The Blog

Recovery: Lessons Learned in My Alcoholic Family

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
male left hand with chalk...
male left hand with chalk...

Life at the University of Alcoholism
During my early life, for many years my dad did not have a car. When I turned 16 and he had one, I was so excited to go for a driving lesson in his old Ford Falcon stick shift. In my home town of Johnstown, Pa, I drove one block down Sherman Street and took a right turn on Diebert, and drove another block to a stop sign. I felt proud and skillful that I started out so well, shifting gears smoothly. Then, I crossed over Napolean street and the car started shaking--tada tada tada tada-- because I didn't use the clutch correctly. "You stupid son of a bitch" followed by more vulgarity was the feedback dad gave me on my driving. The only other time he gave me feedback in person was when I worked briefly as a plasterer's laborer. His feedback was that I was a "dumb ass" who couldn't even mix "mud" (plaster).

The house I grew up in:
My family didn't have a telephone until I was a teenager. When we got one, my dad used it on occasion to berate me and cuss me out. Once, he called my girlfriend's house looking for me. After being rude to my girlfriend's mother, he threatened to beat the hell out of me if I didn't bring his car home. My dad was an alcoholic. He was usually intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol when he went off on me. When sober, dad was quiet, low-key and depressed.

Almost every visit home for years was predictable in that dad got drunk and changed from a quiet person to a vulgar and mean one. The only way to survive was to leave the house. I often felt guilty because my mother was left behind to deal with his drunkenness.

My dad did not attend any of my school or athletic events or my wedding. He never took our family on a vacation. We had no meaningful discussions about school, my future goals, girls, sex, politics, sports, money, the world, life issues or family. Money discussions were limited to him demanding I give him what I earned at the golf course so he could go to the bar (I hid most of it in my shoes so he got only a small share).

In addition to alcoholism, I believe my dad had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic depression and anxiety. He was a machine gunner wounded in the Pacific in World War 2 and I believe he did the best he could. In his day medical professionals were not good at diagnosing psychiatric disorders or alcoholism. His doctors would say things like "you need to cut down on your drinking," advice that is meaningless to an alcoholic who could drink over a case of beer during a drinking episode. He finally got sober at age 66 after my mom died of cancer. He went to detox and rehab, but left before finishing the program. Then, his wife drove him 90 miles to see a colleague of mine, a psychiatrist, who treated his addiction and psychiatric disorders. He stayed sober and reasonably stable until his death at age 80.

I hold no grudges towards my dad and forgave him after years of struggling with strong negative emotions. I accepted that his alcoholism ruined most of his life and harmed our family for years. After dad got sober, there were some positive experiences to offset the chaos in our family. I loved my dad but did not like him until later in life when I experienced his newly sober side.

I learned so much from him and would not trade my experiences with any one as my values, personality, behaviors and goals have been shaped by this. My mother's unconditional love, compassion, kindness, humor, toughness and ability to survive anything helped offset the chaos in my family. Work, sports and the influence of several adults also helped me turn my life around.

Earning My PhD in Chaos Survival
While this is my personal story, I am not alone. Chaos, confusion, anger and other negativity are common in homes with an addicted parent (or other family member). Many studies show high rates of addiction in the U.S. with each affected individual impacting on numerous family members and others, and on the social fabric of our society. Addiction is one of the most devastating disorders and social problems harming all of us.

Growing up with an alcoholic or drug addicted parent distorts your view of the world. It creates emotional distress, which can take years to work through. Anger, hostility, fear, anxiety, depression, shame and even hatred were my companions until I healed. During my teenage years I was a juvenile delinquent involved in low level thievery, an academic underachiever who was rejected by every college I applied to, and a lost soul unsure of my abilities or what to do with my life. Accepting that my dad was sick, forgiving him for what he did and did not do to me or my family, sharing my experiences, attending Al-Anon meetings, and letting others support me were key to my personal growth and recovery.

More details about how I and others with addiction in their families were affected will come in later blogs with my promise to focus more on recovery than all the crazy stuff that happened. Despite my life in an alcoholic family, I emerged with considerable knowledge and skills on how to survive chaos, unpredictability, negativity and poverty. In fact, my values of hard work, family togetherness, and loyalty to loved ones, and my character were influenced from living with alcoholism. I am only one of many people who survived and became resilient.

Passing On the Lessons
Welcome to my first blog on recovery from addiction for affected individuals AND family members. My goals are to educate, raise awareness, challenge how we think and act, inspire us to change, and give hope that we CAN change no matter how bad things are or how low and despondent we feel. Stories of positive change and resilience will be shared along with coping strategies people have used in their recoveries, and what we have learned from research.

My intention is to get individuals and family members affected by addiction to take action and change, improve their lives and not succumb to negative outcomes associated with addiction. I want them to change their narrative and create a more positive outcome, and not feel victimized by addiction.

Recovery will be presented from the perspectives of those with addiction, family members and loved ones, providers of clinical care and the community. I will discuss helpful behaviors as well as unhelpful behaviors that stem from ignorance, fear, or negative attitudes about addiction. It is indeed an honor and privilege to be part of the HuffPost Blog family and share my knowledge, experience, opinions and ideas on recovery. For several decades, I have been a therapist, researcher, educator and author of many articles, books, recovery guides, interactive workbooks and journals, and videos. I teach medical, nursing and graduate students, psychiatric residents, addiction fellows, and therapists from all disciplines.

I have worked with or met thousands of people and family members making me keenly aware of the havoc addiction causes to physical, mental, spiritual, social, and financial well-being of many of us. More importantly, I am aware of how recovery counteracts addiction and gives us a chance to reclaim our lives and improve our well-being whether we have an addiction, or have been affected by a loved one's addiction. So thank you for reading my first blog and stay tuned for more to come.