Growing up with an alcoholic parent
*written: ca. 1990
In the Shadow of the Demon
Growing up with an alcoholic parent
I never stopped loving her -- never even came to hate her. She was my mother. And when the demon was not in her she was a wonderful woman, a mother who cared, who listened, who never belittled me, no matter the nonsense of the words and actions of a young girl in her adolescence.
Her demon was Vodka. It was not so much her crutch, her obsession, as it was her tormentor, her master and her betrayer. It possessed her. She was its obsession.
I remember seeing it in her eyes -- the cold, evil look of the devil. She is mine, those eyes would say. And there is nothing you can do to stop me.
My mother was lost, buried away somewhere beneath the shadow of a demon that thrived on cheap alcohol. And I, having no weapon with which to slay such a beast, could only do what I must to ignore it. By morning it would fly away to its nest somewhere in the depths of Hell, and my mother would come home, perhaps forgetful, perhaps resentful, but always regretful—even as she reached her hand toward that next drink.
In my early childhood, it was easier to ignore the demon. In our first home, where I was of an age with dozens of other children in the neighborhood and so owned the neighborhood as such groupings of children do, I had a thousand places to go, a thousand things to do to occupy both my mind and my time.
But later, when I came into those challenging years of teenage young adulthood, the demon was far more difficult to hide from. We had moved to a new neighborhood, an older neighborhood, where young teenagers were a small minority with limited rule. Before too long both of my older sisters, as soon as they were able, sought new places to hide from the demon, places that were continents and oceans and worlds away from home. And I was left alone.
My father was with me, but he was rarely home. He went to work every day, participated in bowling leagues on weekday nights and sat on the church council, which required more of his time than mere Sunday mornings. He was also a hobbyist photographer, working weekend weddings. He did anything and everything he could to stay away from home. He made sure he had a thousand places to go, a thousand things to do. Even so, he always came home eventually.
* * *
The events of my early life are not all marked by the shadow that stalked my mother. I cannot recall whether or not the demon paid a visit during some key moments in my life, but there are many events which relate exclusively to the demon. These are imprinted in my memories with stark clarity. I have chosen to write about some of those moments now not because I must, but because I finally can. I have lived apart from the demon long enough to finally look upon it without fear or disgust or loathing. Rather, I see it as a presence, an entity that sought to destroy my mother, myself, my family.
* * *
I made a terrible mistake during the summer I turned sixteen. I chose to forego the summer session of the drivers-education program offered by my high-school. I refused to surrender my vacation up north, where I could spend two weeks with old friends in a pleasantly primitive cabin. Drivers-ed would be offered again during the winter. What difference could just a few short months make?
My answer came from in the form of that terrible demon.
Come September I—having failed to earn a place on the tennis team and grown bored with being the “ball girl”—took my first job. I worked in a movie theater in a major shopping mall. It was 1977. There were five screens, and with two of them showing Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars, two major films that almost in themselves defined the era, it was an exciting place to be. My job was made even more exciting because of a young usher who worked there as well, a boy with a football-player physique and dark eyes that often happened to stray my way.
But the theater was far enough from home that I needed a car to get there. I had now to rely on my mother more than ever before.
And this at a time when the demon’s grip on her was stronger than it had ever been before.
As Charles Dickens said, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This was true for me, for that year, 1977.
They were good times because of that young usher, who much later would become my husband and who has almost since our first meeting been my inspiration for reaching toward goals I could never before have even imagined.
They were evil times because of how that demon would make my mother fail me, leaving me to wait at the curb at school for a ride that would not come.
Once, during a terrible snow-storm, I ended up trudging home through deep snow that reached my knees with each step. I arrived home an eternity later, frozen and exhausted, to find my mother all but passed out in the living room, her bone-china tea cup overturned on its delicately painted saucer, the smell of vodka poisoning the innocence of the puddle of tea that had formed there. That laughing demon looked out through her eyes. But the words on her lips were her own.
“I should be dead.” She knew she was losing the battle.
