“What are you having?” The universal question of Irish pubs. “Ginger ale, please.” I was a teenager and lived by the rules. Too young for alcohol. But my boyfriend didn’t see it that way. He thought it would be fun to see what happened when he spiked my drink with brandy.
Thirty-three years. That’s what happened. A drinking career inaugurated at a long forgotten Dublin hostelry by a man who still appears occasionally in my Facebook feed. (The memory is as vivid as yesterday.) What the hell. What did we know of alcoholism?
The Irish have a reputation for drink. We produce internationally-admired brands of beer and spirits. Through the years of my childhood, we could believe we owed my home town’s economy to the Guinness family, whose brewery dominated the older parts of Ireland’s capital. Later, the glamorous jobs were to be found marketing top-shelf liquors. Modern Ireland seemed fuelled by boozy lunches in fancy hotels – an ethos and aesthetic captured so perfectly in AMC’s Mad Men that, in these sober years, I find this very fine television series heartbreaking.
All of which is to say that, growing up, alcohol was absorbed into my very marrow before ever I tasted the stuff. Yes, there was whiskey, stout and vermouth (a “ladylike” drink) in my parents’ house. It was customary for my father to add whiskey to the glass of milk accompanying family meals. My mother drank while watching evening television with her growing daughter and son. If I noticed that she was extra quiet and a bit irritable in the morning, I thought nothing of it as I marveled at how she dressed her hair. (She didn’t teach me these feminine skills. I wear my hair short and styled by the haircutter’s scissors.)
Once a week, my mother visited her unmarried brother for an evening of fine wine and food and cultured conversation with this award-winning radio producer. He lived across town. Nobody bothered then with drunken driving. It was tacitly understood that my uncle represented the good life, with my unhappy father occupying a place somewhere towards the more unrefined end of the scale. Theirs was a triangular drama, with little place for the children.
By the time I turned thirteen, I had lost whatever novelty value I had in this family. I was essentially on my own now. The substitute-community of the pub welcomed me while I was still a schoolgirl, and my adult triumphs were celebrated there, not in my family. I drank with the best of them until I drank alone.
Then came the day I needed to find a new family. PDQ. Pretty damn quick.
Like so many before me (and since), I crept into the mutual-aid community. It’s no more perfect than any other family, but it has the enormous advantage of being committed to living a consciously values-driven life.
“Be sure to attend Speaker Meetings so that you can hear the insanity of alcoholism through people’s stories,” I was advised in these rooms. “Listen until you hear someone tell your story.” It was suggested I connect with a mentor, an anchor in a confusing new world. This mentor went on to effectively re-parent me, although it’s not in the job description. A startling gift.
Over the years, I’ve examined the alcoholic insanity of my own life – not that I was blind to it at the time. It was just the way things were. I’ve ‘fessed up to the most shameful behavior that’s the unavoidable by-product of active addiction. I’ve offered amends and been met with truly loving (if often baffled) responses. But it wasn’t until I was exposed to the multi-generational nature of addiction that my life began to make sense to me. For as long as I thought of my alcoholism as unmoored from time, place or circumstance, I considered myself a freak, and I could not integrate recovery, its premises and demands into the whole of my experience.
I’ll always be grateful to the dedicated rehab counselors who disabused me of my naiveté about addiction. But I had to come to America to get this message.
Retracing my admission of powerlessness over alcohol, I put together – as best I could – a family tree, and asked myself if any of these characters might have been addicts. Family lore (unreliable) had identified a possible gambler and two large-living grand-aunts. There are many unexplained early deaths. And so on. It’s a woefully incomplete picture, and that also tells a story.
And I made a list of all the funerals I’ve attended, beginning with my parents who died decades ago. My father’s heart condition killed him off six months before my mother, for all that she was eleven years his junior. My mother, meanwhile, was pronounced dead-on-arrival to the hospital emergency room, nominally felled by pneumonia. I was late to her memorial service attended by our local Member of Parliament, whom I had previously served as constituency secretary. This is chaos. Several years later, my great love committed suicide. A once successful visual artist, he had become an anonymous middle-aged body pulled from the River Liffey, briefly noted as such in the same Irish Times where he had appeared as an emerging star. And so on. Was alcohol implicated in any of these deaths? What do you think?
This year, I turn teenager again. (One day at a time and the creek don’t rise!) This time around, I’ll be with a family of choice, supported by people in recovery themselves. We’ll be happy, joyous and free, and we’ll be together. There’ll be cake. Come join us!
Ruth Riddick is a Certified Addiction Recovery Coach and Educator at Sobriety Together™, and a woman in recovery (established 2003). Find her on LinkedIn and Facebook. Or, contact her at email@example.com.