On a recent visit to my parent's house, my father's alcoholism and other challenging family dynamics surface. Ten years sober, I put the lessons I've learned about overcoming substance-abuse problems and all of my ADHD and anxiety coping skills to the test.
by Frank South
“Let go of me!”
It must be near midnight, but I don’t know what day it is. I do know that the man in front of me is very angry and very drunk. I try to keep a grip on his wrist, but it's slick with blood and sweat.
“Stop it!” he says. “Leave me alone!”
As my mother and I finally get the man, my 87-year-old father, to stand, he pulls free of my hand, but the sudden momentum throws him off balance, he bumps against the edge of the bed, and still flailing at me and my mother, falls toward the floor again. Even at his age, he’s still a big man, but throwing all my 220 pounds into it, I half catch and half body block him back up and onto the top of the bed, where he lands with an angry grunt and immediately tries to get up again. My mother puts her hand to his chest and tries to calm him as I get one of his tranquilizers.
“Frank, you cut up your arm when you fell,” she says to him (he's Frank Sr. to my junior) as she reaches back and I drop a Lorazepam into her palm. “We have to fix it. But first, darling, take your night pill.”
“Nonsense, I’m fine!” Dad bellows, pushing her away, nearly toppling her back into the dresser. I reach out, and she grabs onto my arm to steady herself. Trembling, Mom stares at her husband in fear and disbelief. She turns and hands the pill to me.
“I can’t,” she says. “You try.” Over the years I’ve seen my mother when she was unhappy or depressed, even furious or confused. But she has always been a steel magnolia of the first order, a determined farm girl -- indomitable in the face of any disaster. The pain and bald defeat I see in her eyes tonight is new to me -- and terrifying.
Protective fury sweeps over me and I again grab my father’s flailing arm, this time smacking my hand against the bloody wound from his fall. He cries out, shocked.
“Dad, look at us! Look at this mess!” I yell. “You have got to stop drinking! You can’t do this to yourself anymore. You can’t do it to Mom.”
“The hell you say!” Dad bellows. “It’s not your business!”
I yell back at him, swearing -- then stop, suddenly dumbstruck by the awful absurdity of this moment. I’m standing in my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night yelling at the top of my lungs. Their sheltie, Toby, barks at me as if I’m an intruder.
Right now, I think the dog’s right, but I really don’t have a choice. I bear part of the blame for this mess. I came to their home in Delaware from my home in Georgia to help my mother get home from the hospital and recover from stress-induced severe dehydration and exhaustion. She’d been home maybe a week and was just beginning to get some of her strength back when my father -- still adjusting to life after the traumatic brain injury and stroke he suffered last year, which left him and the rest of us to deal with his new unsettling memory problems, diminished capacity, and anger issues -- started drinking like he was on a mission of self-destruction. Earlier, against his doctor’s orders, because one of his best friends had just died, I’d reluctantly gone along with Mom and Dad’s new plan of letting Dad have a martini or two instead of the agreed-upon one glass of wine a day. Over the last few days, the plan has blown up in our faces, with my father making less and less sense earlier and earlier every day and the nights filled with fights, falls, and tears.
But how could I have stopped him? I hate myself for failing -- but come on, I had too much else to think about. I was trying to concentrate on my mother’s needs, but of course, my dad couldn’t stand that and had to manufacture his own emergency. Then I think, No, it’s not him, it’s the altered personality and narcissism of his injured brain. No, it’s not, it’s me and my stupid, incompetent, overwhelmed attention deficit hyperactivity disordered (ADD/ADHD) brain. As my thoughts begin to spiral, an alarm goes off inside my head, and all the therapists I’ve ever had band together and shout in unison: “STOP IT!” (The voice is always Judge Judy’s. I don’t know why.)
“OK, OK,” I sputter. “But I’m in an ADHD stressalanche! Everything is my fault.”
