This is going to be a bit longer than most of my blogs, but I hope you will bear with me.
A few weeks ago I was asked to share my testimony with a group of recovering addicts because I am an adult child of an alcoholic. I had never really sat down and written out my testimony, partly because for a long time I viewed my story about my father’s struggle with alcohol as more my mother’s story, since it is her faith and prayers that, I truly believe, brought my father and our family through those difficult years. I have come to realize however, that, although her faith and prayers were vital, it is just as much my story, and my brothers’ story, each from our own perspective. So, I decided that it was time I shared my story. I did so verbally, at that recovery center meeting, and I will do so now in writing. I don’t expect it will be the last time for either format.
I am the oldest of four siblings, the other three being boys, 2 of whom are twins. I am 3 years older than the twins, 4 1/2 years older than our youngest brother. Through most of my growing up years my father was a pastor in the United Methodist Church. We moved frequently, on average, every 2-3 years until Daddy left the ministry when I was about 15, which was when what my brothers and I call “the bad years” began, the worst of his struggle with alcohol. The drinking actually started some years before that, but the boys and I knew nothing about it for many years. My parents hid it from us, which is not uncommon in alcoholic families.
When I was in 7th grade – about 11 years old (I skipped a grade in elementary school, was held back for a second time through 7th grade, so I actually graduated at the usual age) – my father took what we were told was a sabbatical from the ministry for about a year and a half. The truth was he was unofficially suspended because of a serious DUI/DWI accident he was involved in. After that year and a half he thought he had things under control and was allowed to return to ministry and assigned a church. Unfortunately, again, not uncommonly, his drinking was not under control, although it was still kept secret. We were at that church for 2 years then he was moved to another church in another city (not related to the alcoholism – the Methodist church makes a practice of moving pastors around, although not as frequently now as was done when I was growing up). Some span of time after that last move – it may have been as much as a year and a half, or maybe less, I’m not sure – it became impossible to keep his drinking a secret and he left the ministry permanently.
The first evidence of all not being well was when he ran away and arranged things at his office at the church to make it appear he had been kidnapped. I think he was gone for less than 24 hours when someone – I’m not sure if it was the police or friends – found him and brought him home. He had been drinking, of course, but my brothers and I still knew nothing of that, yet. Not long after that was when he left the ministry entirely. We moved again, but this time it was only next door, so the boys and I stayed in the same schools. Daddy stopped going to church, but the rest of the family still attended. I had begun going to youth group at a different church from where Daddy was pastor because there was no real youth group at that church because it was so small. When Daddy left the church and quit even attending, the rest of the family began attending the church where I had already begun participating in the youth activities.
At some point after that, I’m not sure how long, all hell broke loose regarding Daddy’s drinking. He came home roaring drunk, loud and angry. My brothers and I had no idea what was wrong, only that something was, and badly! My mother took Daddy into their room and tried to calm him down and asked me to call a neighbor for help. I was on the phone in the hallway outside their room when I heard her call out for help in a very strained and thready voice, calling my name. I dropped the phone – after quickly asking our neighbor to come quickly, something was wrong with Daddy – and hurried into their room to find Daddy’s hands around Mama’s throat. He was trying to strangle her – and he admitted, much later, that he had been trying to kill her. That night was the first of the miracles that I believe God performed in the lives of our family. I was only 15 or 16 years old, yet I – a terrified teenage girl – was able to pull the hands of a grown man away from the throat of the wife he was intent on killing. I have heard that the hands are the last part of the body to lose strength and coordination when one is drunk. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I do know that, under normal circumstances, I should not have been able to do what I did. My world exploded that night. I’ve never before or since been as scared as I was then.
The neighbor called the police and some other friends and while he and they were restraining Daddy, the rest of the family went over to his house. That is when my brothers and I learned that Daddy was drunk, he had been before, and it was a serious problem that the family was going to have to deal with. Daddy was taken off to jail and detox. When we returned to our house it looked like a tornado had blown through it. We had several large bookcases full of books in the living room. They were thrown down and books were all over the house. My parents had a large, solid wood desk in their room near the bedroom door. It had been thrown across the room, over their bed, and halfway out the window on the opposite side of the room. I don’t remember how long he was in jail and detox, but apparently Mama did not press any charges, because before too long Daddy was home again.
After that, periodically Daddy would come home drunk. He couldn’t keep a job for any length of time. Daddy was a binge drinker, not a few drinks each evening type of drunk. He would go for days, weeks, even sometimes a month or two without drinking, but once he took that first drink he couldn’t stop. My father is normally a mild, gentle man, but when he drank he turned mean. He was never physically abusive to us kids. I don’t think he ever was physically abusive toward Mama after that first time, although I don’t know that for certain. But he would say mean, hurtful things to all of us; say awful things to Mama, call her dreadful names. It felt like we were always walking on eggshells around him. We didn’t know what might set him off to go on a drinking binge, or, if he was already drinking, what would trigger one of his rages and start the verbal abuse. Somewhere in there he ran away again. This time he was gone for a while. To me it seemed like it was 2 or 3 months, but they tell me it was only 2 or 3 weeks. When he came back, they began talking divorce. I lost it. I remember crying and yelling at them that they couldn’t do this to us! I doubt it was any of my doing, but they didn’t talk divorce any more.
