Breaking the Family Silence on Alcoholism

Alicia Lutes contemplates her family’s history of addiction, her mother’s failing liver, and the effect it’s all had on her generation.

Alicia Lutes | Longreads | October 2019 | 18 minutes (4,426 words)

I remember turning around, but I don’t remember why. It was sometime in 1996 or 1997; maybe 1995? I was small, sitting on the couch in our living room, probably watching a cartoon on the comically large television my father had insisted upon, when something moved me to turn around. When I did, I saw my mother, her rapidly shrinking frame surrounded by the rays of a setting sun, her wafer-thinness outlined in fiery gold, a woman on fire. I watched her through the back porch as she cried on the phone, studying the slight way she swayed, how her emotions physically moved her, and how despite her lessening weight, her body moved so forcefully, the white wine in her glass twinkling in the near-twilight — but never spilling — as she moved. She slugged gulps between sobs and unremembered utterances to who-even-knows. It was tragic and beautiful, the way wine made her anorexic form seem to languish in the misery around her.

It also made her mean.

***

I don’t begrudge my mom her meanness. She had it tougher than many in her middle class, suburban Connecticut town. When she was 4 she was diagnosed with alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease that causes body body to attack your hair follicles; you lose every single strand. Hair on your head, legs, eyebrows, lashes — you name it, all of it gone. And while it was helpful for her as a swimmer, it made her a very easy target as a woman in the ‘70s, the decade of long, flowing manes and feminist declarations through lush, undisturbed body hair. By the time she graduated high school, she was tough. Being bullied — at one point physically strapped to a telephone pole and beaten by a man, she told me — didn’t break her; it made her quick, and strong. Well, stronger than she already was. She’d always had an unpredictable temper with a lashing sense of humor; she took after my grandfather, in that way and others.

Her drinking wasn’t anything I remember being bad until the divorce. When my parents were together, she regularly clocked 90- to 100-hour workweeks overnight as a nurse in one of the local city’s ERs. When would she have had time to drink? She had three kids and a (cheating) husband to care for at home. So when my father took off, quite literally in the dead of night after draining their joint bank account, and used her social security number to open up and max out a whole bunch of credit cards to the point of bankruptcy (forcing us to move in with our grandparents), circumstances got the better of her, and the genetic history of addiction and alcoholism in our family took its hold.

Situational triggers aside, nearly everyone in my immediate family is an addict. Their drug of choice? Alcohol.

One could hardly blame her. Situational triggers aside, nearly everyone in my immediate family is an addict. Their drug of choice? Alcohol. My whole life was informed by alcoholism and its resultants to such a degree, I had no idea this amount of drinking and number of alcohol-related catastrophes and deaths were abnormal: my grandmother drank heavily until her 40s, when she quit (before allegedly switching over to a more casual pill addition), and her parents both died quite young from the stuff; my grandfather’s father was supposedly a big one with tall tales aplenty before he, too, up and ran — and his son certainly followed suit with the sauce. Outside of that, both my uncles are alcoholics — though one got sober on the day I was born.

And there are plenty of dysfunctional relationships to alcohol in my large, rowdy, extended family, who always seemed to be around. Be it in my hometown or at another cousin’s house in Bristol, every weekend was a party or a reason to unwind with liquidity. Parties in backyards felt like they lasted for days (and sometimes they did). Parents and uncles and cousins singing or debating loudly, absolutely annoying the neighbors. Everyone telling everyone else to fuck the fuck off, the kids to go away and play, with no one remembering any of it the morning after — a saving grace for keeping the peace when things got particularly violent and rough, which was often. Running away, to the swing sets or the pool, hiding in trees and cool basements, my cousins and siblings and I figured it out. Maybe not healthily or without a few traumas or problems, but we banded together and survived. When overconsumption is normalized to badge-of-honor status, you don’t realize what bad is until you’re years and years removed from it.

Now that we’re adults, none of us really drink. Some of us probably smoke a bit too much pot, but at least you’re not physically out of control or mean on that stuff.

