Tag Archives: alcoholism

Time to Write

7 Mar

lighthouseMy father died at age fifty-three, never realizing the dream of who he planned to be. He was a brilliant and articulate man; a gifted writer who had a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. But as many of us do, he smothered his initiative and creativity because he became too comfortable with that unyielding fear of not being good enough.

Maybe it was safer for him to hide behind his responsibilities and his resentments than to pursue his desire to become a writer. Perhaps the thick file of rejection letters hidden in the bedroom closet was just too much for him to bear. Sadly, he traded his beloved Smith-Corona typewriter for a bottle of gin and gave away his literary dream for a two pack-a-day nicotine habit and the television remote control. He died when he was only three years older than I am right now.

I’m grateful I didn’t inherit my father’s gene for alcoholism, but I did inherit the gene that’s even more intoxicating—the one that programmed both of us to believe: I’m just not good enough, so why bother trying?  As I’m sure my dad was, I have been embroiled in my own decades-long internal struggle about whether or not my abilities are good enough for me to realize the dream of who I want to be.

Lately, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted on my blog as regularly as I have in the past. Then again, you may not have noticed at all (See? There it is again–that annoying voice in my head telling me that nobody cares.)

The reason I haven’t posted much recently is because I’ve been working very diligently on writing a novel.  This is something I’ve fantasized about doing since forever, but that errant gene passed down from my dad discouraged me from really trying until recently. It doesn’t help that this whole crazy writing process, which includes opening oneself up to judgment and criticism is very scary at times. Wait—I take that back—it’s utterly terrifying! All the time!

But I’ve got a good story to tell, and I’ve been savvy enough to surround myself with a supportive writing group,  who along with my wonderful and encouraging family, read my words and tell me what’s not working—and more importantly—what is working. The very best part is that they also say they can’t wait to read more. So, whenever I can steal away a few quiet moments from my busy life, I write, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

When I write, I often think of my dad and how painful it must have been for him to let his dream slowly die away. It may be that I’ve carried his destructive gene around with me since birth, but I now realize I’m not destined to follow his path. I’m the one in charge of making my dream happen, and as much as I want to sometimes, I can no longer blame my lack of confidence on my heredity.

I’m a writer and it’s time to write.

The following is a poem written by my dad and published in 1954

Beacon

The lighthouse keeper told me once about loneliness;

About how, when he first took the job,

He was afraid the light might go out,

And then wished it would.

He told me about a sailor that explained to him

What it means to a shipload of staring eyes

To see his spinning human message

Punching hope through a wall of distant despair.

The keeper said his life got a little dull at times,

And his wife complained once in a while

About having to live always on the edge

Of extreme ways of life;

But, he said, he was the denial of death.

I read in his diary, after he died,

That he hated the coming of spring, because all night

He heard his steel and concrete index tick off sparrows,

With little thumping sounds,

And that his hired man complained about the mess.

He willed his telescope to his wife, that was all he had,

And she told me that day that reason

He took the job was

He loved the freedom of the sea.

–Joseph Winters

My dad, Joseph Winters in his senior photo in the 1954 Johns Hopkins yearbook

My dad, Joseph Winters in his senior photo in the 1954 Johns Hopkins yearbook

            

Nameless Dread

13 Apr

For the past week, something had been troubling me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I’m sure many of you know the feeling I’m talking about—that sense of foreboding that hovers in your subconscious and makes you feel edgy, like you’re standing at the precipice of some unknown cavern of uneasiness.

When I was a child, my mother referred to this feeling as “nameless dread.” As a young mother, she often struggled with this common maternal malady herself the belief that all was not right in the world; that disaster was looming around the next corner, just waiting to reach out and seize what bit of happiness she’d managed to hold onto. I know that she endured great pain while she waited for misfortune to strike, the smile plastered on her face attempting to hide the dread she felt.

It really wasn’t my mother’s fault. The women of her generation were expected to hide their feelings; to box them up neatly and shove them into the back of the pantry out of sight and mind, never thinking their fear, guilt and resentment would eventually begin to ferment and stink like rotting fruit— and that someday the mess would have to be cleaned up.  As I grew up, I watched my mother hide her feelings and I learned to hide mine, too. I was the ever-dutiful daughter and obediently followed her lead. It was just easier to sweep the hurt and pain under the rug and deny that the muck was seeping out from all sides like a backed-up kitchen sink.

Lying in bed the other night, after about an hour of trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, I finally figured out what was bothering me and causing my latest bout of “nameless dread.” I was angry.

I was angry about an email that my mother had recently forwarded to me. One of her dear friends whom she’s known since high school had been reading my blog posts and wrote that she was enjoying my writing, and my mother thoughtfully wanted to share this with me. Included in this email was a comment mentioning the fact that I had referred to my father as an “alcoholic” in some of my posts. She wrote that she didn’t really think my father was an alcoholic; after all, everyone “drank a lot” back in the day, and that perhaps (I’m paraphrasing here) that I was just an impressionable little girl who was too sensitive about her daddy.

