When I was a little child my dad died and my mum got married once again. I didn’t know or remember my dad so naturally my stepfather took his place, and that was a new family – my parents and children – me and my 7 years older sister. Going back to childhood memories is like looking through a faded, old photo album, some photos are bleary, sometimes I wonder if it is the right album. The only thing that makes me realize that all this was real is my fear to open it.
While carrying on my therapy I managed to close many chapters of my album. I remember very well one meeting, when we were supposed to draw a picture of our “ideal” childhood, which we’d like to have, and a picture of the real one. Then we had to say goodbye to an ideal one and throw it away. Because it is irreversible, it is necessary to accept the real version of child years. Then I felt pain, sadness, anger. I asked myself why it happened to me, why can it be better, not so hard. Much later I thought that it could be better, in time, but only if I concentrate on what there will be instead of the past.
When I look back at myself from the past I still pity this little girl who was trying so hard, who wanted to be loved more. And another realization, this time from church retreat, that I must begin to care about others, love them, or else I will never experience anything good, but how to start when there’s no idea how. I’ve always cared for people, but I was terrified of rejection, when someone didn’t call for few days then I automatically assumed that this person did not care about me , that it all was not worth trying, that I had to quickly back away, close and stay in my shell, so nothing and no one could hurt me.
Today’s experiences as a wife and as a mother has changed my scheme. It amaze me that one look of innocent eyes, greeting with someone I love can bring so much happiness, I am amazed by my children, so trusting, that their parents will not do them any harm. Even after my screams they come to me to hug. They unfreeze me, teach me to trust. Maybe that is why I’m so fascinated by all 3 of them, thank God for them. I also thank God for my husband, who had to fight for me first, convince me, that his love is a permanent decision, and even when we argue, we frustrate, stress about problems of day-to-day life, we look for consensus, we do it together. Why is it so important to me? It is because when I was a child I was not sure if I meant something for people closest to me.
My father was mainly drinking, looking for money for alcohol, lying to himself and others that he could stop if he only wanted. “I drink but I can stop at any time, and you are stupid and you will remain that way” – I knew that sentence by heart.
Mum was always busy trying to reach financial stability, encouraging her husband to quit drinking. During sobriety moments she was in seventh heaven but when dad drank she screamed, threatened, begged, but at the same time she was solving his problems and lying to others, covering for him. I think there was simply no place for emotional relations with children left. Our primary obligation was not to cause any problems and together with my sister we were doing everything we could to meet those expectations. Our efforts were not rewarded, but one slip such as bad grade or misbehavior was enough to throw accusations about us giving them reasons to scream and drink. I heard invective, swearing but worst of all was to hear that I was a bad daughter, a nail in her coffin, or even that I was no longer her daughter, that she disowned me. I was beaten but such words were much worse, they have never gone away. Till this day my relation with my mother is very difficult.
Jokingly (although it is a silly joke), I say he can’t fling me out from the apartment because I have nowhere to go to, even my mum does not want me. And those are not only words, after our arguments she does not speak to me for a very long time, she does not call, she does not visit me. She is offended, she blames me for saying or doing something wrong. After a while she becomes loving mum and grandma again, it is a sort of a cycle of violence and feelings, that she misses after leaving her husband. I have started to write about the end, it is time to come back to the beginning.
My stepfather had abused alcohol since I remember. At first I didn’t perceive it as a problem, I often wondered why mum was yelling, but after such situations we received crayons and mum got flowers so everything was alright again. That changed when I went to primary school.
First feeling I recall is embarrassment that kids from school might say my drunk dad lies in front of our block because it sometimes happened. When he had a really bad alcohol crave he was drinking while walking on the street, when he could not even leave home, he called passers-by through the window, give them money and ask to buy alcohol for him – some of them brought back alcohol, some of them took money and did not come back.
I was also afraid that neighbors would come asking to take him home – I was 7 years old then, how was I suppose to do that? Sometimes I was sent to get his wallet to regain any money that he had left (frisking my stepfather’s pockets was common – we were real masters in it, and he was a master in hiding this money from us – he could even put it in a special little pocket in his underwear – it was very inventive). Once he came drunk to parents meeting at school. Kids were laughing about it but fortunately their parents didn’t say whose father he was.
I was too embarrassed so I never invited other children to my house. I remember one time, it was in secondary school, when my friends came unexpectedly to my house on my birthday, my stepfather was sleeping after drinking but he woke up and threw everybody out. I was very mad at him and so embarrassed.
