Moving Through Chaos

By Stephanie Dor

I sat across from George*, my therapist, at a round table. After we introduced ourselves, I briefly told him about my history of depression, past counselling, and the work of my recovery. He was different from previous therapists in the casual way that he spoke. He laughed more than any counsellor I’d ever had, and didn’t make notes during our conversation. I wasn’t lying in a long chair and he never said, I see. Tell me more. He told me about his recent move and that he was still transitioning to a new job. He even asked me where to buy eco-friendly light bulbs before he asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about. He also offered me tea.

With past therapists, our conversations were terse and professional. We only discussed the immediacy of my depression, cognitive-behavioural changes that I had to make, and medication. But now that I felt like my depression was dealt with, I decided it was time to talk about something I had avoided in the last years of therapy: My father. He was an alcoholic, and I grew up in an alcoholic home.

Talking about my dad’s drinking in therapy had always felt inappropriate and out of place. I focused on pressing issues like my insomnia and low self-worth because “reaching back into my childhood” was too big a task for me to handle, especially while I was clinically depressed. Now that my depression was gone, I was ready to lie back in a long chair and tell someone about my father.

I told George what living at home was like. As far back as I can remember, my father drank every night. He filled and refilled a short glass with ice and whisky. He would start at dinner time and go on until after I went to sleep. I realized that he actually had a problem in 2007. When I was 16 years old, I saw my dad get violent with my mom for the first time. He hit her, and locked her outside of the house in the middle of the night. It was the first time I had to dial 911.

When I was 19, I started taking antidepressants and was doing poorly in school. By then, one of my sisters had tried to run away several times. My mother was also depressed and wasting away. My dad’s drinking was only getting worse. He’d started drinking during the day on weekends.

My family was beyond the breaking point, but my mother wanted to hold on a little longer. She planned to wait four more years before divorcing and leaving my father. By then, my youngest sister would have graduated from high school and hopefully my mother would be stable enough to take care of us on her own.

George asked me about the incident in 2007, and asked if anything that significant ever happened again. I decided to tell him something I’d never spoken about with anyone outside of my family: I told him about the day we walked away from my dad for good.

It was Saturday, June 18th 2011. I slept in that morning. My sister knocked on my bedroom door and came in to tell me that she was leaving. She didn’t know where she was going, or if she’d be back. She told me she was leaving after breakfast. I was too tired to fight, and said okay.

Right after my sister closed the door, my mom knocked and came in. She wordlessly handed me a grocery list. My dad had crossed out each item and wrote the words need a court order at the top of the list. My mom worried that my dad was going to refuse to buy food. I got out of bed and went downstairs to reason with him.

I told George that my dad was a reasonable man when he wasn’t completely drunk (there was never a time when he was completely sober). Truthfully, he was something of a genius. He had been a university math professor since he was 16 years old. He was an excellent conversationalist, spoke four languages fluently, and was an avid reader. But every morning before going to his lectures, he masked the smell of whisky with Colgate and Old Spice. When he was drunk, he was disagreeable and confusing.

On that Saturday, he was very unreasonable. I asked him about the grocery list, but the conversation went nowhere because he was drunk and angry. My father had a tight hold on everything. He had complete control over the household money and the car. If he refused to buy food then our fridge would simply remain empty.

I can’t remember which of us called the police. Two officers arrived and tried to reason with my father. I remember one officer gesturing to our well-furnished home and family photos on the wall. It was as if he was saying: You have a nice family. You have so many good things around you. This doesn’t look like the typical broken homes we’ve seen.

I explained to George that my father prided himself on his image and the image of our family. In pictures you’d see a husband and his beautiful wife and three daughters. In public, you’d see a well-dressed man wearing a nice watch and driving a nice car. In person, you’d have an intelligent conversation with a man who was passionate about classical music and the World Cup.

At home, my father abused my mother and upset me and my sisters. On that Saturday, he insulted us in front of the officers. He called us stupid, ignorant, and ungrateful. He tried to tell the officers that he’d buy food and that everything was fine. My sister was outraged, and refused to hear what he was saying. She yelled at him and called him a monster, a narcissist, a drunk.

Something lit up in my dad’s eyes when he heard the word drunk. The tone of his voice and the anger in his eyes scared me more than anything. He looked at my sister and said You wait and see. I feared something was going to happen to us once the officers left.

I realized that waiting was no longer an option. We couldn’t endure another four years of his abusive behaviour and his drinking. We couldn’t wait for my youngest sister to graduate. We couldn’t wait for my mom to get on her feet so that we could leave.