There was another time during a more temperate season when I returned home to find my mother passed out at the steering wheel, without ever having turned the ignition. Thank God, I remember thinking, even as I angrily stomped into the house to call the theater and say I couldn’t make it in to work. Then Thank God again, for my usher, my own knight in shining armor, valiantly came to rescue me astride—or rather inside—his mighty white Camaro.
Of course, my mother did not always pass out so conveniently. I remember a day when she did make it to the school, despite her regular visit with the demon. She proceeded to rear-end three separate cars at three separate intersections. Though they were minor bumps only, causing no damage, I was embarrassed beyond rational thought.
Afterwards came her incessant mumbling. “I should be dead,” combined with a thousand repeated “no's”. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” over and over again. A broken record. A losing battle. And behind it all I would always see a triumphant demon.
* * *
There were times when the battle fell to her favor. She sought help. She went through counseling. She even spent some time in a special re-hab hospital. It was there she met a gentleman friend, a co-conspirator with the demon, a man who actually came to threaten her recovery rather than help it.
One night, late in the winter, after I had finally earned my driver’s license, I came home from work to find the two of them together in the living room. But this was no adulterous rendezvous. There was no romance sparking between the two drunks who sat on opposite sides of the room, conversing in words slurred beyond recognition.
I retreated to the basement, and promptly called my usher-boyfriend to wile away the time and do my best to ignore the demon and its new-found friend. But my escape that night was not to be. I heard a “thump” from upstairs. A moment later, my mother picked up the other extension and mumbled something about 911. Defeated, I hung up the phone and went to investigate.
The man was lying on the floor in front of the door complaining about his heart. My mother had managed to dial 911, but she was incapable of explaining what she needed. Her words were beyond any hope of coherence. More disgusted than concerned about her stricken friend, I grabbed the phone from her, gave the address and described what I saw and what the drunken man had said about his heart.
The dispatcher’s response baffled me. I was asked if drugs were involved.
“No, no. Just alcohol,” I answered.
Two police cars arrived with the ambulance.
As the ambulance prepared to leave, my mother sat in a chair and began to scream, and one of the policemen asked me if they should take her to the hospital also.
“No,” I answered quickly, shocked and embarrassed in my naïveté.
But at some point between the living room and the bedroom, while I struggled to get my mother into bed, I seriously began to wonder whether my answer should have been yes.
* * *
Eventually, there did come a day when I had to say “yes” to an ambulance ride. As so often before, I was home alone with my mother. And since she was drunk, I was doing my best to ignore her—until I heard a loud clatter down the stairs to the basement. I found her at the bottom of the steps, a steady stream of blood falling from her forehead to the floor. She was awake, but certainly not alert. I’m not even sure she was aware of me there with her.
My first foolish thought was to take her to the hospital myself, but I lacked the strength to even get her to a standing position, let alone lead her back up the stairs and out to the car. I had no choice but to call for an ambulance. Then I waited alone in the hospital's waiting room, half watching an episode of Charlie's Angels until my dad finally got the message to meet me there. It was an era before cell phones, after all.
* * *
There were other incidents, at other times. Holidays were no exception. I apologized to my oldest sister one Christmas Eve. She was visiting with her new family. It’s not fair for the demon to destroy this special occasion, I realized. And I apologized, as though the demon was something I might have some degree of control over.
My sister’s reaction to that apology was completely unexpected.
“My mother’s dead,” she said with a careless shrug.
Dead? I thought. She’s not dead. She’s locked away in there somewhere, screaming for a help we can’t provide, struggling to survive in a battle with a demon we can’t even touch.
My sister had escaped, all right. She had run as fast and as far away as she could. In her mind, perhaps her mother truly was dead.
But my mother was not dead.
There were times when she was still there, when she was herself, completely apart from the demon. For every time I rushed home from school to read her a new poem I had written or to share some exciting news only to find her lost behind those cold and hated eyes, there were other times when she was able to listen and smile, or better yet, shed a tear of emotion from the impact of the words I had written.
When I ran, I ran from the demon, not from my mother.
It was the times when she was herself that made me able to face those times when she was not.
* * *
Eventually, my mother beat the demon.
I can’t remember the day, or even the year she waged her last battle and finally proclaimed her victory. There is a new home and a new life now, a life so far removed from that other I could almost believe the demon had never existed at all.