I Am a Child of an Alcoholic.
I remember the moment I discovered my dad was an alcoholic.
Ironically, it wasn’t one of the nights he fell asleep in the TV room chair after drinking too much. It wasn’t the millionth time I ran to get his after work drink when he was settled in that same lazy boy chair – two fingers of Canadian Club whiskey on ice. It wasn’t when I realized I knew how to make every main mixed drink and some not so mainstream by the time I was nine. It wasn’t watching him have three drinks before dinner, followed by a bottle of wine at dinner, and then an after-dinner drink. And it wasn’t even when I picked him up drunk from his favorite piano bar to take him home.
It was when my therapist I was seeing in my mid 20’s asked me when I knew my dad was an alcoholic. And my response was: “What do you mean? My dad’s not an alcoholic.” To which he looked dumbfounded at me, recounting all the stories I had shared. And said to me, “Your dad is an alcoholic”. Holy shit!
I just never knew there was a word for it. I thought that was just my life, and the way my dad was. For me, at that moment, understanding my father was an alcoholic was more than finally having a word for it. It was the moment I started reclaiming my self-esteem because it helped me realize there was not something fundamentally wrong with “me”. That none of it had been about me.
Many years later after a LOT more therapy, self-discovery and hard work, I can now talk about this in the same way I can talk about other personal characteristics of my father. He had brown hair and eyes. He had an amazing laugh. He was a great dancer and had a beautiful singing voice. He taught me how to be a business person. And he was an alcoholic.
That last part, being an alcoholic, taught me what I did not want to be.
I recently had a conversation where someone asked me how I was different from my dad. I chose to answer that by first sharing how I was similar to him. Like him, I see no difference in people if they are a janitor or a CEO. He taught me everyone deserves the same respect and humanity. Thanks to that, I’ve never been intimidated by someone who is rich or powerful. Although I have also found I would often rather spend time with the janitor than the CEO.
I love music and singing like my dad. I love fast cars. I love a good steak and red wine. I love fixing things and solving problems for others. I’m sure there is much more.
But how I’m different, more importantly, is that I’m not an alcoholic. Which means I’m not a narcissist. Because alcoholics, even recovered ones typically, still see the world revolving around them. They need constant validation and approval from the outside. And this lack of self-worth or esteem is why children of alcoholics grow up waiting to be told they are good enough or that the alcoholic is proud of them. To say so would take away the alcoholics worth, or at least in their mind.
Believe me, that does not mean I have not acted selfishly during my life. I’ve done some horribly selfish things and hurt people, and most of the time it was because I was searching for external validation or love. I was not able to feel “good enough” on my own, so I did stupid things to try to feel that validation from others. Always a slippery slope.
I am so thankful that I had my children because having children is what really motivated me to improve my own self-image. I didn’t want my children to feel the way I felt. I was so focused on helping my children develop strong self-esteem and a strong sense of self, because it was something that evaded me for so long, and something I knew fundamentally humans need to have. To feel grounded in who they are – and to feel they are perfect and good just the way they are. Seems so simple, but it is so very hard.
Because of this, it thrills me when I see my children take a stand for who they are. To take risks and to know what they want. These are amazing feats to me. And I am quick to always tell them how proud I am of them. Because I am. And that doesn’t take away from me – in fact, the truth is being proud of others actually gives you more strength, even sometimes through humility.
That is perhaps one of the biggest lessons. That having humility or being wrong doesn’t take away your self-worth. It actually builds MORE worth. In being humble and in admitting you are wrong, you learn more about yourself, and you stop trying to be right all the time. It just means you’re human – not a lesser person.
For whatever reason, so many people find giving validation and love difficult. But it is the number one thing every person I’ve met on the planet needs. We cannot say “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” or “Great job!” enough. Sure, some people might need it more than others, but everyone needs it. Even the CEO needs to hear “great job” or “I’m proud of you”.
Because children of alcoholics don’t receive this validation, they often turn out to be overachievers. Always pushing to be the best, because then, and only then, will they finally hear those words “you are good enough” or “I’m proud of you”. At some point, being a high achiever just becomes who you are, and I’m not sure it’s still tied up in the child waiting for validation, because it’s all you’ve ever known. All of my siblings are overachievers, as are most children of alcoholics I’ve met.
So, I take that as one of the good things from my experience. There are many ways I can handle my father’s alcoholism. I could be angry, sad, or victimized. And I’m sure I’ve had all those emotions at certain times in my life. But thanks to great counselors, a lot of books, self-work, and my children and other loved ones, I choose to forgive him and forgive myself for being who we are and were.
My father passed in 2003, and I was surprised at the time I was saying goodbye to him, as he lie there in the hospital bed, that I said “I was sorry” and “I was proud of him”. Both are true. I am sorry he suffered from this horrible disease and wasn’t able to fully live life and had his life cut short because of the disease. And I was and am incredibly proud of him. He was an amazing, successful man.
I know I am a lot like him in many ways. Just not in one. I am not an alcoholic. And for that, I am grateful.