More on the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’m 15 years old and it’s Friday night. My parents have just told me they have a great idea: Instead of the family trip to Boston we had planned, a big city 2.5 hours away with museums, subways, restaurants, amazing record and book stores and all other manner of excitement, they’ve come up with a new plan:

Let’s drive 20 minutes away to a hotel. We’ll rent a room. You and your brother (then 5) can have fun playing in the pool and then we’ll invite your uncle and aunt over to have a party.  This is, needless to say, not the weekend I had hoped for.

We pack our bags – not so much now as we’re only going down for a night and if we forget anything we can be home in 30 minutes and go to the hotel. We order pizza and do, indeed play in the pool.  My uncle and aunt come over and they bring beer, rum and coke.  They turn on the TV and the party starts.

My brother and I watch TV while the rest of our family drinks.  He goes to sleep and soon after, so do I.  Or at least I try to. Instead, though, my family gets louder. As my brother and I try to go to sleep, the conversations turn.  

While I lie there pretending (and trying really hard) to sleep, I hear about how my grandmother abused and continues to emotionally abuse my mother. I hear about my uncle’s times trying cocaine as a truck driver. I hear about my parents fantasies about becoming swingers and about my aunt and uncle’s sexual experimentation. I try to sleep but it gets louder and louder.  Eventually at about 3 in the morning things die down and I enter a fitful sleep.

This was no Boston Museum of Science. But I learned a bunch.

At about the same time I start volunteering in a school program designed to train peer counselors in preventing drug and alcohol abuse. On a weekend retreat we watched a movie about a kid with alcoholic parents. I recognized so many of the moments in that film. How could my life be an afterschool special?  I particularly noticed the element of uncertainty they showed in what that night (or day’s) binge would bring. Would my mom be depressed and near-suicidal? Or would my dad announce he was giving me a gift and write me out a cheque for a new (used) car while so drunk that the bank had to call him to confirm it really was his signature and I hadn’t committed forgery.

But then off I went to university – and I was so excited: I could finally get away from that. I found I had a new superpower. My mom would often call me after a few drinks and I could, with 100% accuracy, say “You have had (x) drinks so far tonight.”  If she’d had more than a few and was belligerent I’d hang up on her only to get a call a few minutes later from my dad, also drunk, telling me off for hanging up on her.

In parallel to that, though, I had another story: People in their late teens and early 20’s – especially in university, drank at parties. And I have to admit – at the time it seemed a great solution to social anxiety.  I got to quit worrying what people thought of me for a brief time.  And there was another delightful aspect: Unexpected things happened to me that would later become stories. (“Oh man, remember that time we were driving through Montreal and yelling obscenities and rude comments out the window at people? No, not bad words and insults but the actual words “OBSCENITIES!!!  RUDE COMMENTS!!!!!” – wasn’t that hilarious?)

But that was different than my parents. While they were hurting people and themselves, I was having a great time with friends.  I’d be able to drink and not end up like my parents. They’re different. They’re not cool and smart.

Except I wasn’t always having fun. Sometimes I’d go back to my room after a party and be really sad about where my life was and how few friends I had and would ignore the clock saying 3:00 AM and call a friend I hadn’t heard from in a few years to be reassured.

And now I am 20. I’ve left university and am living with friends in a shared house on my own. I mostly don’t have to deal with my parents’ drinking but when I visit it’s still an issue no matter what time I stop by. I head by at 8:00 in the morning to have breakfast with them and my dad, working nights, is now on his fifth drink because it’s his night. My mom has joined him because you shouldn’t drink alone (though she’ll drink again after she wakes up from her nap and he heads off to work because it’s night and maybe it isn’t so bad to drink alone after all.

Me at age 20

My housemates and I have great parties on the weekend. The music is cooler than the classic country western my mom would listen to while she was drinking and instead of talking about family problems and what we were upset about, we’d laugh and joke and talk about music and pop culture. So clearly that was different.

And then another great development happens. I meet someone online. Sage is 1,000 miles away in Missouri but we’re close. We spend hours on chat, email and phone together and it’s pretty serious, I think, even though we’ve only known each other for about 6 weeks when my 21st birthday comes.  I’m now actually legally able to drink though I’ve been doing it since I started university at age 16.  A friend of mine and I get a hotel room downtown and have a night on the town. It starts out fun, but as the night goes on it becomes less an experience and more an embarrassing montage of images between blackouts.  I end the night being dragged in to a taxi by my friend, forcibly ending our debauchery.  The next morning I’m a wreck with a hangover the likes of which I had never experienced.

I called Sage and guiltily told her about what I remembered of the night. She listened quietly and in the end said “If we’re going to be together, we’re not going to drink.”  And like many people in my state at that time, I say “I’ll never drink again.”

Two weeks later, Sage comes to stay with me for our first visit. By the end of our week together our first visit turns in to our last visit as I invite her to stay and she says she will. It’s been 25 years and we’ve kept this promise to each other.

I had a lot of stories in my head leading up to that. Stories of people being happy and cool while drunk – the kind that don’t mess up their families or say the wrong thing to their friends – the kind of drinkers who are different than my parents. As I look back and ask myself “Was I an alcoholic?” I am not even sure the answer is particularly clear cut or even relevant. Quitting wasn’t that difficult. There weren’t any physical effects like I feel those times when I try to drink less coffee. Socially there were a few. I noticed that lots of my friends at the time were more drinking buddies than friends and as I drank less, we spent less time together and drifted apart. So maybe I wasn’t, at that moment, an alcoholic, but I had everything lined up in my lifestyle to bring me right to where my parents were when they were close to my age. And so, for my son’s sake, I’m really thrilled to have not gone down that road.  My life would be very different, I am sure.

As for my parents? What happened to them? Well in early 1992 after Sage and I moved away to another state, we got a call from my 13 year old brother. He was very upset about my parents’ drinking and it sounded a lot like what I’d been dealing with just a few years before with them. I suggested that he check in with Alateen to get some help coping with it that I didn’t have when I was his age.  We talked a bit and then he hung up.  Ten minutes later my dad called and told me to butt out of their business.  A few weeks later I did just that. We started by screening all of our calls and then eventually moved without telling them our phone number or address.  Another story I realized I could change was that we had to deal with whatever our parents throw at us because we share DNA with them.

Rewriting the story that everyone in my family drinks a lot and we put up with each other when we’re drunk is, without a doubt, one of the best story revisions I’ve done.

3 thoughts on “More on the Stories We Tell Ourselves

  1. You started University at 16? Wow! You must be a genius? lol. I’m glad at the end that you just stopped talking to your parents altogether, a lot of people don’t understand that even if they’re your parents–if they’re toxic to your life you can kick them out of it. I feel bad for your brother being left without you at 13 though and calling for your help…What is he up to now? Does he still talk to them?

    People always say that you can’t change someone no matter how hard you try but I always said if you love someone enough, you’ll change for them–so beautiful that you were able to quit for Sage. 💗

    1. Not at all. A few months after I was no longer in contact with them, my parents divorced. I think things were still difficult. He eventually moved out after high school also though he still kept in contact with them.

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