In the bottle with Grace

~ a story of co-dependence and alcoholism

I am the daughter of an alcoholic.

Until recently, I didn’t really understand the meaning behind those words because at age 13, 14, 15 and beyond, he was just Dad. A parent who loved me. Yes, he drank — but I was clueless.

How could I know that his biting criticisms were alcohol induced? Or that his cold disposition wasn’t rejection, but a countdown of minutes to his next drink. It was normal; arriving home from my after-school job, finding both Dad and my step-mother Grace deep in a bottle of Inver House Scotch Whisky, where night after night, they prepared me an evening meal of neglect, steeped in empty praise.

Could this be why I unwittingly married an alcoholic drug addict?

I didn’t recognize it as such back then…I was a sober nineteen year old girl, working two jobs to pay my own way through college. No one tried to protect my best interests — not even my narcissistic mother — and I fell prey to a dangerous, charismatic wolf, ten years my senior.

Out of a naïve belief that I could change the circumstances of my marriage for the better, I stayed married for twelve years, not understanding the cycle of abuse that alcoholics and drug offenders wield with such ease. I didn’t know he would force me to carry the blame for his drunken rages, where he twisted my words and created non-existent ulterior motives, until it fueled an explosion of torment and destruction.

I can still see his angry, red-faced glare looming over me; neck veins bulging as he beat me with hurtful words, a threat of violence crackling in the air. Afterwards, there would be no apology. Just an unreasonable insistence that he had done nothing wrong. “It’s all your fault! If you had just [fill in the blank], I wouldn’t have [fill in the blank]…

I didn’t know I was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won.

As with my father, I took my husband’s words to heart. He said he loved me. How could he lie and make such terribly untrue accusations? Why did he refuse to see reason? It was like having a nonsensical argument with a child. Was it my fault? Should I have done something different?

But in the end — it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do — the outcome was always the same.

I could sit silent during the verbal assault, or attempt to defend myself. I could fight back, or quietly accept his blame-game just to keep the peace. I tried appeasement. I took on more burdens. I tip-toed around his mercurial moods. None of it mattered.

Not once, did he accept responsibility for his behavior.

Instead – I would be castigated as the villain in a brand new narrative of his own invention. He would assign to me any number of short-comings, modifying the facts as he saw fit, slandering me to friends and family. He’d cast me as the errant one because that’s what it always came down to: I had the problem, not him, and nothing I said or did could convince him otherwise.

Those were the downswings of the abuse cycle.

He must’ve been able to sense when he’d pushed me too far, when I’d reached my limits of tolerance, because suddenly he would “forgive” me — and once again, my charismatic, attentive husband would return from the abyss and shower me with love and affection. My heart would be tricked, it swelled with hope, wanting to believe his sweet promises of a rosy future. I’d tell myself, “Things will be better…this time.”

And things would be very good, for a while. Long enough for him to regain my trust. Until the long, downward spiral started all over again; it was insidious, the erosion so slow, I couldn’t see its trajectory until it was upon me. It could take two or more years for a cycle to complete. He’d wield Love like a weapon — offering and then withholding — to manipulate and control. It kept me off-balance, confused by his inconsistency and abject disloyalty.

This is what my three sons were born into.

I didn’t have the labels and words and explanations back then. I lived in a pre-Internet world where folks didn’t air their problems to friends and neighbors. I bore the burden alone.

It took me twelve years to realize he would never change. An epiphany that prompted me to find the courage and ingenuity it would take for me to divorce him — back in the days when children were ridiculed for having a different last name than their mothers.

Over time, I learned to read the signs of addiction and society would create terminology for things like “High Functioning Alcoholic” and identify a smorgasbord of personality disorders. The Internet showed me I wasn’t alone.

My abuser has since died, but his legacy lives on in the form of PTSD. It is only with a healed heart, that I can now proclaim my truth. The shame wasn’t mine to own. It was his.

I’m done ’tilting at windmills’. I’ve suffered more than my fair share battling the effects of someone else’s addictions. I can honestly say, with a full heart — NEVER AGAIN.

I deserve better. I demand better. I will settle for nothing less.

My Affirmations

I will not tolerate verbal abuse or temper tantrums.

I will be not be held hostage to a roller-coaster of shifting affection.

I refuse to be a scape-goat. I will not be held accountable for someone else’s toxic behavior or poor choices.

I refuse to be gas-lighted. I will not tolerate an accuser’s false narrative.

I am not a dump-sink. Don’t even try to “put the load right on me”.

The Weight – The Band

The Family Kitchen

I’m enrolled in a Memoir writing class through my local college and our first assignment was to visualize the family kitchen of our youth, then write a 250-word vignette involving an incident that took place there between ourselves and one other person.