My friends just left and never talked about it. At that time I had enough of it all, we were all bothered by his drinking. There were no more flowers and crayons, instead there were few-days bar raids, bill for damages he had done when he drank, no money for clothes and school trips, seamless saving, louder fights. I was like a well-trained gundog – just from the smell of the air at home or one face expression I could guess what was happening. If there was calm before the storm something had to be done quickly. If it wasn’t too late then some good word, a hug or happy news about a good grade could help to avoid the fight, cheer mum up, if it was too late, all I could was to eat something quickly and go outside to other kids, or close in my room.
I was trying to be the perfect child, so no one would scream at me, to please everybody, to help. But no one noticed it, since everything that mattered was if my stepdad was drinking or not. I don’t recall being praised, I felt more and more lonely and unacknowledged (I could not name it at that time). Mum’s bad mood and drunk father was enough to start a fight. Sometimes I was beaten, few times with bruises, which also made me feel embarrassed at school. Last time I was beaten very hard was when I was in 3rd class of primary school, my father pulled me out from a bathroom (I was washing myself) and hit me with his belt. Wet body is bruised easier so I had many bruises the next day, even on my neck.
At school I explained that at my grandmother’s house I was playing with a cat and it scratched me – nothing better came to my mind. The worst of it was, that my mum, even when she cleaned my with grain alcohol, didn’t say that my father did something wrong, she did not stop him, she did not comfort me and now she says that she doesn’t remember it. Such situations took place few times and I was always the one to blame and I was giving him the reasons to punish me in that way. The punishment was never adequate to my wrongdoing but it was a form of releasing the tension and frustration. It might have been connected with alcohol, though I remember that father was not always drunk when he did that.
In my memories my drunk stepfather was rather placid, he would usually go to sleep. He became aggressive when he was sober and someone was telling him that he was doing wrong, that he should go to therapy or that he was an alcoholic. At that time I had felt a huge resentment because of my mother. She was not supportive at all. Her whole world turned around my stepfather. Tired, frustrated mother screamed, put me down, her words caused more pain than father’s belt.
In secondary school I had enough – I started to ebel, my solution to the problem was to avoid being home. After school I often traipsed, I stayed for nights at my friends houses, just to be at my home as little as possible. I think we have all suffered because of my father but we never talked about it, didn’t support each other. For my mother it was just a continuation because she also grew up with an alcoholic stepfather, so aggressive that they had had to hide knives from him and run away from home, and who eventually hanged himself. When I tried to complain she used to say that she had 100 times worse situation. And that was the truth, her and grandma’s stories showed that my grandfather was a real monster when he was drinking. Besides, grandma was an angel for me, she appreciated me, showed much love, she was interested in me and was very proud of me. I owe her a lot, something good inside me that gives me strength now.
My grandma had many children, she loved them all and was proud of them, even though her sons as adults also abused alcohol (two of three her sons were alcoholics), she often mentioned how good children they were. Grandma is for me an example of loving mother, relish having each child, even if situation was unfavorable. In secondary school I could already shout from powerlessness and anger, I could hurt with words or even hit my father when he was drunk. Slowly I have become the person I did not want to be.
All my teenager years I played a game “everything is ok”, mum used to call father’s work saying he was ill, asking not to lay him off. We never told anyone, even grandma, that something was wrong, that was a taboo. On the outside we were an average family, although neighbors would have had to be deaf not to hear constant fighting. Grandma knew what was happening, she guessed, as kids we have often spent few days at her place but she have rarely come to visit us. In fact, only for first communions, problems with legs were her excuse – “then we will come to you”. My mum have complained to my grandma few times but she never received enough support, grandma said that Andrzej – my stepfather- was a good husband and she had much worse (history repeats itself, again someone had worse and so present situation was acceptable). I remember that shame was displaced by anger and loneliness.
I wanted to have friend who would be very bad or an “exclusive” person, who would fulfill all my needs. I was a little bit like an ivy for my friends, at the same time I did not believe that I can be important for them so I backed away, over and over again. I also had depressed moods, things that are hard for every teenager meet problems of alcoholic’s family. I started to smoke, going to parties with alcohol and drugs, I tried them but I was also afraid that this way of living would destroy me. The fear that this could destroy me, saved me from such lifestyle. That feeling and also my perfectionism and effort not to show to people my weaknesses. Mum sensed that something was not right, she said that she did not like me being outside all the time but she didn’t have serious reasons to criticize – I was a very good student, I hardly ever came home faded. Today I am abstainer – for almost 10 years, not because I hate alcohol but because I wanted to try lead my life in a different , interesting way like the other abstainers I know. I realize that I do not need alcohol for anything, and because of my background it may be dangerous for me.
