An alcoholic in the family

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MY MOTHER LIKED TO DRINK AND EVENTUALLY BECAME AN ALCOHOLIC. I LIKE TO DRINK, TOO. SO WHAT DOES THAT MAKE ME?

My mother was an early riser who buttered my toast and poured orange juice while I was getting ready for school. But for herself she set out a different breakfast a cup of creamy, sugared coffee, a tall, iced Coca-Cola; and a pack of cigarettes. At night she curled up on the sofa, watching old movies and beating the gloss off a ribbon of homemade fudge or scooping up handfuls of fresh popcorn.

My mother was drawn to pleasure like a cat. Her indulgences, when I think of them now, seem dangerously childlike, unrestrained by shoulds or shouldn'ts. If she wanted to butter her doughnuts, she did--with gusto. And she schooled me in her enthusiasms, teaching me to roll peppermint creams in salted spanish peanuts. To grill peanut butter sandwiches. To keep candy in my bedside drawer. She was no more embarrassed by these excesses than she was by her big feet.

Except for one: She loved to drink.

I'm not sure I knew how much until I hit drinking age myself, although there were signs--the flow of alcohol at my parents' parties, the array of scotch and ice left behind after cocktails with friends (my sister and I would taste the contents of each glass), the liquored kiss my mother gave me when she returned home from an evening out.

But my mother also associated drinking with a bagful of things nice ladies didn't do, and if Mrs. Smith down the road had a drinking problem, then Mrs. Smith was a no-account, lurching around her house in bare feet, opening the door only to toss out empties. The message I got was this: It is okay to drink but not to talk about it; not to indicate a love for it; and never, ever to get drunk.

My mother had a good reason to keep her love of drinking secret. Her father had been a traveling salesman who drank on the road, an alcoholic who sometimes vanished for days. For my mother, his addiction carried shame and sadness but no warning signal.

Instead, she let my disciplined father curb her impulses. He had drinking rules: only on the weekends, and never alone. Those rules probably held my mother's tendencies in check for years. But I suspect she began drinking alone after my brother, sister, and I left home, occasionally adding a nip of Crown Royal to her late afternoon cola.

Even so, when my father called me years later to say she was drinking too much, I didn't believe him. I thought his need for discipline was spilling over, her pleasures finally getting on his nerves.

And yet I also knew it was true. We were all recovering then from the death of my sister, and my mother remained despondent. But who could blame her? My sister, a psychologist, had been shot by one of her patients, and my mother's grief, so physical, unnerved my father. In that first year of mourning she sat alone in the house, on the sofa where she had once beaten fudge, and let vodka numb the death she carried inside her.

My mother denied her problem for months, despite urgings from my father and aunt to enter a treatment program. When I was home visiting she sometimes asked me to bring her a drink. If I refused, she would respond with fury and a cold shoulder. Eventually my father took her to a nearby treatment center, and within weeks she became one of the lucky ones who quit and actually stick with it.

But her addiction scared me. My adulthood had always been a rumba between my father's restraint and my mother's self-gratification, and it was unclear which side would win. If I let go of my father's stern work ethic, would I sink into my mother's hedonism?

It's easy to think so as I act out the rumba, moving from discipline to pleasure and back again. In fact, the two drives sometimes seem fed by the same source: fear, compulsion, a taste for oblivion. From nine to five I work so hard I beat back anxiety and ego and self-defeat. And then, blessedly, it is dinnertime. I set some peppers and onions simmering and pour a glass of wine. I put my feet up and read the paper. I put out a plate of cheese and crackers or a bowl of peanuts. My husband comes home. He pours a beer. Our two sons join us for hors d'oeuvres. The wine relaxes me, my back stops aching, my work seems far away. I seem far away.

This is a ritual I love. It lifts me from my kitchen to a remote French bistro. But on nights when I drink two or three glasses of wine, I turn sleepy or grouchy. I go to bed, and hours later I wake up. My heart is pounding, and my mouth is dry. I am scared. I am my mother.

Still, it's not the occasional nights of too much wine that scare me most. It's the fear that one day I could slip over some invisible line into my destiny. Or worse, that Matthew and Jacob, my 11-and 13-year-old sons, could slip as well. They have grown up in a household where drinking is what my husband and I do to relax, to celebrate, to entertain friends. And through me they, too, share my mother's genes.

My mother's turn into alcoholism caught me by surprise--and her as well, I think. Suddenly, it seemed, she had crossed from sobriety to alcoholism. I had always loved the life-embracing enthusiasms I inherited from her, but now I wonder if that trait will one day kill me--or one of my sons.

On most days I'm rational about this. I'm not a heavy drinker. But I have also read Caroline Knapp's memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, and seen the ways alcoholics can cloak their addiction in normalcy and denial. And I saw plainly the inheritance that Knapp hid from herself for years: her father's alcoholism. So my questions swirl. How far can genetics propel me and my boys toward addiction? Why do people like my mother and me seem so much more attached to pleasure and its routines than other people? Are these attachments predictors of addiction?

Scientists have known for many years that children of alcoholics face an increased risk for alcoholism. But Marc A. Schuckit, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego and director of the Alcohol Research Center for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Diego, wanted to know precisely what they inherit that increases their risk. For ten years he tracked 450 men, sons of both alcoholics and nonalcoholics.