My memories of those years are very jumbled. It was only 2 or 3 years, the worst of it. I date things by where we lived,so the actual time span is hazy. I remember that money was very tight because Daddy couldn’t keep a job. One Christmas we had very little food in the house and I remember the pastor coming over with his Volvo full of food for us. I think we got the entire proceeds of that year’s Christmas food drive at the church. We ate on that food for weeks. There was an article written about my mother in a newspaper, years later, where they lived at that time, and in the article Mama was quoted as saying she had broken down and cried in the file room of her workplace because my brothers were wanting bicycles for Christmas so they could get paper routes to help out, but she didn’t even have the money to pay the bills. Another miracle that took place was in that time frame when we weren’t evicted from our rental house for non-payment of rent, since we were months behind (of course, I didn’t know that then). I was a senior in high school by that time, and had enough credits I was able to go to class for only half a day so I could get a job to help out. But I couldn’t find a job. I remember numerous times acting as a communications go between for my parents. I would listen to one and then go to the other and try to help them understand what the other was feeling and thinking, when they couldn’t seem to make themselves understand one another in face to face conversation. I remember wondering and crying out in my heart, “What happened to my Daddy, Where is my Daddy?”, because this mean, horrid man certainly wasn’t the kind and loving Daddy I knew. It was terrifying to realize that my Daddy, the hero I had always looked up to, believed could do anything, knew everything, was struggling so, was so weak and out of control. Yes, teens always push against the boundaries, say they don’t believe their parents know anything or understand anything, but deep down, there is still the child’s belief in the parent (provided there was a good foundational relationship to begin with), and it shakes the world to find out otherwise.
Daddy went away to a residential treatment center for a while – I don’t remember if it was for 3 or 6 month. After that, things seemed to get better, but the reprieve was short term. I went away to college, thinking things were all better. I planned a surprise for Christmas. The date I had told my family I would be coming home for the holidays was actually a week later than I would be able to come home (I had misunderstood something I had read in the school catalog, but I didn’t tell them when I learned of my mistake). Since I was getting a ride home from another student, they didn’t have to come get me – I just showed up at the door one evening. The surprise was all I had hoped for! Until Daddy went out and got drunk later that weekend. I was devastated. I had thought he was all better, then I come home and he goes out and gets drunk! What did I do? Was it my fault? Of course, it wasn’t. My mother and brothers told me he had been drinking again, more than once, since I had gone to school. They just hadn’t wanted to worry me, so didn’t say anything. I knew in my head it had nothing to do with me, or the timing of my getting home, but, oh, I sure felt like it was my fault somehow.
Somehow, probably some government program, the family was able to get into a house of our own that first year I was away at school. Daddy’s drinking continued, in binges, as before. The new house had a fireplace. More than once I remember Mama cautioning him to stop putting so much wood in the fireplace, he was going to burn the house down. More walking on eggs, wondering what would set him off.
I’m not sure if it was in the spring of that same school year, or more likely the next year, that Daddy entered another treatment program, this one in our local hospital. Since it was local, the family was able to attend some of the family classes,although I couldn’t, being away at school. I was able to attend one, when I was home for spring break, I think. That’s when I learned about the biological component of alcohol addiction, which I had never hear of before. Although the money ran out, so Daddy wasn’t able to complete that particular program, apparently he got whatever it was he needed to turn the corner. He slipped a few more times after that, but has now been sober for almost 30 years. Praise God!
I haven’t mentioned much “spiritual” stuff in this summary, but God had his hand on our family this whole time. I had accepted Christ as my savior in the little church where Daddy had been serving the first time he left the ministry, when I was 10 or 11. I’m not sure when each of my brothers made their own decision, but I do know they did. We didn’t lose our home. God provided us food to eat. Mama had steady work, even if Daddy didn’t. Instead of tearing our family apart, as it easily could have done, the whole experience strengthened the bonds between us that are still close, even though we live in different geographic areas. Statistically, at least one, probably more, of us kids should have had major issues – acting out, discipline problems, drug or alcohol problems, or other things. We didn’t, not one of us. All four of us graduated high school as honor students, including one of my brothers who is dyslexic (although he wasn’t “diagnosed” until in college, when he began dating his now wife, who was training for teaching). All four of us have continued to grow and serve in our faith – 2 of my brothers are ordained ministers, as now my mother is also (she entered seminary, then ministry, beginning in her late 50s). Daddy eventually reconciled with the church and now is active in various lay capacities in the church where my mother serves as visitation pastor.
All four of us kids have had various issues, relating to being part of an alcoholic family as children and youth. We are still healing and dealing with them as middle aged adults. I know I have self-esteem and control issues. Although I don’t know what all my brothers’ issues are, I know they have them, because they have said so. Alcoholism – any addiction – is a family disease. I learned, years after the “bad years”, that my grandfather and great-grandfather were both alcoholics. I hadn’t known that growing up. We have a couple of cousins, on my fathers’ side, that have their own struggles with alcohol.
By God’s grace my family stayed, not only whole, but was made stronger through Daddy’s struggle with alcohol. My father has testified that he KNOWS God forgives, because he experiences that forgiveness daily in and through his family. We forgave him for the hell he put us through. Mama forgave him for trying to kill her. I forgave him for putting me through the trauma of having to stop my own father from killing my mother. If we, as mere humans, can forgive, as we have, God surely forgives even more.
That’s my story. I hope it gives you hope and enables you to see how God can work through even the worst of situations, and bring forth good.