Stock photo: SCOTT GRIESSEL

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about my grandfather. How we’d sneak there late at night after the household fell fast asleep. It was our secret. We’d grab an orange or apple from the fruit bowl and quietly play catch in the dim pool of light cast from the range-hood’s incandescent bulb. But as I started writing, I was surprised by what actually appeared on the page. It took me a few moments to sort through an odd welling of emotions before I could focus on the nice memory of Grandpa.

The family kitchen…

Taken at face value it’s just three, simple, innoxious words. Yet on a different level, it can unconsciously evoke an ideal, and along with that – tremendous expectation.

Social media, movies, and Hallmark paint us lovely images of warmth and comfort, hearth and home, beautifully arrayed to the backdrop of gleaming surfaces and tasteful furnishing, an epicenter brimming with friends and relatives sharing lives and stories over sumptuous foods, drinks, and more. We see images of young families building gingerbread houses or Dad helping with homework. Grandma pulling fresh baked cookies from an oven and Mom serving up dinner to smiles all around.

The family kitchen – like an illustration from Norman Rockwell – paints us a picture of familial love, security, acceptance, and care. The very thing I’ve spent my entire adult life attempting to create, and the very thing my childhood lacked. Have I been chasing an illusion?

It was food for thought.

My youngest years were lived on Long Island in a nice ranch house, in a nice neighborhood, in a suburb not far from the busy hustle of New York City. Most of my extended family lived thereabouts – either at the tip of the Island or inside the Metropolis – close yet far, because a couple of hours commute in the 1960’s was not easily contemplated like it is in today’s world. At least that’s the reason I’ve extrapolated for why family visits were few and far between.

I can remember my Aunt Elinore; dubbed Aunt Nornie by my eldest cousin and introduced to me in proper New Yorker dialect as Aunt Naw’nee. It wouldn’t be until my family moved Upstate that I would learn I had an “accent”.

But my aunt’s story comes via my mother. My cousins were, and still are, familial strangers; printed names to hang upon branches of my ancestral tree, perhaps due to the tremendous differences in age. My mother being what was called an “oopsie baby”, a child conceived during menopause in today’s terms, was raised like an only child since her three older sisters were already grown and married by the time she was even born.

However, Aunt Nornie remained childless during her life, blaming the Great Depression for the loss of twins she had carried and it left her so scarred, she never again wanted to risk another pregnancy. But her husband, my Uncle Johnny, loved children. He was like an Italian Hans Christian Anderson telling tall tales to me and my brother, just as he had to my mother during her childhood.

So every once in a great while, my aunt and uncle would leave their brownstone in Brooklyn to visit us on the Island. They’d arrive loudly, with my aunt bellowing that Uncle needed a nap after such an exacting drive out from the city as my mother ushered Nornie into the kitchen where supper was cooking.

I had wondered why she spoke at such decibels and asked my mother afterwards. She said, “Aunt Elinore is used to city living, where you have to shout just to be heard above all that noise! It’s a hard habit to break.” It didn’t make sense to me, given that Uncle Johnny was so soft-spoken, but I wisely kept my opinion to myself.

It’s all very clear in my mind’s eye.

The little mint green kitchen with speckled brown linoleum, the iron, glass-topped table and cushioned chairs, my mother’s teased hair and the copious clouds of throat-clenching hairspray. I can see my aunt’s artful face adorned with ‘pancake’ makeup, her beehive hairdo and heavy gold jewelry everywhere – necklaces, rings, clanging bracelets, earrings.

But most of all, I remember her standing over my mother’s massive pot of simmering marinara sauce, stirring and talking nonstop, a lit cigarette dangling from between her painted lips, its acrid smoke curling upwards and mingling with the bubbling puree’s rising steam. I used to sit quietly at the table like a little mouse, entranced, watching and wondering if that enormous grey ash, quivering and bobbing to every word, would fall noiselessly into our spaghetti dinner.

I’ve come to realize that my family kitchen may not have been the ideal, but it doesn’t mean it was wrong to try or bad because I experienced something else.

Besides, the pre-Internet era was vastly different from today’s world and I wouldn’t want to judge my peopled past with modern hindsight. It wouldn’t be fair. It would be like comparing apples with oranges. Both gave a great game of catch with Grandpa, but that’s where the similarity ends.

In the blink of an eye…

January 2019: brand new Nissan Murano Platinum

The woman above smiles from ear to ear. She’s worked all her life, sacrificed much to raise a family. It is now her time; and she is blessed to have the means to purchase a brand new luxury car all for herself.

For the first time in her life she is enveloped by premium sound, panoramic moon roofs, electronics galore, and roomy interior space. The ride is quiet and gentle, it feels like she’s floating down roads and byways, coddled by leather seats that if desired, either cools or warms. It’s the epitome of quality and comfort and in appreciation, she keeps it pristine.