I know my father drank, but mostly he just smoked cigarettes and pot, to the point that he was dishonorably discharged from the army for the latter. I know there was some other drug use in there, but couldn’t tell you what his deal is now, because when he left in 1996, he went cold turkey on us kids. He has another daughter, also named Alicia, and a second named Hailee. Other Alicia, as I cruelly tend to call her, also has a daughter. I think he’s very happy, but I don’t really know. He hasn’t really spoken to any of us since he left way back then (save the one time I tried back in 2012).

So my mom? I don’t really blame her. I have empathy for all that she’s gone through and the reality of who she is — an addict — but that doesn’t make her choices any less heartbreaking. It doesn’t make the years of dealing with her addiction, dragging on and on, any easier, or take the sting out of her cruel, drunken words. I truly admire this woman who somehow managed to do it all, who dealt with so much and was still so smart and funny on top of it. She was an unstoppable force who commanded your attention, and not just because she has no hair. She carried herself in a way I could only describe as stereotypically masculine, which makes sense because she often told me she wished she’d been born a man — not in a transgender sense, but in the way that being a man gives people a freedom in society women don’t often get. And she played the most toxic parts of masculinity well: yelling, demanding, always the authority and final word in the room, often paying for things for other people despite her own lack of money (and she often had no money). It was conflicting in a sense, because she’s a caregiver by nature. It’s why she became a nurse, even if she’s often told me she wished she’d been a surgeon, or a detective, or some other sort of real world hero. But with alcohol, another person is born, and that version of my mom has her lack of both empathy and filter ratcheted up to eleven.

***

I am so much like my mother. I am loud and a bit hyperbolic and melodramatic (though she’d never admit to that fact), and people think I’m funny and, like my mom, full of crazy stories from a slightly outlandishly lived young life. I am gruff and unintentionally demanding, and can come off like an authority figure even if I’m not. Unlike me, though, she’s a bit of a party girl, able to drink anyone she encounters under the table. Alcohol often leaves me with little more than a runny nose and a desire to go to bed. Having that realization wasn’t depressing, though: it was freeing. Because it meant I had already borne witness to how my makings could steer me wrong. How biology could betray me, how unresolved issues and resentments grow bigger the longer you push them down or straight-up ignore them, forever, and think you’ll be okay.


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Allowing myself to see my mother honestly as she was and not as I wanted her to be, or who she told me she was, helped me to reconcile the imperfect parts of her and my father that ultimately resulted in me. As a byproduct of generations of addiction, influenced by the constant physical proximity of abusers (my father’s life was also rough), I have to lay that shit bare and be frank about it. I had to declare the reality for what it is: my mother, whom I love, is an alcoholic. Most of my family, are alcoholics. They did terrible things — intentionally or otherwise — to me and my siblings and my cousins, only they don’t remember so they think we all made it up or are childishly exaggerating.

In a way, writing about it all feels extremely mean.

We’ve grown up gaslighting ourselves because we were always told nothing was ever all that bad, but rather, everything was super good. No, I didn’t punch you. No, your uncle didn’t hit you. No, I didn’t tell your sister and your grandmother and you that I wanted to die. Ignoring, eschewing, or downplaying the reality of that only further perpetuates the pain I feel and have felt, and the pain my mother causes herself and others, when we don’t speak the cold, hard truth. It’s how we slip into our paternal figures’ patterns of behavior, how our family’s dysfunction can disorder our ways of thinking and feeling and being and perceiving, beyond our own understanding. It’s how we continue to unleash that unhealed pain on others, inhibiting our ability to evolve and grow. We say we enable addicts because we love, but our sympathy for the disease and the person it’s killing is actually killing all of us.

I did something recently I’m occasionally wont to do, even though I know it usually means disconnection from my mother for months at a time: I told her I was worried about her drinking. Again. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do, given my physical distance, and the fact that my grandmother had just recently died, sending the family into quite a downward spiral. But my aunt, herself a wildly intelligent (and award-winning) medical professional — one of the few non-alcohol abusers in my family who, coincidentally, also keeps her distance — and her husband, a doctor, were growing deeply concerned.

