Stress, a death in the family, and my father's alcoholism trigger alcohol cravings -- a desire to be anxiety-free -- even after 10 years of sobriety. Like ADHD, alcoholism is with me for life.
by Frank South
I blame a lot of what happened during my last visit to Delaware to help out my parents on their cat, Clifford. I know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I’m going to anyway.
In my last post, I described the anger I was feeling -- and how I was coping with it -- at the toll my 87-year-old father’s drinking was taking on his and my 89-year-old mother’s emotional and physical health. I got rid of every bottle of liquor in the place and, in an ending fit of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) hyperfocus overkill, even scrubbed out the liquor cabinet with Clorox Clean-Up, as if I could get rid of the stain of alcohol with a little extra elbow grease and bleach.
Of course, alcoholism can't be scrubbed away; once it’s there, it’s permanent. When I woke up the next morning, I had to face the unpleasant truth that maybe all the self-righteous rage I’d taken out on my father and his booze supply was really rage at the powerlessness I feel as an alcoholic myself. I haven’t had a drink for 10 years, but still, the dismay I felt these recent nights with my father lurching around the house with his walker, gin-blasted and giggling, was partnered with envy. Even when he fell by the back door and later in their bedroom, ripping a gash in his arm, I was as jealous of his oblivion as I was concerned about his and my mother’s safety.
But this is about Clifford, the black cat responsible for this mess. Last January, right before I came up for a visit, my brother, Rob, and sister-in-law, Sharon, gave Clifford to my parents. A veterinarian friend had rescued Clifford, full-grown and long-haired, from beside the highway. Dad and their sheltie, Toby, were happy to take him in. I, however, am super-allergic to cats (allergy pills barely work), and honestly, I just don’t like cats that much. But Rob and Sharon live near my parents; they do the day-to-day checking-in and assisting. I, as an occasional visitor and helpmate, really had no grounds to object. The first day of my January visit, I sat on the couch with my eyes running and sneezed. I looked up. Yellow-eyed Clifford was two feet away, sitting in front of me on the coffee table, smirking.
During those two weeks in January as we tolerated each other, he became the kitty apple of my parents’ eyes. They loved to chuckle and complain as they let Toby and Clifford in and out of the house and gently scolded the cat for jumping on the kitchen counter but objected when I pushed him off. Neatly lined up spice containers clattered into the sink when I turned my back. Long black cat hairs began appearing in the butter. “That crazy cat,” was all my mother would say.
Maybe it’s because cats show no regard to my lifelong attempt to bring order to my scattered ADD/ADHD brain by bringing disorder to my immediate surroundings. Maybe it’s the hungry yowl and sudden appearance of a jumping cat that undoes all of my careful concentration. Maybe it’s my constant sneezing in their presence. I just don’t get along with pets of the feline type. Dogs, I love. I have a dog brain, they have dog brains, and we understand each other. My parents’ sheltie, Toby, and I have always gotten along. Then toward the end of the January visit, I found empty boxes of doggie treats on the floor that had been pushed off the top of the refrigerator. The dog and cat were working together.
So when I showed up in March to help out and give Rob and Sharon a break, Mom was in the hospital suffering from extreme dehydration and exhaustion, Dad was drinking gin and eating bratwurst with the TV blaring CNN, and Clifford ruled the roost with Toby as coconspirator. I popped allergy pills, went to the hospital to see when I could get Mom home, went to the grocery store, and reluctantly -- at my father’s insistence -- went to the liquor store to get a couple of gargantuan bottles of Bombay Sapphire. Since Dad’s head injury, my brother, Dad’s doctor, and I already considered dad’s drinking a problem. But Dad and Mom had worked out an agreement where he’d (supposedly) drink in moderation. So I bought the stuff (along with healthy ingredients for homemade rice pudding and chicken soup). After bringing everything home, I watched and worried as Dad poured his monster martinis. A couple of nights later during dinner, I told him that Mom could be home from the hospital within a few days. After he put his plate down for the animals to finish, he let them both outside. He shook his head and smiled as Clifford jumped up on the ledge outside the living room window and yowled before taking off across the snowy yard. “That crazy cat,” he said. Later, Toby came back but not Clifford. Dad was still up and told me to go on to bed. He’d let the cat in when he showed up. “Clifford always shows up eventually,” he said as he poured himself another martini.
The next morning, I had to go to the corner drugstore for allergy pills and meds for Mom and decided to walk to get some exercise. It was still wet and icy from the night’s storm. When I turned the corner around the front hedge, lying on the sidewalk in front of me was Clifford. He’d been dead for some hours. He was covered with a sheet of ice crystals, blood from being hit by a car in a frozen pool by his head. I stood over him, stunned. I felt pity for this headstrong animal but even more for my parents. They’d formed such an immediate bond with Clifford, the crazy cat.
I went back to the house and told my dad what I’d found. It was decided I should bury Clifford in the back yard under a tree between the shed and the woodpile. Later, I’d tell Mom when I visited her at the hospital. Dad, Toby by his feet, had a morning martini and stoically watched CNN as I dug the hole. But what I really wanted was to be able to drown out the confusion and conflicting voices in my head, like Dad was doing. I was pissed that I wanted my dad’s easy abandon of pouring martini after martini, thumbing his nose at responsibility and fear. When you’re drunk, you don’t care. And more than anything, I wanted to not care. But I’m sober, so I kept digging. As I covered Clifford with the last of the dirt, I cried and blamed that cat for shoving death in my face, for showing me that no matter how I feared it, I couldn’t ignore my mom and dad’s looming mortality.
Lying here in bed days later, on the morning after I went off the rails, yelled at my father and threw away all his liquor, I wonder if in my confused and desperate attempt to save him and my mother, to protect them from what I’m powerless to stop, I just made things worse for them. I can hear Dad’s rolling walker go by my door as he heads for the kitchen. It’s time for me to get up, make some coffee, and find out.
In the next post: surprises and suspicion all around in my dad’s first alcohol-free days. As Dad and I pass the time moving pieces on a chessboard, we play an emotional game of chess. Calls from my family in Georgia at night tell me that I’m needed at home, but I’m afraid to leave because I can feel a storm brewing here in Delaware.