So I made a decision: We had to leave, and right that moment. I told my mom and my sisters to pack some clothes and food. I asked the police officers to stay while we gathered our things. I made sure to pack the dog, and poured some of his kibble into a Ziploc bag while my father shouted at us.

That was how it happened. In a few seconds, I made what seems like the obvious choice. I know now that my mother was willing and likely to stay with my father because she was a victim of more than 10 years of abuse. She saw no way out. Without my father, we had no shelter, no car, and no money. Knowing that, I told myself that those weren’t reasons to stay. The thought of my dad hurting us scared me more than the idea of being without food or shelter. I decided that living on the streets was better than living with him, and I made that reckless decision for my entire family. In retrospect, I know I made the right choice.

Things weren’t easy when we left. One of my sisters stayed with her boyfriend’s family. My other sister, my mom, and I stayed in a cheap motel for a month. I racked up credit card debt paying for the room and food and toiletries. But after a few weeks we were reunited again with the help of family friends who opened their home to us. Technically, and on a legal front, my father should have been paying to support us, but we didn’t hear from him again and were happier for it.

I looked at the clock in George’s office and realized that I’d been talking for over half an hour. I felt exhausted. He commented on the decision I made on that day. He asked if I always assumed responsibility in chaotic situations, and I admitted that I had. I stepped in the middle of fights between my parents. I tried to reason with my dad when he was unreasonable. I also tried to keep my sisters away from the chaos, telling them to hide in my room when they got scared.

George asked about my support system. I joked and said that it was my job to support everyone else. For a large part of my childhood and adolescence, I was running on empty. There was little to help me get along. It was around that time that my depression started.

George asked me why I took that role, and I gave the same explanation that I gave to previous counsellors: I helped and protected my mom and my sisters because my father failed to do so. After all, I was the oldest child and the oldest sibling.

Our first session together came to an end. I was surprised by all we had talked about. George suggested that I do some reading on adult children of alcoholics (ACOA), and in our next session, we would talk about whether or not I could relate to anything I read.

The research was startling. I read through a list of typical traits and behaviours of ACOAs and saw a lot of myself:

I burden myself with responsibilities and take on roles that don’t belong to me.  

I tend to see things in extremes.

I get anxious when people display too much emotion.

I get anxious when I start to feel too much emotion, even feelings of joy and happiness.

I have a difficult time forming intimate relationships with people.

 I only get involved with people I think “need my help.”

I have a fear of being abandoned.

I constantly seek the approval of others and strive to appear perfect.

The more research I did on ACOAs, the more I saw myself. And it also felt like I hadn’t really walked away from my father and his drinking. When I saw George again, we talked about all of that.

As the adult child of an alcoholic, I’m still the kid who grew up with all that chaos. I’ve held on to those coping mechanisms that helped me in the past, even now when my environment is more stable. The trauma I grew up with manifested itself in an inexplicable depression that lasted for years. But now I understand why.

I came away from that session with a lesson. The environment that I grew up in was unfortunate and chaotic, and nothing was my fault. My father would have likely been an alcoholic no matter what I did.

I will never fully understand my father, and that hurts. I can understand that because of his drinking, he couldn’t love his family, but I’ll never understand why he couldn’t love himself. Chances at making peace with him are slim. I don’t know where he is, or if he’s even alive. I have no way of contacting him. But I can continue to work on making good changes in my life, despite my past, even if my father isn’t a part of it. I can help my mom and my sisters make peace too.

I did more research and read the “Twelve Steps of Adult Children of Alcoholics.” The first step is “admitting you are powerless over the effects of alcoholism, and that your life has become unmanageable.” I know my life isn’t unmanageable and I refuse to feel powerless.

I had unreasonable expectations of myself after my dad left. I tried to fill his shoes, to be a top student, and to be the best retail employee. But things fell apart for me really fast. My sisters and mom fought with me because I was too controlling. I failed my second year of university. My manager “let me go” because all I did at work was break down and leave partway through my shifts.

I spent a few weeks wallowing in my room and decided that I had to restart if I wanted to keep going. I went to therapy twice a week (I lied and told my mother I was still in school and going to classes) and got on medications that helped me move through the chaos. After a few weeks I got another job and worked for a year, and then I started a new program at a new school.

It’s a work in progress. Sometimes I take steps back instead of forward. My last two relationships have been with people I thought I could fix (and one of them had a bit of a drinking problem), but I woke up and realized what I was walking into before I went too far.

Maybe I should talk to George about that in my next session. There’s still a lot that I don’t understand and a lot that I need to work on, but I have more control now. The fog in which I existed during my depression has lifted and I have more clarity. But I still have a lot of talking to do in counselling.

*I’ve changed my therapist’s name for confidentiality purposes.