"What I found is that being able to hold liquor well is a strong predictor of alcoholism," says Schuckit. "What seems to be inherited is a low level of response to alcohol." In other words, sons of alcoholics can drink more than most people before feeling the effects. Schuckit was not surprised by this. "People have a varying level of response to most drugs," he says, "and those responses are usually genetically influenced.

"I don't necessarily think there's a gene for alcoholism," he adds. "But I think there are genes, probably a bunch, that make it more likely you'll drink a lot in a society like ours where drinking is encouraged. You can take any organism, from rat to dog to person, and give it high enough doses of alcohol for a long enough period of time, and it will become physically dependent. What I'm studying is why some people voluntarily take high enough doses over a long enough period to develop dependence."

Indeed, as Schuckit describes in his research, what struck me was not that my mother and I could easily drink our peers under the table, but that we chose to drink despite our family history. And among the adult children of alcoholics that I know, most drink, worry about it, and still drink. Why?

On the surface, drinking moderately is fun. It's a leavening for the soul, a little buzz-on, as a friend calls it. But for some, liquor's pleasure is more complicated. In my case, drink musters powers against a formidable foe: me. With my oversensitivity, my occasional melancholy, my harsh self-assessment and demanding ego, I can be a drag to inhabit. I sometimes want out of my skin, and liquor takes me there--or at least I believe it does.

This belief, that liquor will tranquilize what's normally inconsolable, may be as dangerous for me as my history is. In studying college binge-drinkers, G. Alan Marlatt, a clinical psychologist and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, found a link between addiction and a belief in alcohol's powers. Drinkers who tended to become dependent gave alcohol what Marlatt calls the magic elixir profile.

"They think, Drinking's the only way I can sleep or be comfortable dating or keep from being depressed," Marlatt says. "They believe that if they don't drink, they will feel worse." To Marlatt's surprise, students who thought they were drinking alcohol but were actually given placebos began to feel as they expected to feel: more relaxed, more comfortable, less depressed.

I don't usually attribute magical powers to liquor. But last year, after writing an article about the dangers of alcohol, I was shaken and decided not to drink for a week. The first evening I began pacing nervously, divorced from my nightly routine. I was anxious and brooding. Where was my bistro? Finally, I took down my wineglass and filled it with bitter tonic water, put my feet up, and read the newspaper. Away went my anxiety, and my body relaxed.

But at the week's end I went back to drinking wine with dinner. I had no desire to eliminate that pleasure. Still, the experience made me realize I had built for myself a life in which alcohol and its trappings played a part. As I paced my kitchen I was responding to cues--the dinner hour, the newspaper, the wine goblet, the cheese plate--that automatically made me reach for a glass of wine.

This type of response has been an important part of the work of Edythe D. London, director of the Brain-Imaging Center at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore. To study cocaine addiction, London showed addicts a video of other addicts, crack houses, white powder, and ten-dollar bills, while measuring their brain responses. Two areas of the brain lit up: the amygdala, associated with the recall of pleasant or painful consequences of experiences; and the hippocampus, associated with learning and short-term memory. That research has convinced London that addiction involves the creation of memories and that those memories alone can stir up powerful cravings.

I believe her, for certainly memory, ritual, and routine play parts in all my pleasures, not just alcohol. Would I love pate as much without my French hors d'oeuvre plates, or my nightly chocolate without a good book and plump comforter? But after acknowledging the power of rituals and their associated cues, I'm still puzzled. Not everyone seems as captive to pleasure and its routines as I am. How come?

None of the experts I spoke with acknowledged an addictive personality per se. But they do believe that certain personality characteristics seem to place people at risk--thrill-seekers, for instance, who expect to like alcohol, or whatever substance they become addicted to, from the start. And as Schuckit shows in his research, these types tend to tolerate substances like alcohol better than most. People who have never learned to funnel stress into a hard bang on the piano may also be at risk.

My mother could have used a dozen pianos. She was anxious about almost everything: what friends thought about her, what her clothes looked like, whether she was gracious enough. And despite her flair for taking pleasure, she was congenitally sad.

"Some people have constitutionally high levels of anxiety or depression, and they haven't been taught to deal with that," says Barbara Wood, a psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home. "That's a powerful combination that could move someone along the path to addiction."

This explanation helps. When I think of my mother's addiction, it's not genetics that leaps to mind. It's a picture of my salesman grandfather moving from one yard goods store to another in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression. It's my mother growing up at the knee of his darkness, watching her mother, a former elementary school principal who pinned naughty schoolboys to the wall by the neck, scold her self-deprecating father. It's me watching my own mother disappear on the sofa, chiseled away by sadness and a marriage to a man as critical as her mother was. It's the palpable, physical haunt of shame and anxiety that hard work, and wine, and chocolate will anesthetize.

I can say I'm at risk for alcoholism. I can also say I won't stop drinking any more than I'll stop living. But I will think about alcohol's threat like I think about the night after my sister died, when I took a huge goblet from the shelf and filled it to the rim with wine. I was going to drink it all, because I believed that glass could carry me elsewhere. Of course all it did was give me a terrible headache.

I haven't used that goblet since. It sits there on the shelf, a reminder of oblivion and unresolved choices. For now it remains available, empty as air.

PHOTO (COLOR): Family Picture

ILLUSTRATION

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By Dorothy Foltz-Gray

Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a contributing editor.

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