“She said ‘Because it’s bad: like stage four liver…’ and trailed off,” my little sister said, explaining the concerns my aunt expressed.

“Do you mean liver failure, or liver cancer? Is there a difference between that and cirrhosis?” I asked. She didn’t know but would find out more. After she dropped our drunk grandfather off at home with our drunk mother.

Oh, I guess it’s time, I thought. Finally, the end can begin. It was a cruel thing to think, and I immediately regretted it. Months later, my sister admitted she felt the same way, too. I held her while she sobbed and tried not to cry, too.

I have empathy for all that my mom’s gone through and the reality of who she is — an addict — but that doesn’t make her choices any less heartbreaking.

I’ve known this inevitability was coming for awhile. My mother has been drinking multiple “magnum” bottles of wine a week for years now — maybe even a full decade of 1.5 liters a night. Last time I saw her, she would start at 6pm and go until about 3am, with a few naps in between. She’s not eating, still, even though she swears she is — it’s just that, according to her, nobody ever sees it, and the human body apparently doesn’t actually need as much as we think, and also there’s something wrong with her throat. She has severe vitamin D and iron deficiencies, and her body is wasting away — save for a distended belly that she obsesses over, insisting it’s because she simply eats too much. Because the two slices of turkey, two slices of cheese, and a pickle she eats at midnight really add up. (I hear talk of occasional salads and protein bars for lunch, but I’m hesitant to believe her. And all that coffee and cigarettes, with no plain water, probably doesn’t help.) After nearly a decade of begging, she recently went to the doctor, even though she doesn’t believe in them and what they do, and claims her bloodwork is fine. Lord knows if she’s honest with them about how much she drinks and how little she eats. She also had quite a bit of skin cancer on her arm, but she took a callus remover to it, so it’s all fine now, she insists. She lies more than I care to admit…more than I ever really could see before, because I was always the liar in the family, according to her.

The most disturbing thing upon looking at her is her tremor. All day long, my mother’s head shakes. Her legs recently started doing it, too. It’s honestly the hardest thing for me to type out. It’s a constant visual reminder, her body’s physical plea: help me, please. Save me. I’m at the end here; I’m dying.

It only stops when she’s drinking. But she swears this is nothing to be concerned about. It’s nothing! she says of the tremor. Katharine Hepburn had one.

My mother, when I talked to her this most recent time, was seemingly receptive. She didn’t gaslight me or tell me that I just want her to die so I could have all her money. (Which, truly: what money?) She didn’t call me an ungrateful, selfish, know-it-all bitch who only thinks about herself. She didn’t call me the dumbest smart person she knows or a melodramatic liar. She didn’t call me naive, or clueless; she didn’t even yell or scream or hang up the phone and tell me my brother is the only one who really cares.

She did lie about some things and tell me, patronizingly, that I should be a therapist if I know so much about it. She also had to throw my own mental illness in my face and be petty about it, a thing she’s been doing since I opened up about my diagnosis — PTSD and Bipolar II — in 2018. “Well none of my other kids are mentally ill and have to be on medicine,” she likes to repeat now and then. It’s her new favorite weapon of defense, especially as I’ve started to truly own that, and the fact that I’m creative person: she sees writers, actors, and performers of all stripes as selfish liars without any logic or sense. They don’t live in the real world or have real jobs, and therefore, they are a menace.

***

In my mother’s estimation, being creative was not the solace for my pain, but the source of it. I see more clearly now that she is wrong. When I was little I loved to act, sing, and write. My life didn’t hurt when I could sing or paint or dance the pain away. The arts allowed me a space to have, deal with, and understand my emotions. Movies, TV, plays, musicals, songs, art: all of it showed me a way to feel things without hurting anybody. To express my pain without the physical and mental anguish of admitting it out loud. It was how I learned to frame myself and soothe my tiny soul. This quadrupled when I was 8 years old and sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old boy who worked alongside my father at the local bowling alley.