I was irritated when I read that line, but good girl that I am, I immediately shoved the feeling aside, as I’m as skillful as my mother is at tucking away any uncomfortable emotions into the back of the cupboard. But it triggered something in me that started a slow burn. The hidden anger I carry deep inside of me about my father’s alcoholism began to simmer and bubble over like that cast iron pot of soup on the stove with the flame on high.

She didn’t believe me.

Now, in no way is my anger directed at my mother’s friend—after all, she had gleaned her all of her information through my mother, who kept mum about truth of what went on in our home every night. With so much practice, the members of my family were skilled professionals at putting on a good show—my father being the best actor in the entire troupe. When sober, he was an intelligent and amiable man—full of wit and humor and love. But after a few drinks it would be time for his costume change and his character would transform into that of an intimidating ogre acting out in uncontrollable rage.  And the people he supposedly loved most in life were right next to him on the stage, standing still and silent, their intense fear making them forget their lines. But as they say, the show must go on, so we allowed him the center stage to perform his nightly monologue, each of us turning inward and covering our pain with masks of surrender.

A little girl shouldn’t have had to be afraid of what was coming every single night. She shouldn’t have had to carry the dread around in her stomach and tiptoe around the house like a ghost, closing doors with silent precision to avoid hearing her daddy bellow at her about making too much noise. A little girl shouldn’t have had to watch her daddy throw shoes and books and dishes across the room in fits of alcoholic fury. She shouldn’t have had to get out of bed to check and make sure that her daddy hadn’t passed out on the couch with a lit cigarette still clenched between his fingers. She shouldn’t have had to learn to be the caretaker of others instead of herself.

A teenage girl shouldn’t have had to witness her drunken father threaten two high school boys with a fireplace poker, their only crime being that they gave her a ride home from a party late one night. A seventeen year-old girl with talent and intelligence with the world at her feet shouldn’t have spent the next five years of her life in a relationship with a young and handsome boy who was so obviously an alcoholic himself—trying in vain to fix him and failing miserably.

A college senior shouldn’t have had to see her father lying naked and motionless in the ICU, his thin body ravaged by years of smoking and drinking, the only movement that of his chest rising and falling with the hum of a respirator. She shouldn’t have had to lose her daddy when she was only twenty-three years old.

A young mother with small babies shouldn’t have had to watch and worry as her older brother, emotionally scarred from years of his father’s abuse and neglect, turned to alcohol to dull his own unfathomable pain.

A middle aged woman with the blessings of four exceptional children and a loving husband shouldn’t have had to live practically her entire life feeling that she is not beautiful and worthy and good because her father’s drinking was all her fault.

 It was not her fault.

So I’m angry. I’m angry that I’ve lived more than half my life believing that I did something to cause my father’s alcoholism. I know in my heart that my father was a good man, even though his actions contradicted this. I realize that his true self was masked by his depression and resentment and the need to deaden the pain of his own wounds. I know this now and I wish I could tell him that although he hurt me deeply, I forgive him.

It’s difficult and painful to admit that someone you loved so much could let you down so completely. It’s not easy to acknowledge those buried feelings—they’ve become an intrinsic part of who I am. But now it’s time to be honest—for my own emotional health, I have to tell the truth and let the anger go. That magnificent little girl who was born perfect and kind and exceptional is still that person today—she just got lost for a while. In the process of finding her, I can release the pain I’ve carried for so long, and then the dread will no longer be nameless.

By revealing my secrets, I become stronger. I don’t have to play the role of damaged little girl anymore. I know that underneath that tight and painful mask I’ve been wearing for so long is that beautiful little girl, smiling and radiating love. Together, she and I can walk off that dark and dusty stage, push open that heavy door and go out into the light.

Pulling Weeds

5 Oct

   Early this morning, after taking my six year-old daughter, Isa, to school, I decided to trade in the awkward five-pound weights from the gym for the more comfortable fit of a trowel and spade in my hands. As I don’t particularly like going to the gym, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. It had been at least three weeks since I spent any time working in my garden, and I suddenly had a yearning to get my hands into the dirt again.

It’s early October, and summer has gently slipped into a pattern of shorter days and long nights. It’s almost as if the bright lamp of September has been gradually dimmed, creating a homey and cozy atmosphere—when the cooler fall weather settles in like the bite of a crisp red apple. The extravagant blooms of summer are trying their best to hold on as long as they can; they bravely face their looming demise with one last splash of colorful stoicism.

After working so diligently in the garden from March through August, my task was easy: all I needed to do was clip back the dead blossoms, pull out the dead plants and till the soil. I was relieved that I didn’t have to work too hard to plant and fertilize and coax the flowers as I do in spring and summer. I could just enjoy sprucing things up a bit, and then allow myself to relax and let the garden settle down as I wait for the winter rains to come. Ahhh….the joy of hibernation!

I pulled weeds and clipped for about an hour, enjoying the discomfort in my thighs and back as I squatted and stretched to cut off the dead plant growth. There was so much bending and reaching that it was as good as taking an outdoor yoga class.