“ADHD is never an excuse,” the voice says. “Finding fault is useless. Breathe. Calm yourself and accept your situation. Look at what’s bothering you about it and then do what you can that’s positive to make things better. That’s all anyone can do.”
I take a long, slow breath and look around. Mom leans against the wall with her eyes closed, catching her breath. Dad continues to yell at me, but I don’t listen. My Judge Judy-voiced therapists’ collective and I focus on reigning in the storm of rage, anxiety, guilt, and sick, hopeless dread that’s blowing apart my chaotic ADD/ADHD brain. As I breathe, I remind myself that I do not want to lash out at my father and make things worse. Dad suffered a debilitating brain injury last year. His drinking is out of control, but above all, this is a man I love and respect. This is the man I was named after and whose stubborn hot temper I inherited. I make myself continue to breathe slowly and deeply. I let go of his arm and, shielding Mom, I step closer to my dad with the pill and some water. I speak with what I hope is the voice of quiet authority.
“Dad, listen,” I say. “You need to take your Lorazepam. Then I’m going to put a bandage on your arm, all right?” He looks me in the eye. I look back. “Here,” I say, holding out the pill. “Please.” I’m trying for Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, but considering my interior chaos and the effect my war hero professor father still has on me, I’m sure I come off more like Jerry Lewis in The Bellhop.
Nonetheless, Dad takes the pill and, still staring daggers at me, swallows it. I begin to fashion a makeshift bandage on his arm to hold him until morning when he’ll be slowed by his hangover and I can properly clean and dress the deep gash he somehow gave himself. “Presumptuous little snot,” he mumbles.
He’s joking, I think, but I don’t respond. Taking advantage of the calm in the storm, I roll tape around the bandage on his arm.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a drink once in a while,” Dad says.
I stay quiet, remaining focused on the job in front of me. I think the ADD/ADHD brain breaks everyday experience into pieces and makes it into sort of a cubist painting. It distorts and refigures your perspective of what's important and, especially under stress, puts a huge amount of importance on minute details and "fixing" activities. In my case, this sometimes happens at the expense of the larger picture -- but not this time.
Now that the collective voice of therapists past has calmed me down, I realize that right now, there is not a thing I can say that will have any effect on my father’s drinking. I could remind him that his doctor told him that due to all the damage from the fall and previous hard living, alcohol was poison to his brain and body and that any more drinking would kill him. I could tell him again that the stress of his continued drinking has been hurting Mom and was partly responsible for putting her in the hospital. But he’d just shout me down. I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been where my father is, and in that place, the bottle is all you listen to. Besides, I’ve already decided what I’m going to do to fix the problem.
His tranquilizer has taken effect, and Dad’s laying back with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself. I tell my mother my plan, and she agrees -- though, as exhausted as she is, she’d probably agree if I told her I was taking Dad off with me to join the circus. I kiss Mom goodnight, then gather up the first aid stuff as she tucks Dad’s legs under the covers. Toby stops barking, wags his tail, and follows me into the kitchen. I give him a dog biscuit, straighten up the living room, clean up the kitchen, start the dishwasher and a load of laundry, and then get to work.
By 3 a.m., I’ve gotten every drop of alcohol out of their house. Gin, bourbon, brandy, red and white wine, champagne, and a bunch of little chocolate bottles of liqueurs, all either poured out and tossed or sealed up in a duct-taped box and stacked on a high garage shelf, along with two wine mini-fridges, ready to be disposed of with the rest of the neighborhood's trash pickup tomorrow.
As presumptuous as it is, I feel it was the only thing to do. And I know it’s just the beginning. I’ll have to call Margaret and tell her I’ll have to stay here for another couple of weeks. Who knows what my father’s going to do when he discovers what I’ve done. But he’s going to do something.
In my next post, the stressalanche gains more and more intensity and I’m sleeping less and less as I try to deal with the anxiety I have about leaving my family back in Georgia, the unsteady situation at my parents’ newly alcohol-free house, and my discovery of their beloved cat (that I never got along with) outside -- dead.