It was dark and neither Billy* ‘14 nor his younger sibling could see from their positions in the backseat of the car their father was driving. It was Thanksgiving, and the family was on its way back from dinner.
Billy, then 8, felt a jolt of fear as the car lurched off the road, onto the center island and into a signpost. Although he shredded his tires, Billy’s father continued driving. Once they got home, Billy’s father stumbled into the bushes. His father made it to the front door, only with the help of Billy and his sibling.
As Billy and his sibling waited, their father repeatedly jammed his key into the door, missing the lock. Only then, as his father struggled to get into the house, did Billy realize that something was wrong.
“I had known what the word alcoholic meant, and I had known that he had an addiction, but I didn’t understand what it was until it had implications for my safety and having to bear that responsibility at that age,” Billy said.
Dr. David Kipper, author of “The Addiction Solution,” defines an alcoholic as a person who recognizes the dangers of alcohol, but continues to use it. The medical consequences can include dementia, anemia, stroke and arrhythmias.
“With chronic alcoholism, you become dysfunctional,” Kipper said. “Every single organ in the body is affected ultimately by chronic exposure to alcohol.”
Around the same young age as Billy, Elton* ’14 also noticed his father had a drinking problem. Elton remembers his father throwing up, passed out on the couch with all of his clothes on and “foolishly” walking around the house.
It took a screaming match for Elton to come to terms with his father’s problem.
“It just hit me at that point. I was 14; there was no point in arguing with a drunk person,” Elton said.
“You’re a total embarrassment,” Elton has yelled at his father at night, when his father was drunk. “You’re a drunk,” he’s shouted. “You’re the worst parent ever,” he has screamed. When day comes and his father’s sobered up, Elton has to restrain himself.
“The worst part about having someone who is under the influence and yelling at them is that they don’t remember a thing the next morning,” Elton said.
Having a parent demonstrate this type of unstable behavior is often the most difficult part of living with an alcoholic parent, school psychologist Luba Bek said.
“It’s a very tough place to be because home is supposed to be your comfort zone, a place where it’s safe and where your parents take care of you,” Bek said. “In a family with an alcoholic, the kids are taking care of the parents.”
Billy is familiar with unpredictable behavior by his father. After not contacting his father for several months due to an episode of substance use, Billy and his father reconnected by vacationing together in a foreign country. Billy anticipated the trip to be filled with bonding time, but instead he sat next to his father’s hospital bed. His father was drinking again and was hospitalized for a potentially life-threatening condition that was not directly related to his alcoholism, but that Billy believes may have increased in severity due to his drinking.
After unsuccessful attempts to overcome his language barrier with the doctors, Billy’s father reluctantly used Billy as his translator. He was forced to admit to his doctors via Billy that he had been drinking again. Billy and his father engaged in a screaming match. His father shouted at Billy, suggesting that Billy cared less for him than he did for Billy.
“Just hearing him say ‘you’ve never really cared about me’ was totally crushing,” Billy said. “Whenever he says that I’m betraying him by removing myself from the situation, those are the hardest moments because he discounts everything I’ve done for him in an instant.”
Billy often struggles with the sensitivity of his father’s alcoholism. He tries to stay optimistic and supportive of his father, while still holding his father accountable for his actions and reminding himself that he is not responsible for his father’s addiction.
“It’s always tough because on one hand I don’t want to feel like I’m abandoning my dad, but I also don’t want to be co-dependent and have him think that he can always rely on me to get him out of any situation,” Billy said.
Participating in co-dependent behavior, Bek said, can have long-term negative consequences. Adult children of alcoholics are people who grew up with an alcoholic parent and who are accustomed to compensating for that parent. Bek described these people as extremely other-oriented and selfless.
“Your whole life you were taking care of an alcoholic parent so this is the only relationship that you know,” Bek said.
Bek’s words rang true for Billy. He’s found that his relationships often follow the pattern he’s established with his father: compromises to avoid conflict.
“Sometimes I worry that I’m not assertive enough,” Billy said. “It’s in my nature to remedy situations.”
Elton does not think that his father’s alcoholism has ever threatened his personal safety. He believes his father has a mild case of alcoholism, especially in comparison to some of his uncles, one of whom is dead in part due to alcohol and another of whom is no longer in communication with the family because he refused to go to rehab.
