He was stretched on the couch, still and quiet. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Daddy! Wake up!” I whispered. I waited a few moments. Nothing.

I grabbed his giant shoulders in my kindergartner’s hands and shook him, terrified of hurting him. Nothing.

I tried again, a little louder, sealing my lips around the outside of his ear: “Daddy! Wake up!” I climbed on his chest, clenched my fists, and pounded, my body barely filling his torso.

I didn’t know why I couldn’t wake him up, except that I couldn’t. I only knew there were two steps left. I walked to the bathroom and plucked a Dixie cup from its olive-green dispenser. I filled it with water and carried it back into the living room. I knelt next to his face, hoping he would wake up before I checked off the last step on the list. I rubbed his chest.

“Daddy,” I whispered. “Please.”

I cringed and tossed the cup of water in his face. Nothing. I headed for the phone.

When my mother’s parents pulled into the driveway, my sister and I were standing inside the screen door. Their headlights swept across the lawn and up into my eyes. I was ready. I’d gotten my two-year-old sister out of her crib and dressed us both. I’d packed a suitcase. I’d zipped up our matching, quilted coats with the faux-fur hoods.

We didn’t see our father as much as we longed to, before or after the divorce. He made promises he didn’t keep. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to take us on some of the adventures he promised. Perhaps getting sober, attending meetings, and helping other alcoholics was more important then. His promise to take us ice skating on Lake Ellyn was one I fell for again and again. He’d been a speed skater in high school, all six-foot-six of him, and to see him circle the edge of the lake, ice frosting his red mustache, thrilled me. I wanted him to take us skating at night, the lake ringed with dark fir trees and stadium lights.

“Daddy,” I’d remind him, “the light is green on the pole by the lake. That means the ice is thick enough!”

He’d pat my head. “Oh, I know it, honey,” he’d say. “We’ve gotta do it!”

“Next weekend?” I’d ask.

Dropping us home after a weekend visit, he’d bend down to give me a kiss. “You bet, honey.”

When the time was right, I felt I’d enacted a miracle. Down at the dock on the lake, my dad would cinch our laces tight and lead us down the worn wooden steps onto the bumpy ice. He’d skate backwards, holding our hands to pull us forward. My sister and I would spin around the middle of the lake while he took a few laps around the edge, his long legs remembering races from years ago. Ankles throbbing, our hair matted with sweat under our hats, we’d take a break in the boathouse, wobbling on our blades over to the concession stand. He bought us everything we wanted, hot cocoa, popcorn. He blew the steam from our cups.

I couldn’t see then, adoring him, sitting on the bench in the boathouse, my skates sticking to the rubber mats, the lasting wounds his drinking years would leave on my heart. I couldn’t see, then, the faint red alcoholic line that ran from his veins into mine, the way my skates followed the groove his made on the lake ice.

Unlike my father, I was a late bloomer. I drank for decades before I got sober. On November 18, 2010, I walked into the waiting room of my last rehab. I shake my head over how I survived. More than a decade of blackout drinking, two or three bottles of wine a night, often more, took a toll. My body, mapped with scars, sapped by malnourishment, dragging an extra fifty pounds. Everything I owned, tornadoed to buy more wine: overdrawn accounts, a repossessed car, unpaid rent, thousands on credit cards, bills in collection, ATM cards swallowed up, student loans delinquent, late fees, court fees. Jobs, cities, abandoned to avoid consequences. My memory, moth-eaten.

The toll I took on people I love can’t be measured. But I want to know.

While I was drinking, I observed my husband’s anger and despair, his helplessness and fear, like a child, unable to grasp the connection between my actions and his reactions. How does it feel when your wife doesn’t come home at night? To wonder whether she’s alive or dead? To be treated as if you don’t matter? Why did he pound his fists into the sheets and writhe like a man on fire? Although it could have been any one of a dozen other nights, it was the night I almost burned down a neighbor’s house that my husband, disheartened and exhausted by my lies, took his daughter and left me.

While I was drinking, my mother lived with the fear that the next phone call would be from an emergency room doctor telling her I’d died of alcohol poisoning or crashed my car. She drained her 401(k) to send me to rehabs. My sister blamed herself for not doing more to save me. My father understood better than anyone what lay ahead for me, though still I worried and disappointed him. While I was drinking, I stopped calling friends. I disappeared on colleagues.

Ultimately, it took twenty weeks in rehab and outpatient treatment, a month in a sober living house, multiple weekend detoxes, and I don’t know how many sessions with psychiatrists and therapists.

My brain, soaked for so long in wine, began to find its equilibrium. Hours I used to spend drinking or blacked out reappeared. I lost weight. I replenished the vitamins alcohol sapped from my blood. Instead of passing out and coming to, I fell asleep and woke up. Each sober milestone I marked—thirty days, ninety days, one year, five years, nine years—I dropped a plastic chip from an AA meeting in a carved wooden box, loving the clink as they piled up.

I had wrecked my marriage after barely a year. But my husband is generous and loves me. He slowly gave me his trust and forgiveness, gifts I didn’t believe I deserved for a long time. I got to come back to him and his daughter. Not long after that, we got to have a son. My son never saw me drink. He gets to remember me as I am now, sober. The end.

Not the end. This shadow in the blood, the one I live with, the one my father lives with, the one we both survived, never disappears from a family tree. It slinks down into the next twig or travels across another limb. If I could see it under my son’s pale skin, I would tear into it with my teeth like a demon and yank it out.

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Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.

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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.


Kristin Gourlay is a writer and award winning multimedia journalist from Oak Park, Illinois. A former public radio reporter covering healthcare, in particular addiction, Kristin’s work can be heard on National Public Radio and several NPR member stations. She has also written for McSweeney’s. Gourlay earned her MS in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is also an accomplished vocalist and enjoys singing the tight, lush harmonies of the Balkans and Georgia. She is at work on a memoir, The Geographic. Find her on Twitter at @kristingourlay. More from this author →