A couple therapist suggested we go to Alanon. I had never heard of it, nor had my husband, Jim. We are a long-married communicative, openly affectionate couple. Something was going wrong. But what? I am a child of genocide and divorce, my husband is a child of alcoholics and divorce. We understood why we had found each other: lousy, troubled childhoods. But our survival mechanisms had stopped working and were interfering in our relationship. Is one ever prepared for such realizations? I wasn’t and felt like I’d been hit by a 2 x 4. I was so distressed leaving that session that I tripped on a ridge in the sidewalk and fell on my face. My upper lip swelled and split and I chipped one of my teeth.
I went to Alanon meetings, Jim didn’t. During shares I heard the story of his childhood over and over again. But it wasn’t my childhood so why was I there? I couldn’t stomach all the Higher Power jumbo or the holding hands, but there was, as they say in “the program” wisdom in the rooms. I began to understand my brother-in-law, my nephew and my father-in-law. I began to get the “disease,” and accept that alcoholism is a disease, just like cancer or diabetes or mental illness, and that my husband is an ACOA—Adult Child of Alcoholics—and that because we had married so young, I had continued my growing up years in his—alcoholic —family after I had left mine and so I was, in an oblique sense, also affected by alcoholism.
Jim was not a drinker and his father, Harry, was so warm and delightful that I never noticed he had an alcohol “problem.” He took us out to dinner often and I enjoyed his company immensely. I especially enjoyed his love for Jim and his silly jokes. He would always kiss him on top of his head when we arrived and say “top of the nogen.” He completely adored his son and so I adored him. He ordered a drink for himself at dinner—always a cocktail, a Manhattan I recall, not that I even knew what that was. I don’t think Jim and I drank at all when we were with him, maybe an occasional glass of wine or beer. We were students at Berkeley; pot was our drug of choice.
Jim’s stepmother, Rose, insisted on a drink before dinner (a “five o’clock drinker”) but she was so intelligent and interesting, I never paid attention to her desperate insistence for a drink or her slurred speech by 8 p.m. She was mostly an affectionate drunk as was Jim’s father, who had already divorced Rose, his third wife, by the time I met them. They had remained friends and they both loved Jim very much which might have been one reason they had remained friends: to look after him and his older brother, Ron, as best they could. Harry was a well-known journalist and Rose was a social worker who worked with prisoners and was also a very fine painter. I loved talking to her about art and books. She was often irascible, demanding and opinionated, but I didn’t associate any of these characteristics with alcohol. Harry and Rose never stopped being wonderful, interesting people for all the time I had the privilege of knowing them and their heavy drinking didn’t mean anything to me. They were writers, artists. Drinking was part of their culture. It’s just that once they started, they couldn’t stop.
Rose lived to an old age drinking and smoking and painting, but Jim’s father Harry died of Korsakov syndrome, an alcohol-related dementia, in his late 60’s. The last time I saw him standing upright he was pouring a bottle of sherry down his throat and there were bottles in every cupboard and every drawer of his apartment. Alcoholism can be a progressive disease if it continues unchecked by recovery—one reason among many I believe in interventions—and Harry’s “problem” and the ensuing dementia had set in gradually—his job responsibilities at the newspaper where he worked had been downgraded to a rookie’s police-blotter beat—and his once meticulous handwriting had become distorted and messy. We had been living 6,000 miles away in London. Jim was in graduate school and I was teaching. We traveled at every opportunity and were enjoying our lives abroad. Harry was a wonderful correspondent, a vivid writer, and when his letters deteriorated, we decided to fly back to see what was going on. Alcohol was going on. He was saturated. For some inexplicable reason, Jim’s brother, Ron, hadn’t noticed that anything was wrong. He traveled a lot, maybe that was the reason, we said. Or maybe he didn’t care. Ron had always favored his mother and taken her side in the divorce.
My parents met us in San Francisco to help us make logistical decisions about Harry. My mother was a psychiatrist and knew what she was looking at: end-stage alcoholism. I was in shock and so was Jim. Could any one have prevented this? Should we have done more? Was there any hope? If we accept that alcoholism is a disease, how can we let it go without treatment? Would we withhold insulin from a diabetic or chemotherapy from a cancer patient? Of course not. Yet, in America, we seem loathe to cross personal boundaries even when a person may need help, deny that he needs it, or refuse it when it is offered. Out of respect for “self-actualization,” we back away from what may be life-saving interventions.
My mother said that Harry needed to get dried out before a work-up could be done. She had contacts at San Francisco General Hospital and arranged everything, but all her efforts and ours were useless; it was too late. Harry, Jim’s father, my father-in-law, that brilliant, adorable man was finished, his brain damaged beyond repair. We closed down his apartment, put him in a nursing home and returned to London. Months later, Harry’s sister traveled from Seattle to bring him back to his native city where he died a few years later not knowing who or where he was. And though we’d said our farewells , we were heartbroken that he would never get to meet his grand-daughter and kiss her on top of the nogen.
