by Anne P. (Munro 2005)
Ladies and gentlemen, please direct your attention to today’s subject. Observe our middle-aged female alcoholic in recovery. She is a wife, mother of two young children, educated, capable, somewhat witty.
Based on our knowledge of her family history, her babyhood was “sweet’,” safe, normal, happy. Numerous black and white photographs reveal smiling mother, father, and two older brothers directing their attention towards our subject, an unsuspecting and somewhat overdressed infant. The environment is apparently happy. Very, very apparently happy.
As we step forward into our subject’s future as a child, we encounter more photographs of a little girl cradling a doll, a guinea pig, a kitten, a peanut butter sandwich. She is smiling and posing for the camera, still somewhat overdressed and apparently happy. Very, very apparently happy.
Yes, the apparently happy subject is me. And the question I’m trying to answer is: given all this apparent happiness and idyllic childhood, how did I end up an alcoholic?
I’ve struggled with an addiction to alcohol. I used alcohol to find strength, relief, courage and self-acceptance, to enable me to feel at ease with people, to enter into relationships with them yet deny that I cared about any of them. I’ve experienced self-loathing, despair, shame and a rage that felt as though it came out of nowhere.
What wounds could I have sustained during the course of my apparently happy past that I would seek such a devastating remedy? None of us know precisely what happened to us during the first few months of life. We can only make assumptions and, from what I am told, I was loved and cared for; there should be no wounds of attachment.
However, as I learn more about the attachment theory of addiction, and since I have myself become a mother, I question the definition of attachment. What if an outward show of attachment towards the infant does not necessarily coincide with the behaviour of the primary caregiver? What if the caregiver has a very low tolerance for crying, displays of anger, disappointment and fear? What if appearing happy is more important to the caregiver than feeling happy or, in fact, feeling anything at all?
As a teenager, the effect of coming across as happy, of not showing other, more “negative” emotions, started to take its toll. If you were to meet me, you’d have discovered a polite, well-behaved teen growing up in a good home. A happy home. Anger, loneliness, fear, disappointment, sadness were not only unbecoming, but they were unwarranted. I was strong, smart, pretty, and happy because I was supposed to be.
I realize now that my limbic system (the part of the brain that filters our experiences into “safe” or “dangerous” and decides how to react) was constantly seeking its “fight or flight” response. And I was not prepared to “fight” anything; it was in my nature only to “flee.” As a result, I became increasingly quiet as I turned more and more inward throughout high school. I began to experience bouts of anxiety that were as powerful as the bouts of depression that would hit me like a rock. It was becoming increasingly difficult to appear happy, so when I couldn’t, I just didn’t appear at all.
That’s when I discovered alcohol – just in time for me to enjoy a little bit of high school and catapult me nicely into higher education. My limbic system and I suddenly experienced relief. My “fight or flight” impulses were resolved; there was nothing to fight and nothing from which to flee. Drinking helped me care so little about looking happy or acting happy, but the best part was that I actually felt happy. I also felt all the other things I was supposed to be: strong, smart and pretty. And all it took was some cheap wine from the grocery store.
If you met me ten years later, you would have encountered a graduate, seeking work, seeking love, seeking fulfillment. Alcohol had become one of my closest allies. It was more central in my mind than I allowed it to appear in my behaviour, but it was also so common among my peers that it didn’t seem unusual or problematic. Alcohol was fun, but more importantly, necessary for the regular functioning of my life.
If you met me again in another ten years, as I was approaching 40, you would have found a very different, more desperate, situation. My social life was less vibrant and more and more of my drinking became covert and private. Relationships were challenging and I often felt I was better off alone anyway. I felt I had regressed back to my life as a teenager where appearing happy was getting harder and feeling happy was impossible. Being sober was painful but, soon, so was being drunk. Alcohol was still my steadfast companion, but it had become unreliable and mean.
Then I entered the rooms of Renascent and AA. Within their walls, I observed healing and learning. My limbic system was challenged to respond to events and experiences differently. Eventually, it started to be “reprogrammed” as I followed the steps and kept coming back. Renascent allowed me the time and space to begin the process, and the philosophy of AA offered me a new standard by which to live. I temporarily replaced my dependency on alcohol with AA and its meetings. The messiness of AA and its members was hard to deal with at first. But AA doesn’t demand that I “appear” any way in particular and I discovered that I can be pretty messy too.
Today, my relationships all have their foundation in AA. They are strong, meaningful and genuine. Interestingly enough, I struggle sometimes with the need for my children to appear happy. I understand why; if my children are happy, it means I’m a good mother/person, right? I check myself. I want my children to be able to feel, express and manage their emotions in a healthy, constructive way and I know that they will learn most effectively by watching me deal with mine.
The answer to the question I posed earlier – with such a “happy” childhood, how did I end up an alcoholic? – doesn’t matter, ultimately. The challenges that I encounter today help me to understand my history, which in turn leads me toward greater insights for the future.
I stop to remind myself, however: this moment right now is the most important moment for me and my children. Though it will be no one’s fault if they do, I would prefer if they didn’t end up the subject of an article in a recovery magazine.