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Every family has some degree of dysfunction and a skeleton or two in their closet. Some may choose to lock the closet door and throw away the key. Others may choose crack the door open a little at a time and face the demons that haunt them. Facing your demons can be a very painful yet fruitful process. If you choose not to confront your demons, your hurt and anger will continue to manifest until you self-destruct. Eventually, you will erupt like an angry volcano spewing hot molted lava in all directions. Emotionally, you will consume and/or destroy the love of your family along your path to self-destruction.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health articulated how people cope with their thoughts and feelings:
People may turn to substances as a way of coping with difficult emotions or situations. They may find it hard, for example, to calm themselves down when they feel angry or upset, and come to rely on substances to help them regulate their emotions. People may also use substances to help relieve stress, boredom or sadness, or to reduce their inhibitions and make it easier to talk to others and speak up about feelings. (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2009).
My dad's father, Frank, was an alcoholic. I learned through family members that Frank's parents were so poor that they could not afford to provide a home for all their children. Frank was a mere young boy, in the eighth grade when his parents could no longer afford to feed and clothe him. Forced from the security of his family and home and tossed on to the streets of Chicago to fend for himself, Frank eventually turned to alcohol for comfort. Frank could not have possibly known that the ramifications of his abusive behaviors would adversely affect two future generations of family that not yet born.
My family chose alcohol as the substance of choice to mask their pain. The word alcoholism, in the below definition of alcoholism, is interchangeable with other addictions or substance abuse. The medical definition of alcoholism is:
A primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by continuous or periodic: impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Disease means an involuntary disability. It represents the sum of the abnormal phenomena displayed by a group of individuals. These phenomena are associated with a specified common set of characteristics by which these individuals differ from the norm and which places them at a disadvantage. Often progressive and fatal means that the disease persists over time and that physical, emotional, and social changes are often cumulative and may progress as drinking continues. Alcoholism causes premature death through overdose, organic complications involving the brain, liver, heart and many other organs, and by contributing to suicide, homicide, motor vehicle crashes, and other traumatic events. Impaired control means the inability to limit alcohol use or consistently limit, on any drinking occasion the duration of the episode, the quantity consumed, and/or the behavioral consequences of drinking. Preoccupation in association with alcohol use indicates excessive, focused attention given to the drug alcohol, its effects, and/or its use. The relative value thus assigned to alcohol by the individual often leads to a diversion of energies away from important life concerns. Adverse consequences are alcohol-related problems or impairments in such areas as physical health (e.g., alcohol withdrawal syndromes, liver disease, gastritis, anemia, neurological disorders); psychological functioning (e.g., impairments in cognition, changes in mood and behavior); interpersonal functioning (e.g., marital problems and child abuse, impaired social relationships); occupational functioning (e.g., scholastic or job problems); and legal, financial, or spiritual problems. Denial is used here not only in the psychoanalytic sense of a single psychological defense mechanism disavowing the significance of events, but more broadly to include a range of psychological maneuvers designed to reduce awareness of the fact that alcohol use is the cause of an individual's problems rather than a solution to those problems. Denial becomes an integral part of the disease and a major obstacle to recovery. (Morse & Flavin, 1992).
My grandmother fell in love with Frank, not realizing that he was an alcoholic. Subsequently, they got married and had three children, one after another. My dad was the oldest of the three children. Frank was a truck driver and my grandmother was a housewife. In that era, men worked to support their family and the woman's place was in home barefoot and pregnant. At some point, the alcoholism escalated into to physical and emotional abuse of my grandmother. Additionally, Frank could not hold down a job to support his family. He spent many nights elsewhere. The children were eventually caught in the sight of Frank's cross hairs and fell prey to years of Frank's violent, abusive behaviors.
Essentially, my grandmother raised three young children by herself. Though she knew she needed to divorce Frank, she did not have any money to support herself and the children. She did not possess any skills that would allow her to obtain a job. So, the vicious cycle continued. Finally, my grandmother got a job as a switchboard operator. Things finally started to look up for my grandmother. She got a job as the children got older. She was saving up money for a future life without Frank. When my dad turned sixteen years old he stood up to Frank with confidence and anger and said, "If you ever lay a hand on my mother again, I'll you, you son-of-a-bitch!" It seemed that Frank had finally met his match. Frank never laid a hand on her again. In fact, Frank rarely returned to his home at all.
A toddler was playing in his yard with a ball. At some point, the little boy's ball rolled out of the yard and into the street. The little kid chased after the ball. Consequently, a 15-year-old drunk driver, my dad, killed him. The court gave my grandmother the option to imprison her son or to enlist her son into the United States Navy (USN). Of the two options, my grandmother chose to enlist her son in the USN.
It was my dad's third or fourth year in the USN, when he met my mom. They dated for a short while then married. Two years later, I was born. A year later my brother was born. Six years later my sister was born. As you can surmise, my mom was a very busy housewife. She lived for her husband and three children. My mom ensured her children were educated and raised under the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church.