Imagine you are this woman…peacefully living your life, minding your own business, enjoying the ride.

Without warning, cosmic fingers SNAP! and life as you know it, is hijacked into unknown realms of trouble and mayhem. You are powerless, disoriented, confused, traumatized. Current plans are derailed; and your confidence in tomorrow is shaken as you stare into a murky future.

This is what happens when you are the victim of a violent car crash and live to tell the tale. Its effects then ripple onto close family, friends, colleagues. Innocent lives, adversely impacted — all because a distracted driver chose to wield their Ford F-150 Lariat pickup truck like a weapon.

From physical injuries to property loss, emotional chaos to mental fatigue, lives are forcibly changed and time is stolen. This may sound melodramatic but think about it.

You prepare everything the night before so that early in the morning, you are all set to drive your darling to scheduled surgery. The moment has finally arrived. Weeks of waiting is about to be over and you anxiously look ahead to normal life resuming, cancer-free.

The day is clear. It’s just a ten – fifteen minute drive to reach the Interstate. You and your darling are enjoying the comfortable ride in your luxury SUV. Pleasing music buoys you and your darling, thanks to the premium Bose speakers, and you are both looking forward to getting the surgery over and done with.

Up ahead, you see road construction and various vehicles stopped at a traffic light. You move into the turning lane for the on-ramp to the Interstate and check your rear view mirror. It’s empty. After a full stop, you turn right-on-red into the one lane on-ramp and see three tractor trailers parked on the side shoulder, but the one closest to you has its directional blinking and pulls out into the lane. It’s a very big truck that is moving slowly in its attempt to gain highway speed. You are forced to slow down and brake to a complete stop. The tractor trailer blocks the whole lane and the other two remain parked on the shoulder.

One breath, two breaths, three breaths — WHAM!!!!

The sound of exploding glass fills your ears and you’re violently slammed into the back of your seat, then thrust forward again. Ears ringing, hands shaking, you watch the back of the tractor trailer still moving forward along the on-ramp. You think, ‘he didn’t even stop’, and realize he probably couldn’t see you. For some reason the windshield wipers are activated. Must’ve happened when your hands were ripped from the steering wheel. You’ll feel the pain of those pulled muscles for several days.

Your darling is yelling for you to get the vehicle onto the shoulder. Later you’ll learn he feared more collisions might follow. You can hear him calling 911 as he exits your formerly beautiful, luxury SUV to check the welfare of the folks who carelessly rear-ended you at 45 mph.

You worry. How are you going to get your darling to his surgery appointment…taxi? No. Call a friend? You check your watch. No time. You dial the doctor’s phone and leave a voicemail message explaining the situation. Your darling’s cancer will have to wait.

There are no skid marks on the road. She didn’t even attempt to break. Later you’ll learn she was distracted, rushing to get her kids to “school”. Thankfully they were in car seats and no one needed medical attention.

That’s most important.

Distracted Driver’s 2016 Ford F-150 Lariat Pickup Truck

The next three hours are spent roadside, attending to necessities as best you can, stressed out and aching, amazed there are no ambulance-worthy injuries. You struggle to absorb all the information being thrown at you: damage assessments, police reports, insurance claims, collision centers, tow truck drivers, rental cars. It’s hard but you also have to deal with the other driver and her family who had rushed to the scene.

Four hours later, you’re in the tow truck heading to the collision center, still on the phone with your insurance company. Exhaustion sets in and you feel numb. Five hours later, you arrive home in a rented mini-van. The world seems surreal as shock sets in.

Your shoulder and neck muscles hurt. You can’t sleep. The sound of exploding glass fills your ears as your mind replays the moment of impact, that violent THUD! – over, and over, and over.

All professionals determine the rear-ender was at fault, your vehicle is ‘totaled’ and their insurance will pay, but so what? It won’t be enough money to replace the vehicle you already had…and now you spend days searching automobile dealerships, dismayed at current costs and the thousands of additional dollars you’ll be out of pocket, during a nationwide “chip” shortage and dwindling stock. You discover local dealerships have little to choose from and your stress compounds.

2021 Nissan Murano Platinum

Luckily – this story has a happy ending. After two hellish weeks, a brand new Murano was purchased, all aches and pains healed, and cancer surgery was rescheduled. Life is slowly returning to normalcy; although there is a lingering fear of driving in congested traffic, a hyper-sensitivity to the large volume of irresponsible drivers tail-gating, zipping in and out, staring at cell phones.

But this story could’ve had a very different ending. Think about that same Ford F-150 Lariat pickup truck rear-ending a little commuter car… May it serve as a warning to all.