Our father would often lock whichever of us kids didn’t have an after school activity that day into a tiny, musty daycare room. I was often happy to have this boy there with us, because I had a deliriously obsessive crush on him. I told him I wanted him to be my boyfriend, and he said to make it official, we had to do some things. We went into a closet alone. There was pain and later, a tiny bit of blood. At the time I didn’t fully understand what happened, but I knew I felt a lot of fear and shame and as if it was all my fault. My parents’ divorce was imminent, my father’s affair already going full-tilt (at the bowling alley), and I overheard him telling my mother he had contracted Hepatitis C through sharing a needle. I decided what I did with the teenager would be my “deep, dark secret,” because all artists seemed to have one so, according to my 8-year-old logic, this would be mine. If I was honest about everything else in my life, I figured, it would be fine to lie about this one thing happening. I didn’t admit it to my mother until 2012, after feeling driven crazy by the weight of it.

“I believe you, believe that it happened. I believe your mind thinks it did.” She said to me, truly full of compassion. “You’ve always been creative.”

I resigned, in defeat. “But you don’t think it did?”

“No, I don’t think it did.”

It doesn’t matter that my mother was the first person to drunkenly tell me a story about a creepy sexual scenario I was involved in as an even younger child — something she described that was identical to a recurring nightmare I had since childhood but never told anyone about, thinking that I had some sort of dark, fucked up mind. She later insisted that not only had she never told me that, but nothing like that ever, ever happened, either. (I guess she forgot about the Facebook fight she had with the ex-wife of that particular blood relative about this very incident.) Later still, she conceded “something” happened with the weird uncle on my father’s side, but maybe it wasn’t even me, maybe it was just a story she’d heard about him. Besides, she insisted, I would have been a baby, I could never have remembered it.

Being raised by an alcoholic means adhering to the doctrine that their way is always the right, coherent, logical way — and anyone who doesn’t see that is truly ignorant.

Maybe it’s because she has a grandson now, or because she just witnessed my grandmother’s slow march towards death, but it seems like — this time — she wanted to hear me. I’m just not sure she can. She told me she was going to try and quit drinking, or maybe just cut down, maybe just have one a day and then put water in my wine glass. By February 2019, she explained, she would quit smoking, and by April the drinking would be done. I tell her I’m proud of her and I support her because I love her. In this moment, a memory of her slapping me as she told me it was “because she loved me” after a high school basketball game popped into my mind.

I don’t tell her I’m worried she doesn’t have that much time — it feels too morbidly dark and melodramatic, even for me — plus, I know she’ll immediately dismiss it. She’s an ox! She never gets sick! It’s not as bad as everyone thinks! I also know doing so would add to the resentment she already has for “making her do this.” Because she told me as much. She always does.

“I am happy for whatever reason you find in your heart to do this,” I said to her over the phone. “And I love you and support you and we are all here for you, and to help you. But you have to try to find a reason for yourself to do it, because I don’t want you to resent me for making you do this.”

“I know, and that’s why I’m worried. Because I already do resent you,” she remarked matter-of-factly. “I really just don’t want to do this. You don’t understand, Alicia: I could drop dead tomorrow and be perfectly happy, perfectly fine. I’ve lived my life. I’m good.”

I don’t tell her that I understood because she has been telling me this my whole life. I couldn’t get into it like I have before. Because I’m tired of telling her that her saying those things makes me feel like she doesn’t care to watch my brother’s son grow up, or see my sister have a family and get married; that she doesn’t care that I one day hope to be a good enough writer that I can buy her a house, take her on trips, share in the successes of my life and pay her back for all the things she gave me. When I’ve said how her drinking makes me feel, she simply says, “Alicia, I don’t care about your feelings.” Another one of her oft-repeated lines.

This time, I just said, “Well, I hope that changes. At some point, down the line.”

***

My little sister and I have recently stopped talking in hypotheticals. It’s not “if” something bad happens, it’s “when.” There have been many whens in the past. But as we’ve learned from living with our mother, who, as she recently and proudly declared, has no empathy — and doesn’t want to try, or learn, or change, or do literally anything — she always seems to manage to get by.

