‘Addiction: Problems behind the problem’ by Recovery Coach

P1010092I was pretending to be Superman when my mother’s frantic cries for help brought a sudden halt to my game. I ran towards the kitchen faster than a speeding bullet. But a Superman t-shirt with a bath towel tucked into the collar didn’t give me superhuman strength.

Peering just below the vinyl seat of our yellow kitchen chairs, my eyes widened as Dad pinned my mother to the cold linoleum floor. He was a large man, standing 6’1″, and Mum was 4’6″. The image seemed surreal, like a horror movie, and I stood frozen in fear.

There was an odor of carnage as Dad hovered over her. Maybe it was the mixture of sweat and testosterone rising from his green work shirt. Pure, unfiltered terror flooded my body and my heart beat so fast it seemed to smash against my ribs.

Dad was hurting Mum. Nothing can be more terrifying for a four year old. A young boy’s mother is his world. She was my life giver, my first love, my heart and soul.

The thought of anyone harming her was truly horrifying and beyond my comprehension, especially when that someone was my father. Hearing my big sister crying hysterically and begging Dad to stop only added to the horror.

When Dad lost his temper the pupils of his eyes narrowed to pinpoints. An expression that can only be described as half human, half animal would creep over his face. That’s when the man I knew and loved would vanish.

Nothing strikes more fear into a young child’s heart than watching his father turn from hero to monster. Unless the monster’s gaze is directed towards him or someone he loves. Terrified and helpless seem such inadequate words to describe the experience.

Long periods of thick, uneasy tension broken by violent outbursts were the norm in our home. Like the foreboding scent of an approaching thunderstorm, you always knew when something was going to set him off.

That something was usually my mother or older sister. Both were the centre of my universe. Witnessing my father’s knees planted hard into my mother’s shoulders or hearing my sister’s screams from behind a locked bedroom door were familiar occurrences. Not that his behavior was limited to the walls of our house.

The violence mostly took place at home, but these shocking scenes were occasionally played out at the homes of friends and relatives. Watching adults standing by without lifting a finger was almost as shocking as the violence.

Such was the fear Dad struck into the hearts of others. People stood with gaping jaws, feebly attempting to reason with him, yet did nothing. Not even when the crime was committed on their own kitchen floor. Nobody intervened or phoned the police because nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of my father when he was in one of those moods. I suppose they were flabbergasted, as Mum would say.

Imagine skipping up your porch stairs one gorgeous spring day, bursting through the squeaky screen door, and racing into the kitchen to see what your mother’s doing. Full of smiles, joyful in the way only a four year old knows.

Upon entering the kitchen, you see your mother kneeling on the floor, sobbing, head buried deep inside the oven. When asked what’s wrong, she replies she’s tired of living and wants to die. She had blown the pilot light out and turned the gas on high.

This became known as taking the gas pipe and it would become a familiar expression around our house. Mum was always threatening to take the gas pipe. Her performance was quite theatrical, as any adult would instantly recognise.

But the same scene played out before a child is far more convincing and traumatic. It’s an experience that strips children of their innocence. As adults, we’re able to comprehend at least some of the problems created by abusive family situations.

As children, we can only do our best to absorb the insanity. Young children simply aren’t equipped to understand why Mum sticks her head in an oven or why Dad throws stones at his sister. Most of us can’t fully comprehend it as adults.

Perhaps even more disturbing than our parents’ behavior is the fact they weren’t drinkers. Neither was much of a social drinker, let alone alcoholics, and they rarely ever touched the stuff. There are no tales of drunkenness or drug abuse to explain away the beatings or feigned suicide attempts.

Although drinking is no excuse for poor behavior, it would have at least provided a reason for some of the madness in our lives. Our parents would have been seen as alcohol impaired, at least partially, and not entirely responsible for their actions.

It would almost be preferable to the alternate conclusion, which is to say they were mentally and emotionally disturbed. In today’s politically correct world, the word used to describe families like ours is dysfunctional.

In the 50’s and 60’s only wealthy neurotics or those teetering on the edge of insanity would dream of seeking professional help. Therapy was almost unheard of, and psychiatrists were viewed as shrinks. Nor had anyone ever heard the word dysfunctional, at least in our neighborhood.

Dysfunctional sounds more like a word used to describe an overheating refrigerator than it does a family. The term we used was screwed up and I’m giving you the polite version. It contains much less sugar coating and far more truth.

Painful childhood memories of abuse and dysfunctional families are a common theme for many addicts. While most children do their best to bury negative experiences while growing up, feelings of fear, insecurity, resentment and anger cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard we try.

They haunt us wherever we go, even when we seem unaware that they exist. It’s little wonder so many of us later turn to alcohol (or drugs) as a form of escape. And it’s no surprise that we instantly fall in love with alcohol the first time we drink.

All those memories of anguish we’ve carried inside seem to magically disappear, at least for the moment. It’s a moment every addict tries to re-live again and again.

In the early stages, we become what addiction professionals refer to as a problem drinker. But the more we drink to escape problems, the more we become dependent on alcohol, both physically and emotionally. We eventually turn into full-blown alcoholics.

As part of learning to overcome addiction, we must learn to face demons of the past. At some point, each of us needs to embrace the child within ourselves and explain that none of the blame, guilt or shame was his or her fault. Assure the child inside you of his innocence, hold him, and let him know that he or she is loved. This one simple gesture plays a huge role in the healing process.’

A Wired In To Recovery blog from June 2011.