DON’T be a distracted driver! We’re all guilty of this to a minor degree; it’s so easy to take your eyes off the road, a split-second risk. But real distractions can – in the blink of an eye – end up totaling someone else’s vehicle and perhaps even their life, not to mention your own. SO… If you need to settle squabbling kids – pull over and do it. If you need to check your email – pull over and do it. Want to fiddle with your tunes – pull over and do it. There are no excuses for threatening the lives and livelihoods of innocent bystanders because of your personal distractions. In some cases, it may even be considered criminal.

BEWARE of the distracted driver! They are out there in ever-increasing numbers and are “out to get you”. It’s always wise to drive defensively but as in the above story, what happens when there is no bailout point? What happens when you can’t see it coming? Best to be driving a car with a 5-star safety rating like the Nissan Murano’s. It could save your life, too.

Safety or Freedom

“The basic dilemma of the modern world is where do you want to live, in the jungle, or in the zoo?”

I was perusing the satellite TV channels yesterday and next on the list was a production entitled “Valmont”. Not being familiar, I searched the Internet to find its premise but instead I discovered something of greater interest.

In a 1989 movie review, Roger Ebert interviewed Milos Forman, “a movie director from Czechoslovakia who has been making films in the West for 20 years. His credits include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus” … [and had] fled Czechoslovakia as Russian tanks rolled across the border.”

What made this article so interesting was Ebert’s attitude, his realization that Europeans and Americans have differing viewpoints on such things as love, romance, and the “modern world” which more importantly in my mind, demonstrates how the same story and the same set of events can hold multiple interpretations depending on one’s outlook.

I think this is a universal truth; that perception shapes a person’s reality. Facts and events don’t change – it’s our interpretation of such that’s open to speculation.

“As Forman explained his theories of women, love and romance, I was reminded that I was, after all, speaking with a European. It’s possible that Americans are more idealistic on romantic subjects, or like to pretend they are. His views, which I found cynical, he found merely realistic. If there is a basic difference in sensibility between Americans and Europeans, and in many ways there probably is, I wondered how Forman had been able to find such enormous success after moving to America, while other European directors often foundered in Hollywood.”

Roger ebert, November 12, 1989

Now I don’t mean to suggest that Milo speaks for all Europeans and vice versa with Roger for Americans, but isn’t history an interesting thing? In this case, opinions and views from just a little over 30 years ago…

Then Ebert asked Forman about his world views, and it was his answer that motivated me to write this post. *Note – Forman immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 1975.

When Ebert asked Forman what “…he thinks when he reads the papers these days [1989], with their incredible reports of Gorbachev’s dismantling of Russia’s satellite system”, he told him this parable:

“The basic dilemma of the modern world is,” he said, “where do you want to live, in the jungle, or in the zoo?

“And you will be surprised how many people are more comfortable to live in the zoo, because you get your piece of fruit every day. It’s true, you have to eat what they give you. But if you are a rabbit, the lion will not eat you up, because you are protected. It’s true, you are protected by the cage, you are inside the cage, and the lion is also inside its cage, but nothing will happen to you. If you want to go for a walk, yes, sure, you have this 10-by-10-foot space, and there you can walk.

“If you live in the jungle, it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, you are free to go where you want, sleep wherever you want, eat whatever you find or manage to catch – but the snake can bite you, the lion can bite you , you can fall into a ravine, you can die of cold. But you are free.

“So! What we are seeing in this century [1989] is that those who established the zoo are now trying to make it look a little like the jungle. That’s what I think is happening now with Gorbachev. But it doesn’t work that way.

“Here in America, yes, this is a jungle, where everybody is for himself, but people say, let’s please do something like in a zoo, some protections here and there. Well, it’s possible that will not work, either.”

Milos Forman, November 12, 1989

This is the best description of differing ” -isms” I’ve heard in a long time.

Now, 32 years later, we’re seeing droves of Americans forfeiting their freedom in a mad dash to live in a zoo. And that would be fine, nothing wrong about living in the zoo, except they are also demanding that the jungle be burnt down to create that zoo.

“Well, it’s possible that will not work, either.”

Let us not forget about the droves of Americans who want to live in a jungle. Their opinions and rights count too. But then again — it’s all a matter of perspective.

“I don’t think these things change in human relationships. As it was 1,000 years ago, so it will be 1,000 years from now. I don’t think that these people are any better or any worse than we are.” [Forman]

You think that people lie and deceive, and do things for the satisfaction of their vanity, and only talk about what high standards they have? [Ebert]

“Yes. Yes, I do, actually.” [Forman]

In other words — times may change, but human nature never does. I need to keep this in mind when I’m creating fictional characters telling ‘their’ story, and how they react to someone else’s.