I think I was very lucky to meet young people with similar experience. It was a shock for me when my friend shared her experiences with me – she had respected father, who drunk at home all the time. It was after some fight at my house when I asked her if I could stay for the night, at that time she had already worked and lived alone. Monika guessed that something was wrong and told me her story – she opened a new door for me called therapy. After finishing secondary school I went to university and started therapy, long and difficult process to face everything I had experienced and I had to deal with image of my childhood and my family that I’ve created.
What did it give me? A lot I can say:
- knowledge about living in a family with alcohol problem, chaos can be put together like puzzles,
- I am looking at mother and father from a different angle now – they gain human faces, today I see that there were also good things, time spending with my sober father (there were not so few of them – I remember him teaching me riding bicycle, bringing some yeast-cakes, once after heavy drinking, him asking about my studies), now I see and appreciate my mother’s efforts to keep a normal life going, her hard times and hopes for a normal family. I would like my mum to start some kind of therapy, something that would show her that life can be full of happiness and she has an influence on what is going on…but it is her life and I am not the person to set things straight…,
- slowly, I freed myself from this vicious circle of drinking and not-drinking, and this changed my whole family life, my sister was the first to move out – she has grown up, then me and my mum at last as well,
- I changed my thinking about myself, it impacted my decisions, I continued what I had started, I did not abandon my resolutions, I was firmer, while making a decision I considered my needs and not only the good of my family, I improved my self-assessment.
My father still drinks – he is now a wreck, he cannot walk, his skin is always livid, alcohol suppresses pain caused by digestive system, his mother takes care of him, but she really hurts because of his drinking. Since I moved out, I have seen him only once, when I went to show him my first daughter. He keeps in touch with my mum, however this relation is difficult now. Mum still holds in all those memories, sometimes she blames me for everything. In such situation I refer to higher power, I confide things I cannot change in God, I committed him all my life, I thank him for every experience because it formed me and allowed me to appreciate what I’ve got, I understand people better, I can work with them, I am a trained pedagogue.
I want to mention few more things. First of all, as a family we tried couple of times to get father a compulsory treatment, first the case was remitted by Alcoholic Problems Commission – I don’t know if we made any mistake, but it was very painful for me and after that I stopped making any effort for my father. I was very angry then, people who were supposed to be helpful in that matters were not able to do so, and I was too embarrassed to start again the whole procedure. Today I don’t even remember exactly why we, as a family, aborted this process, I guess it was because we weren’t united in this idea, we weren’t ready to change our whole lives – sometimes sticking to old is easier – changes require strength, patience and endurance…
After second legal case (on stepfather mother’s motion), he was directed to compulsory treatment. After completing the treatment he went back to drinking right away. It also shows that drinking person’s will to change is necessary. Father has said many times that he couldn’t see any purpose, that he didn’t have anyone and anything to stop drinking for. Yes, we left him because we could live like that any longer. My grandmother spoke to stepfather’s doctor and he said that they were helpless because he wasn’t willing to change anything.
Secondly, before I started therapy I’d always fancied men who drank or teetered on the norm edge, I felt comfortable in that sort of relations and I was convinced that I could do better than my mum. I can’t tell how it happened, in the crowd I could always spot this one guy, after a while all those relationships come to an end, it was always me who was leaving. Today I perceive it as form of God’s protection. I was praying for a good husband – through the intercession of St. Józef. After therapy I was alone for some time, although I wanted to have a family very much. I met my husband during therapy, I was working in Women Affected by Violence Centre run by nuns at that time.
My husband gave there self-defense classes. At the beginning I didn’t imagine him as my future husband but we started to date and became close, I was fascinated by his morals, faith, his worldview, he didn’t drink, he seemed like an interesting person. And although he has never declared himself as an abstainer, alcohol just doesn’t fit his lifestyle – sport, travels, work and now family, mainly children. I really appreciate that I haven’t seen my husband drunk. Now I know that my husband is not perfect, I’m also not, but my marriage has given me peace and happiness. Most of all I appreciate this confidence that despite the problems I’m always his loved wife, and I’m never put aside.
Am I seeing the effects of growing-up in an alcoholic family today? – yes. I have a very strong empathy – I always sense other people’s mood, that is very useful, especially for someone working with people. But sometimes moods of others affect me causing stress and inner anxiety, just like home once. Besides, my profession is an effect of my previous experiences – studies and then addiction prevention programs, centre for women affected by violence, casework. But there are also bad habits, my short-temper, I shout and get offended in arguments, I tend to run away from difficult situations rather than face them. Maybe I could write more but I have enough of this time travel. I am going to make myself some coffee, cook dinner, after that I’m going for a walk with my children, I will wait for my husband, I think I will hug him tighter today and then I will thank God for being there. Exalted – maybe, I’ve always had this tendency, my papers at school were sometimes labeled by “too exalted” note. This time, though, it is my real life.
Translated by Joanna Bonecka