Being raised by an alcoholic means adhering to the doctrine that their way is always the right, coherent, logical way — and anyone who doesn’t see that is truly ignorant.

She likes coming home from work and filling her wine glass to the rim. Sometimes she takes a quick sip and refills it, like a liquid amuse bouche. She likes to throw that first glass back within ten minutes of being home, and quickly pour herself another. This one she’ll drink while making dinner for my grandfather and my (sober) uncle. She’ll have her third somewhere between finishing that up and watching them eat. She never partakes of the meal, of course — she’s not hungry, she doesn’t need much, she’s too tired, her throat hurts or is all closed up — and after cleaning up, she grabs another glass of wine and heads upstairs to watch TV and pass out. She often watches the same episodes of shows over and over again, either because she slept through them before, she’s too drunk to remember what happened, or she’s convinced she didn’t see it — even if we watched it together and had a conversation about it an hour earlier. Whenever we speak on the phone, she asks me the same three questions: “When is Frankie and Grace coming back? What about Homecoming? Or my Man in the High Castle?” Every week I explain to her the same information I had before, but it doesn’t matter — something about information no longer sticks.

One time she was drinking and watching TV, and got very confused. She thought what was happening on the screen during The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was actually her work, and the remote was her computer. I was visiting at the time and watched in horror as she tried to use a mouse on her knee that wasn’t there. When I talked to her, she got mad at me, but never really said full words. I took a video and sent it to my sister, terrified. My mom tried to laugh it off when I brought it up the next day. She did the same with my sister. We were being “mean” to our hardworking, tired, old mother, she insisted.

Her day continues around midnight or so; that’s when she eats her aforementioned dinner of cold cuts and a pickle, and given the time difference between us — her now living in South Carolina, I in Los Angeles — it’s often when she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the same three stories over and over and over, my mother re-explaining the context and the details five times per story. I gave up trying to tell her that we’ve already discussed it long ago; it only makes her mad and breaks my heart a little further. I lend an ear mostly because, as she once put it — “I don’t care about your feelings, Alicia: how you feel is your own problem,” — and try to offer soft advice when I can. It’s hard to know the right time, but I’ve gotten better at sussing it out. You have to casually figure out her mood: ask about work, or how mean grampy’s been. We talk about his grief over my grandmother’s recent death, and his own toxic brand of dementia, aided by decades of, yes, compulsive drinking. She can be really hard on him for his drinking, which is always a really complicated, downright farcical battle between the family’s biggest drinkers. If another family member has handled dinner, it helps. It’s even better if they went over to my other uncle and aunt’s house before my mom arrives home: she never goes to those meals, preferring to sit at home, alone, and drink.

Some of the adults in the family have gotten upset with my sister and me because of the rigid stance we’ve taken on the matter, but I’m proud of who we’ve become. We refuse to hurt ourselves more by living a fallacy because my mother refuses help or to try. She thanks her hypervigilant immune system — the thing that gave her alopecia universalis — for somehow keeping her from having hangovers after I remark how odd it is that she’s never once seemed to have one. She wears her functioning alcoholism — as she calls it — as a badge of honor, and letting that be okay hurts literally everyone, and no one is helped.

We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but opening up to each other about this experience has bonded us in a way that nothing has. After decades of being pit against one another in a clamor for my mother’s limited attentions and affections, I’m more thankful than ever for her and the relationship we’ve cultivated. It’s been work, but the frank and honest way in which we can talk to each other and express our feelings is constructive, and it’s evolving into something beautiful and strong. It’s the most precious thing in my life. I love my siblings in a way that borders on parental, for all the reasons you can probably infer as to why.

I think about that woman on the porch often now. I see her pain recede as the glass keeps tipping, but I don’t imagine what she’s thinking, because I know. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, I’ve been told it time and time again. Alcohol makes her feel nothing and that’s all she wants out of life.

* * *

Alicia Lutes is a writer based in Los Angeles, California. Her non-scripted work can be seen at Vulture, Elle, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Well+Good, and more. Previously, she was the creator and host of the web series Fangirling.

Editor: Sari Botton