As a career Navy man, my dad was often away from home. Hence, my mom was the primary disciplinarian. When my dad was home, she occasionally asked my dad to dole out the discipline when required. My first vivid memory of my dad's discipline took place in the third grade. I did something wrong but I do not recall what. Anyway, dad told me to go to my parents' bedroom. I noticed that he was acting funny and I smelled an unfamiliar smell on him. When entered the bedroom he made me lay down on my parent's bed flat on my stomach. After he took off his leather belt, he commenced to beat me from the top of my back all the way down to my bare feet then back up again. Because I was wearing shorts, the back of my legs received the brunt of the stinging leather and bruising. I was at a loss as to what cardinal sin I committed that resulted in such a harsh punishment. Much later in life I learned that what started out as a disciplinary action inadvertently escalated into an angry alcoholic rage.
We moved to Yokohama, Japan in the mid 70's, as my dad received orders to the aircraft carrier, USS Midway, home ported in Yokosuka, Japan. It was there that the second disciplinary action or should I say, beating, occurred. My brother was in the fifth grade and I in the sixth grade. One night after we finished our after school sports activities my brother and I walked from the school to the military shuttle bus stop. I recall the temperature was bitterly cold and yet damp. By the time we approached the bus stop it was if God turned off some master light switch. I was pitch black. My brother and I were the only people at the bus stop. We were cold and bored. As we sat down on the bench, I laid down my schoolbooks and rested both hands on the bench. I felt something under one of my hands. It felt like a pack of matches. It was a pack of matches. Curiosity and boredom got the best of me. I struck a match against the outer side of the cover and it lit and immediately smelled the smell of sulfur. I let it burn then I blew it out. I did this two more times. I was not trying to start a fire. When I struck the third match, a flashlight and angered Japanese voice appeared out of the darkness. It was the Japanese Shore Patrol. My heart sank. I knew we were in trouble with Shore Patrol but even worse trouble with my dad. Shore Patrol took my brother and I home. I was in tears before we entered that house. I knew my dad was going to be pissed. After Shore Patrol turned custody of my brother and me over to my dad and the door closed, my dad told us to go upstairs and wait for him. For the second time he took off his belt off. Though he gave us both the chance to admit which one of us was playing with matches, I blamed my brother and he blamed me. After the second go-around of my dad's leather belt, I told him that I was the one that was playing with matches. I felt so bad for blaming my brother. My dad was infuriated that I had lied to him. Anticipating that next series of lashes would burn my skin worse than the previous, I forced my knees to buckle in between the lashings. I thought if I could keep him from concentrating on certain area the pain would be redistributed to other areas of my body and it would not hurt as much. I was wrong. Again, I could comprehend the reason for the severity my punishment a little better because I was playing with fire. Still I could not quite buy in on the intensity of the beating. Once again, I recalled the smell of alcohol on my dad's breath. Still at a young age, I had no understanding of how alcohol played a role on his behavior. I never heard of the word alcoholism or alcoholic.
My dad retired from the USN in 1980. Subsequently, we moved in to the country after we built our house. Not long after we moved into the house, the psychological abuse escalated and physical abuse started to diminish. The last traumatic event that I recall was my dad in a drunken, angered stupor beating my brother with a two by four board in front of our house in the country. Oh my God, I thought he would kill my brother. Repeatedly, my mom and I yelled at my dad. Stop Roy! Stop! You are hurting him! My eyes flooded with so many tears that I could not see through them at one point. My mom called 911. The sheriff's deputies arrived and they ran towards my dad. My dad, blinded by rage, was unaware of the deputy's presence until they pulled him off my brother. After that incident, I swore that I would never discipline my children the way my dad disciplined my brother and me.
Although I had never heard my parents say a cross word to each other there was no doubt in my mind that my mom was psychologically affected by my dad's behaviors. I felt the uneasy tension between them and I knew it was bad. I constantly prayed that my mom would divorce my dad. Somehow, I inadvertently became the target of my mom's target frustrations. She hated me. My mom constantly disciplined me with the use her favorite kitchen utensil disciplinary tool, the wooden spoon. I lost count of how my wooden spoons were broken on my left wrist as I raised my arms to prevent the spoon from contacting my head. Though the results of the physical abuse would eventually go away, the psychological abuse and emotional neglect crippled me emotionally. Hugs, kisses, praise and the words I love you were non-existent. I remained a worthless, insecure, introverted, unlovable, stupid, burdensome and isolated suicidal teenager. I wanted to commit suicide. I wanted to curl up like a cat in a corner and justâ€¦die. My bedroom was my safe haven. Every day I would retreat to my bedroom and sob so uncontrollably, that my shoulders shook and I lost my breath. Repeatedly I talked to God, "Why do they hate me? How could you let them do this to me? Please take me. I don't want to hurt anymore." Eventually my relationship with God deteriorated. He had the power to make my parents love me and to make my pain go away. God failed to answer my prayers. I abandoned Him.
