Stinkin’ Thinkin’

I just caught myself once again doing something that I hate about myself. I was waiting for a task from a colleague, and since I couldn’t be sure whether or not she’d forgotten about it, I stayed quiet. And waited. According to the deeply embedded logic in my brain: Better to defer to her and hope that she remembers eventually than to risk offending her by pinging her now with a reminder. It’s never a good idea to speak up and risk being noticed. Because who knows what’ll happen next?

That’s stinkin’ thinkin’.

All you veterans of Al-Anon may recognize this passivity. Yes, my dad was an alcoholic, but I try not to blame all my problems on him. He never got drunk during the daytime, he never got violent, and he even got sober later in life. But back in the 1970s, once five o’clock rolled around, out came the gin and vermouth, and the martinis would flow all night long.

I don’t want to speak for my eight siblings. We were all in the same boat, and I expect that we share many memories and lasting effects from growing up with my dad. But for this post, I’ll focus only on my experience.

When I was little, I was always eager to play bartender, mastering the technique of how many jiggers of each clear liquid to pour into his pitcher, stirring with the glass rod, and fishing out some cocktail onions for Dad’s glass. That glass would stay filled until his bedtime.

It’s difficult to describe what my father was like when he was drunk. And because he wasn’t a monster, it’s easy to minimize his effects on me. I think the basic response he evoked was shame. I was ashamed of his slurred speech, of his neediness, and of the way he despaired of his lack of success. He always said his children were his greatest accomplishments, but when he’d been drinking, his sadness came out. Any conversation with him after about 8:30 p.m. would be fraught with maudlin sentimentality, all focused on him. And forget about relying on him for anything once he’d started the martinis. If you needed some real dad help, better get that before nightfall.

There were occasional emotional scenes when my dad was drunk, when one of my older siblings would empty his gin bottle into the sink while he watched. Or when he promised us grimly to stop drinking, tomorrow. My mother sat with him each night as he got plastered, and she suffered in silence. I learned that from her too.

Many of my lifelong strategies for dealing with conflict were formed in the years when it was important to avoid my dad at night. As I said, he was never violent, and this is not a tale of abuse. But part of the fallacy of thinking that you’re “totally normal” after growing up with an alcoholic is that if there was no physical abuse, then the lasting effects must be minor. That’s just not true.

Reading the book Lifeskills for Adult Children by Woititz and Garner a few years ago finally drove home that point to me. It was like looking at a map of my brain. So that’s why I avoid conflicts! That’s why my default stance is passivity! That’s why I feel like I can’t get close to people!

The authors talk about “adult children”—shorthand for adult children of alcoholics—as often being reluctant to reveal themselves:

Many adult children wonder why their conversations—and their relationships—often don’t really get going. Sometimes the reason is that they never spoke up and gave others the chance to get to know them. . . . People only really care about those they have gotten to know, those they have gotten involved with. And, they will only get involved with you when you speak up and talk about yourself.

And about how many of us adopt the guise of a pleaser:

Out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, adult children often give and give and give, even when they’re not getting. Quite often, they fool themselves into believing they are getting because they enjoy giving. They are not the same.

These coping mechanisms for problems at home meshed perfectly with our Catholic upbringing. Often as a kid, I’d seek praise for being selfless, or for letting someone else have what I wanted, because I thought that’s what God called me to do. I accepted as virtuous my deferring to others, my silencing of my own voice, and the urge to hide. That was just being a good person.

I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with this post, and once again my alarm bells are ringing: You’re revealing too much, Chris. Don’t publish that dirty laundry. What will the Keane kids say? What would Dad say? But as I’m learning from reading Mary Karr’s masterful The Art of Memoir, it’s partly my inner turmoil that makes me who I am when I write, and letting that out, craftily and with depth, is what memoir is all about. I want to write about my struggles, and victories, without shame. I want to celebrate my dad’s life, too, but I can’t do that with secrets.

I’ll keep trying, Dad.

Dad in his den. From the 90s?