Performing arts teacher Ted Walch, now a recovering alcoholic himself, noticed a similar pattern with the male members of his family. Walch refers to his father as a “functioning alcoholic,” meaning he was a successful father, provider, friend and worker. However, Walch deemed another male relative “a falling down drunk alcoholic.”
“I was aware that he was an alcoholic,” Walch said. “I wasn’t aware that maybe just about every other male in my family, in some way, shape or form needed to drink every day.”
This isn’t too surprising, as Kipper says alcoholism is a hereditary disease that runs clearly in family lineages.
“There are genes that we have identified that not only are generic for addiction, but there are certain genes that are generic for alcoholism,” Kipper said.
Kipper noted that it is more common in males in part because they have less of a particular dehydrogenase enzyme found in the liver, which causes less alcohol to cause a greater feeling of intoxication.
Aware of this genetic correlation and promising himself at a young age that he would never drink, Elton has kept his distance from alcohol. At age 18, he has never had a sip of alcohol, which often surprises people.
“As years go on it’s more fun to say I’ve never had alcohol before,” Elton said.
Elton enjoys his sobriety, but said it can sometimes cause problems in his friendships. He is repeatedly forced to act as the designated driver and he often feels that he is used for his sobriety in order to take care of others when they are intoxicated.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m being used,” Elton said. “It sucks being the sitter.”
Although he does not want to be drunk himself, it’s often frustrating when his friends and he are in different states of mind.
Elton plans on maintaining his sobriety throughout his college years.
Billy also plans to continue his current cautious attitude towards alcohol while he is in college. Billy occasionally engages in social drinking. He recognizes that he is at a higher risk for alcoholism, but he has not experienced anything that would lead him to believe he has an addiction.
“I have to continue the same mentality I have here, which is being aware of the dangers of alcohol while still being able to have a drink in a social environment,” Billy said.
For Walch, college involved lots of drinking. Although he had his first sip of alcohol at age 8, and clearly remembers drinking a case of Budweiser beer at age 14, he didn’t participate in “drinking Olympics” until college, Walch said.
In college, “you either learned how to drink so that you didn’t get sick, or you learned maybe you shouldn’t be drinking,” he said.
“My college was not unique, all colleges at that time were very good at teaching drinking,” Walch said. “And, I hate to say it, I think that colleges are still very good at teaching drinking.”
It was there that Walch believes his drinking habits became like those of the other men in his family: dangerous.
“I do believe deeply that it’s in our DNA. That we are either predisposed, or not predisposed to have a problem,” Walch said. “I know people who drink as much as I did who do not drink alcoholically. They can either take it or leave it. I couldn’t. It’s not about amount, it’s about need and behavior.”
In his early days of sobriety, he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings daily. Now, 28 years later, he only visits occasionally.
Kipper cited other treatment options in addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a form of behavioral treatment. There are pharmacological treatments, which supply the system with serotonin. This diminishes the craving for alcohol and can reverse some of the mental health issues associated with alcoholism such as depression, anxiety and somewhat obsessive-compulsive disorder. This treatment can come in the monthly injectable form of Vivatrol. Medicines that decrease anxiety, anxiolytics, can also be helpful in treating alcoholism.
Elton’s not sure whether his father has sought therapy to treat his alcoholism. However, Elton believes his father has not had a problem with alcohol for the past two to three years. Elton describes his father’s recovery as gradual — he first tried to see whether he could last a week without a drink, then a month, then a few months.
“He seemingly just fixed it on his own,” Elton said. “It was something he had enough willpower to fix for himself.”
Despite visiting many clinics and staying sober for almost five years, Billy’s father continues to flicker in and out of sobriety.
Billy has visited him at these rehabilitation centers often, but rather than depressing, he’s found these times to be uplifting.
“It keeps me going in a way because I feel like I have access to my real father,” Billy said.
It is frustrating for Billy to deal with the disconnect between his drunk father and his sober father, which he describes as “essentially two different people.” The real pain, though, more than the gap between his father’s drunk and sober sides, lies in having to experience his drunken father at all.
The cyclic and unpredictable nature of the disease, he said, makes it even worse. His grandmother, who was also an alcoholic, gradually gave up drinking. Billy wonders if his father will do the same.
“At times it seems so bad with my dad that I think is it so bad that he will keep drinking until the day he dies,” Billy said. “It’s hard not knowing. I can pretend like I have some sort of control over the situation, but it’s really completely in his hands and it’s really completely in the hands of the alcoholism.”
*Names have been changed