In 1987, I joined the Coast Guard and my mom finally divorced my dad. Two years later, I started to realize that I was a lot like my dad. Though I never struck another person or abused alcohol, the words that rolled off my tongue were as vicious as a deadly viper. I was a very hate-filled, pessimistic person. No one lived up to my expectations. I tried to keep my Pandora's Box from bursting open. When someone hurt me, I intentionally took the lid off and did not give damn how much damage I inflicted. As dysfunctional as we still were, my dad and I tried to work on our relationship. It was very awkward and scary, as he still possessed the power to continue crippling my emotions. I wanted to tell him how I really felt but I wanted him to love me and approve of me even worse. Though I was terrified of him, I loved him. After all, he was my dad.
In 1993, I fell in love with the man of my dreams, my soul mate. Mike was the first man that I trusted. We were best friends. I felt safe, loved and wanted. He loved me unconditionally. Often I questioned his love for me. I was damaged goods. I was still worthless and undeserving of anyone's love. As our relationship evolved, I felt safe enough to share my demons with him. He listened intently as I let the flood gates open. I sobbed uncontrollably as the vivid memories resurfaced repeatedly. Mike, unable to hide his shock, angst and disgust, wanted to kill my dad. While discussing the issues about my mam and her hatred for me, Mike and I concluded that she too was a victim of my dad's abusive behaviors. She must have inadvertently misdirected her frustrations out and on me. Regardless, I loved my mom very much and I wanted her to meet my future husband. Therefore, Mike and I visited my mom. My mom and Mike connected instantly. After several attempts, I finally gained the courage to ask my mom if I could talk to her, in private. We went outside and sat on the back steps of her porch. We sat almost shoulder-to-shoulder, as the porch was very small. It took me a moment or two and a couple of deep breaths before I could speak. I told her that I was very nervous and was not quite sure how to ask my question. She responded, "Just go ahead and ask. You can talk to me about anything." As my hands trembled, my voice quivered and the tears starting flowing, I asked, "Why do you hate me?" She responded, "Babe, I don't hate you. I love you. I never stopped loving you. Whatever made you think that I stopped loving you?" In synopsis, I addressed several abusive instances that took place included those committed by her. To summarize her responses, she could not apologize enough and she did not know how to confront what things that happened in the past. Miraculously, it was as if the dark gloomy clouds that hovered above me for so many years had parted and the sun with all of its brilliance, finally shined through! Instead of crying tears of sadness, I was crying tears of joy. My mom loved me! Every hurtful, agonizing, painful feeling that I harbored against my mom immediately dissipated. At that moment in time, we transitioned from parent and child to mother and daughter. Over the years, we became the very best of friends. God had finally answered my prayers.
On January 19, 2007, my mom had called with devastating news. My dad had passed away due to an embolism. I was beside myself in shock and disbelief. By that time, Mike and I had been married 10 years with and we had a 9-year-old son. I had never lost anyone close to me until that day. I could not process the feelings brought about by my dad's death. Even worse, the cause of my dysfunction and dark emotional turmoil was gone. No longer did I have to wonder which phone conversation with my dad would be the one to put me into a mental institution because he finally broke spirit. Still carrying around my emotional baggage from my childhood coupled with my dad's death and not knowing how to adjust to life without him, I found myself living in the darkest pit of emotions with no way out. I was so bad that Mike finally gave me an ultimatum. Seek professional counseling or elseâ€¦I finally hit my emotional rock bottom. Mike gave me the shove that I needed to finally confront my feeling and discard my baggage. Ultimately, Mike saved me from myself. Through a many years of counseling, I worked through the darkness and continue to greet each day with a positive outlook on life. I am a loving, nurturing, optimistic person, very deserving of love.
My relationship with my mom continued to grow for many years. I called her my angel. In July of 2007, she passed away. Robbed of my childhood and a healthy relationship with my mom, I only had a mere 15 years with her. Those were the best 15 years of my life. I have a picture of my mom on my bedroom dresser. Every day I tell her that I love her and miss her as I kiss my fingertips and gently place them on her lips. I miss my mom's arms embraced around me, her gentle voice, her laughter and her scent but I know that I will be with her again one day. Until then, I am content seeing her in my dreams.
I made amends to the many loved ones that I hurt in the past. Today my closet is wide-open, my skeletons are gone and the cycle has been broken! It's still heartbreaking to know that so many family members were forced to endure so much sadness.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2009). What causes addiction. Retrieved March 25, 2011 from http://www.camh.net/about_addiction_mental_health/drug_and_addiction_information/addiction_information_guide/addiction_causes.html
Morse, R. & Flavin, D. (1992, August 26). The definition of alcoholism. Journal of the American Medical Association, 268 (8), 1012-1014.