Jim’s mother, Gladys, had died when Jim was thirteen so I never got to meet her. And she was a heavy drinker, too, apparently, and probably also died of alcohol-related problems, but no one in the family used the word “alcoholic” to describe her. When I asked obvious questions—was she drinking when she was pregnant with her boys, for example?—there was usually a puzzled silence. Was there anyone in the family who knew what had happened to her—exactly? After a while, I stopped asking. Gladys was long dead. What good would it do to stir things up, I told myself. Just stop. This wasn’t my family of origin, it was Jim’s. If he wanted to know more about his mother’s illness, that was up to him, right?
Shame, denial and silence. I was learning fast.
There were a few stories that surfaced piecemeal at family gatherings over the years. The most dramatic was the custody battle between Jim’s parents. As the story goes, the judge decided that both were unfit parents. The boys were sent into foster care for a few years in a too-familiar scenario of childhood trauma and abandonment.
Shortly after we returned from London, we took a trip to California to see Jim’s relatives. We stayed in the master bedroom in Jim’s brother’s house in Oakland; Ron was hiding out in his den downstairs. His wife had just left him. Like his father, Harry, Ron was erudite, a wonderful writer, voracious reader and revered journalist. But he was also a drinker. Martinis were his favorite, usually at the end of the day. He was a sports writer and had to stay sharp during a game; he sent copy back as the plays were happening. After the game, he let it rip. As with Harry and Rose, I didn’t understand, at first, that Ron might have a drinking problem, or worse. He was smart, talkative and engaged. He loved his children, they loved him. He turned me on to authors I had never heard of, he read my short stories and commented on them like the pro he was. He gifted me with William Trevor’s short stories, a gift I will never forget. But Jim was wary of Ron’s sharp, sarcastic tongue. He’d been hurt badly by his brother.
It was altogether a difficult visit; Ron was not in good shape emotionally or physically. He refused counseling and blamed his wife for the break-up of their marriage. The use and abuse of alcohol was never acknowledged.
Later, during another trip west, Ron touched me in anger for the first—and last—time . I knew he had man-handled Jim so I was not surprised. Even as a pre-pubescent boy, before the effects of alcohol had taken hold, Ron behaved like an abusive bully, verbally and physically. He stomped on Jim’s head and pushed him and shoved him. When I first heard these stories, I burst into tears. Eventually Jim grew into a strong young man and outgrew his older brother which probably saved him from permanent injury.
My encounter began innocently enough: I was trying to start-up the washing machine. It was new and the dials were confusing. Ron came over to help me and when I wouldn’t move my hand off the dial, he pushed it away forcefully. “You are going to break it,” he said. I took a deep breath and stepped away. I am a tall, athletic woman and I thought in that moment that I could push Ron over with one finger and he would collapse, but I used words instead: “Do not ever touch me again.” I told Jim what had happened and he seemed pleased. It was hard for him to stand up to his brilliant alcoholic brother so I imagained I could do it for him.
Like his father, Harry, Ron died in a nursing home after a long struggle—not with Korsakov’s—but with Parkinson’s disease. Had the Parkinson’s been caused or exacerbated by his drinking? Possibly.
At the memorial in Oakland, Jim delivered a beautiful eulogy for his brother. His description of their childhood was raw; few people had heard it before. Jim cried his way through it. Others got up to tell hilarious stories about the raucous carousing of traveling sportswriters. The abuse of alcohol was portrayed as natural and funny. It was not funny. Drink had destroyed Ron and his marriage, it had affected his kids and created panic in other family members who were worried about the influence Ron—a charismatic man—might have had on their children. We were staying at a cousin’s house and they were mortified that they had allowed their son to get into the car with Ron to go to and from a baseball game that he was covering. Unknowingly, they had imperiled their only child.
How many family members have to become demented, physically ill, or die before the cycle of alcoholism is broken? Before questions are asked and answered? Before the truth is told without shame to protect the next generation? Those are the questions I am asking myself as I write this story. Whether alcoholism is genetically transmitted, learned, or both, makes no difference. However transmitted, it is a real illness and devastating to a family. Recent neurological research has demonstrated that the brain is plastic and that habit formations can be changed, albeit with great effort. This is essentially what the “tools” of AA and Alanon do—they change habits—and for many people they are a lifeline. But they are not the only approach to addiction and alcoholism; there are others. And interventions are one of them.
In New York, where I live, the bar culture reinforces a fashionable, legitimate indulgence in alcohol. Bartenders offer free drinks; they are enablers and dealers. Drinking may increase under the guise of an epicurean interest in wine. Everyone enjoys the expertise of a sommelier, or a collector of unusual wines who brings them out at a dinner party with long explanations about its provenance, the soil in which the grapes were grown, its age. If such a host is addicted to alcohol, no one will be the wiser until, one day, that person becomes ill and is lost to himself, his friends, and his family—forever.
Carol Bergman is a writer living in New York City. Her articles, essays, short stories, poems and creative nonfiction have been published in numerous publications in the US and the UK. “Objects of Desire,” appearing in Lilith and Whetstone Literary Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in nonfiction. “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” was nominated for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She has published a memoir, “Searching for Fritzi,” two books of novellas, “Searching for Klimt,” and “Water Baby,” a murder mystery/thriller, “Say Nothing,” and a novel, “What Returns to Us.” She has been an adjunct professor in the NYU College of Applied and Liberal Arts writing program since 1997. www.carolbergman.net