Many years ago, I was a conference in Montreal for literacy teachers and their adult students. During the day, we attended workshops, had lunch together and discussed the many things we were learning, over coffee break. Evenings were free. In a city like Montreal, there was no lack of things to do and places to go. One evening, I ended up with several other conference-goers in a well-known smoked-meat restaurant. We had just finished a delicious meal and were lined up at the cash register to pay when I spotted a friend and colleague – a young teacher – having what was clearly an argument on the sidewalk outside with one of her teenaged students. A tall and physically-imposing young man, he stood head and shoulders over his tiny little teacher. Even under the light of a streetlamp, I could see that she looked frightened and way out of her element.
For a timid person, I surprise myself sometimes. At that moment, I just knew that going outside to greet them was the right thing to do. “Hey!” I called to them cheerfully as I approached, “What’s going on? What are you guys up to, anyway?” My friend shot me a surprised look of pure relief and gratitude. Her young student, I surmised within just a few seconds, was very drunk. It turned out, she would later explain to me, that she had been worriedly looking for him and had found more than she had bargained for when she did spot him, stumbling along the sidewalk near the restaurant where I was eating. “We’re looking for a PARTY!” he thundered. “I want to PARTY!” He was huge – and he also happened to be a country boy with a learning disability and limited people skills, far from home and in no condition to be wandering the streets of a city like Montreal.
“Well, you’re going the wrong way if you’re looking for a party,” I informed him good-naturedly, “The party’s back at the residence (at McGill University, where we were all staying). “You wanna join us?” and with that, I linked my arm companionably into his on one side, and into his tiny teacher’s on the other, and started walking them back in the direction of where we were staying, chattering all the way about silly, inconsequential things.
By the time we got there, he was ready to crash. Together, my friend and I managed to dump him into his bed, turn out the light and creep silently away after a promise to ‘wake him up as soon as the party started’.
When we were far enough away from his door, my friend stopped and turned to me. “Oh, Patti!” she exhaled shakily, as her eyes filled with tears for the first time. “Thank you SO much! I was terrified! I had no idea how to handle that situation! How did you DO that? How did you know just what to DO? Why weren’t you AFRAID?”
Well, years and years of experience with an alcoholic parent and as many years experience with the alcoholic friends of that parent, you see. I can generally tell a belligerent drunk from a benign, peevish drunk. I understand that the mood of a drunk can change on a dime – like a small child, sometimes, you just have to find that one little thing to distract them and lead them back to a safer patch of ground. Other times, all you can do is leap out of the way.
When I was a young child, I could ‘read’ the atmosphere within seconds of entering my house. I knew when to hide out and I knew when it was safe to emerge.
Sometimes, hiding was impossible, of course. But making yourself very small and very quiet helps. A lot.
I was very, very good at hiding, even when I was right there, in the room.
One of the hardest parts of being the child of an alcoholic is deeply loving someone who can be so wonderful – and then, when you least expect it – so…volatile. It’s like living with a live bomb, never knowing what is going to set it off. Being the child of an alcoholic means deeply loving someone you don’t always like very much: loving someone who takes up a lot of space; who frightens you; who occasionally ruins parties and other social occasions; who embarrasses you in front of your friends (even when they haven’t even noticed anything is amiss); who acts so loving one moment and so full of anger the next. Loving an alcoholic means constantly walking on eggshells; always watching what you say and also, how you say it (using the wrong ‘tone’ is a trigger you do not want to push).
I have a friend who has been sober many long years now, and his son still refuses to speak to him. My friend is an amazing man: kind, wise, compassionate, giving and incredibly intelligent. It is hard for me to imagine that he must have been a very different person when he drank, for his son to want no piece of him, all these years later.
How I wish I could help his son see his father through my eyes.
Because that is the really sad part: most alcoholics that I have known are really, really wonderful people. It would be so easy if the alcoholics in our lives were consistently terrible people who hurt us, abuse us and embarrass us. Cutting them loose, one would think, should be effortless. But alcoholics, just like the rest of us, are lovers, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, teachers and friends, with flaws and scars and a whole bunch of pain that just won’t go away.
I sort of wish I didn’t have the gift of calming a quarrelsome drunk. It’s a strange talent to have developed. I wish people didn’t become so broken that alcohol (or whatever else: name the addiction of choice here) seems the only way to cope. I wish all people with an addiction could sort out their ‘crap’ before having kids.
But we all bring our baggage into adulthood. Lord knows, I did…
Patti Moore Wilson © wednesdayschildca.wordpress.com