“This is so much better than the treadmill,” I thought happily. The sun warmed by body as I dug and clipped and weeded, the sweat dripping down my back, drenching my dirt-stained t-shirt. I felt like a dedicated athlete after a long workout.

Who needs the gym anyway?

When I was done, I stood to admire how neat and clean everything looked. I was pleased with my efforts and was just about to put my gardening tools away when I suddenly spotted something strange in the corner of my peripheral vision. A gangly weed had grown up right next to one of my late-blooming delphinium plants!

How could I have let it get so big without noticing it? Yet there it was—a huge dandelion weed, the exact same height and shade of lime green as the other plants that surrounded it. It must have been growing there for a long time, but had managed to camouflage itself by hiding out near the plants it resembled in shape, size and color. It was so large it had to have been there for weeks. And I never even noticed it.

Weeds will do anything to survive, including finding the perfect hiding place. Nature is sneaky that way.

People are sneaky that way, too.

Recently I began seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. I noticed that I’d been feeling melancholy and listless for quite some time. I knew I wasn’t living up to my full potential (I had no idea what that potential was—but whatever it was, I sure as heck wasn’t living up to it.) I felt like there was something inside of me that was struggling to break free. I thought perhaps I was still dealing with the emotional remnants of Isa’s struggle with cancer that began over four years ago.

I had always admired my friends who were able to open up to a therapist, but I never thought I needed to do it myself. I finally realized that after everything I’ve been through since Isa’s cancer diagnosis, it had become necessary to find someone objective and neutral to talk to about how the residual grief of her illness was still finding ways to affect me.

Curiously, what I’ve learned through just a few months of therapy is that the experience of Isa’s illness is not what’s affected me negatively—quite the contrary.  The road I’ve walked dealing with her cancer has actually been a positive experience. It’s opened me up to accepting love, gratitude and hope into my life, and I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I ever imagined I could be.

So why was I so unhappy?

What I’ve discovered in the short time I’ve been in therapy is that what’s making me unhappy and feeling unfulfilled is that I’ve never learned to value who I am.

Now please don’t gag.

You’re probably thinking: “Please—enough of the self-indulgent, narcissistic psycho-babble!” And believe me, I get it. I’m as irritated with the next person when it comes to listening to people complain about how miserable their childhood was and whose fault it is that they’re unhappy today. At some point one must take responsibility for one’s own happiness.

But there is truth in the fact that as children, we can be so wounded by our experiences that it affects our entire lives. Since I was a young child, I’ve always carried the misplaced shame that I’m not “good” enough, or “pretty” enough, or “thin” enough, or “smart” enough, or “blah, blah, blah” enough—the list goes on and on.

Because I never really learned to love myself, I never thought I deserved to receive love from others. And because I was so unlovable, there must be something deep lacking within me. Why bother trying to fulfill my dreams if I’m never going to be good enough?

Now, I’m not talking about other people’s opinion of me—I’m sure (or at least I hope) there are many out there who think I’m amazing, beautiful, talented, kind, and generous (mostly my mother, my husband,  my children, and my close friends). Intellectually, I know that they value me.

But it means absolutely nothing if I don’t value myself.

I can just hear my husband now: “Oh, cry me a river Jess! You have no idea how easy you had it when you were young.” And in some ways, he’d be right—compared to how he suffered as a child growing in extreme poverty in Mexico, I did have it good. I had a roof over my head, my own bed to sleep in, and plenty of food to eat. But pain is relative. His circumstances may have been worse than mine, but pain is pain, and it still hurts. And I truly believe there is not one adult on this earth today who doesn’t carry around some kind of hurt with them from their childhood traumas.

For whatever reason—whether it was growing up under the fearful umbrella of an alcoholic father, suffering from teasing and bullying, or exaggerating the adolescent misconception that there was something wrong with my face and my body, I managed to conjure up a negative view of who I am, and I’ve allowed that skewed image to grow and thrive since I was a young child. It took root in my soul like that pervasive weed hiding in my garden, and I’ve been cultivating it all this time without even realizing it.

Me, standing in the backyard garden at age seven

Therapy has taught me that it’s finally time to cut away the years of self-doubt and insecurity that had been formed years ago from the illogical perceptions of that young girl—a girl who, in her innocence, didn’t know that she was wrong about herself—that same little girl who never learned that she was worthy of love.

Until now.

Everything seems clearer as I walk over to that dandelion weed, bend down grab it by the base and yank it out in with one twist of my wrist. The roots come out effortlessly and intact; there is nothing left in the soil but open space.

I pitch it into the trash can. Take that you ugly weed!

There. For now, the garden is perfect.

I do understand that more weeds will eventually grow and try to invade my little plot of flowers —I can’t stop them—that’s just nature.  What I can do is weed out those seemingly benign green shoots before they grow too big. They may look innocent enough when they’re small, but they are eager to multiply and ready to take over before you even realize it.

I’ll just have to be prepared to stop them long before they have a chance to hide out among the last of the summer flowers.

My Summer Garden