Growing up, our tiny childhood world is all we know. If you grow up with eight siblings, all you know is noise and crowded bathrooms and jostling for your parents’ attention. If you are raised by free-range parents, your reality is freedom to explore with few restrictions to confine you. For me, life seemed normal as I grew up in, what I realize now was, a household where addiction seeped through the cracks in the walls. A house where no speck of dust could be found. Where no messes were allowed. And where a little girl lived with perfectly symmetrical pigtails and equally proportionate bows tied to those pigtails. Never a hair out of place. Never a toy left out. Or a dirty dish in the sink.
This is the house you live in when your mother is trying to control her world—but she can’t.
Alcoholism isn’t always what you see in the movies. Alcoholics often go to work every day, rarely appear drunk, and live “normal” lives in suburban Minnesota, like we did. And often the person fighting the addiction plays the part of Dad, Mom, teacher, banker, baseball coach, having no idea they are an addict.
For many, if you call them out and use the term “alcoholic,” they’d laugh, shrug it off, or respond with anger and offense. Yet, the household in which that person lives feels the impact of his addiction every day. The unexpected binge. The paychecks gone missing. The anger at sitting down at a restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol. The panic at arriving at the liquor store at 9:05 p.m. and finding it closed.
And it’s this lack of control that may cause others in the family, like my mother, to fulfill that need elsewhere. Because an immaculate house is something you can control when you don’t know if you can pay the electric bill this month. So it may take you two hours to get out of the house in the morning because every bed must be made (with military precision), and the kids must be dressed in ironed, matching clothes, and that one picture frame in the living room that was slightly tilted to the left cannot be left that way, and…the list goes on.
The struggle of addiction — the need to fill that void before all else — was not new to my mother when she met my dad. Growing up in the 60s with a father who drank heavily, occasionally didn’t come home (no questions asked, of course), and rained his temper down with fury if his dinner wasn’t hot and ready when he did walk in the door, living with an alcoholic was all she knew. Raised in a house of order, of accepting and following the rules, but also navigating the choppy waters when Dad drank too much, this life was her reality.
Even today, after more than 50 years of marriage, she doesn’t understand or acknowledge that my father — her husband — is an alcoholic. Just like she didn’t understand her father was an alcoholic. And she doesn’t think it abnormal that a dust bunny in the corner of the room paralyzes her from having a conversation or laughing at a joke her grandson says.
Growing up, I didn’t understand either. It wasn’t until a therapy session as a grown adult, during which I was describing my family and my childhood, that my therapist asked, “Is there addiction in your family?” He knew immediately. The need for order, for control, the OCD tendencies that I had carried into my own adult life, into my own marriage (the towels MUST be folded in thirds! That’s not the shelf where we put the milk!) were the markers for living with an alcoholic.
As explained in “The Dilemma of the Alcoholic Marriage” on al-anon.org, “If a man marries a woman because he was attracted by her warm maternal quality, as many alcoholics do, he is likely to be the dependent one. And she attracted to him because of her unconscious desire to mother someone, will be the practical member of the family. She may later bemoan the fact that he has failed in his role as head of the house, not aware that it was she who took the reins and did all the managing. And while she is managing him, the children, the household, and the finances, she’s awash with self‑pity because of the big load she has to carry.”
Oftentimes, the spouse of an alcoholic will become a martyr—she’ll do all of the things. Because he does none of the things. And then she’ll passive-aggressively huff and puff around the house in anger, feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated. Even though she took it all on so that she could have the perception of “control.”
American Addiction Centers explains that, as a result of living with an addict, “A pathological need for perfection and control may result in the formation of obsessive-compulsive disorder or a desire to seek the approval of others to the detriment of their own wellbeing.”
Which is exactly what my therapist saw in me. And I now see in my mother. It’s an ugly, nonsensical cycle that sometimes neither partner even knows they are in.
So when I look back on my childhood, what do so I see?
I see a woman doing her best. I see a woman holding on. I see a woman married to a man who often chooses his vices over his family. I see her wiping the table and scrubbing the baseboards and fixing the ribbon in my hair. Because if the outside world saw us as perfect, then maybe she’d be okay.