My parents couldn’t have been more different. My mom was emotionally present and very involved. She never made me feel like a burden. She never drank too much. She was the glue that kept our family together.
My dad, on the other hand, made me feel like a burden all the time. Anything having to do with emotions was not his forte.
“You’re too sensitive,” he’d say.
Every night, he drank his two to three glasses of gin religiously. I don’t think the alcohol was the only thing that caused him to be so removed, but I don’t think it helped him to be more connected either. Looking back, he might have been struggling with mental illness and self-medicating with alcohol. He seemed to be unhappy and easily irritated much of the time. Nothing pleased him.
Was he depressed? Was he dealing with anxiety?
When I hit my teen years and my brother left for college, my dad grew even more distant and unhappy. Though his father was a non drinker and his mother only a social drinker, his parents always emphasized the importance of how you looked on the outside rather than dealing with the “negative” emotions on the inside, so he was just behaving in the way he’d learned to behave. He lived robotically—get up, go to work, come home, have a drink, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed, repeat.
It would take me a while to realize I had grown up in a household with a functioning alcoholic, because functional alcoholism is sly. It can look like normal drinking. Many people’s conception of an alcoholic is someone who’s sloppy, falling over in the street and not functioning at all. If you’re showing up to work every day, as my dad was, many people assume you don’t have a problem.
The other issue with functional alcoholism, besides the fact that it can be hard to recognize, is the quiet damage done to the people around the alcoholic, particularly their kids. I craved my dad’s attention and affection and not getting those things left a hole in my heart.
Since drinking was so normalized in my childhood, it only made sense for me to start experimenting early.
My parents always kept liquor in the cabinet. At 13, I thought, I’ll try a little bit of vodka. They won’t notice. I didn’t get drunk at first. I just took little swigs here and there.
By 16, I was drinking heavily, mostly at parties with my friends. I had a very high tolerance for alcohol. Even when I was wasted, swerving in and out of blackouts, people couldn’t necessarily tell that I was drunk.
Alcohol helped me be more outgoing. I became the life of the party. My anxiety faded to background noise, my pain was numbed. From the ages of 15 to 20, I was stuck in an abusive relationship. Drinking heavily helped me ignore the voice inside that was saying, You need to get out of this and take care of yourself.
I continued to pour alcohol on that voice until one morning that changed my life.
After a night of hard-drinking, I woke up shaking uncontrollably. A few people, my so-called friends at the time, told me to just drink more; that would make the shakes go away. So I drank more and it worked, but this experience stayed with me. I knew waking up with the shakes was serious. Had I become dependent on alcohol?
I was so scared that at the age of 20, I quit drinking.
I also found the strength and courage to leave my abuser. Shortly thereafter, I met my husband, who was and still is my biggest supporter.
In my mid-20’s, my dad’s drinking became more of an issue. He tried to quit several times but would always go back. Although I never saw him drink more than his usual two to three glasses of gin a night, I started to suspect he was drinking in secret. He’d come home at six and an hour later, be passed out in his chair in the living room. It didn’t add up.
At one point, after having announced again that he’d quit drinking, he came up from the basement with a glass of gin in his hand. My mom and I later found an empty bottle hidden inside his workbench. Eventually, he explained that he’d put it there hoping that the inconvenient walk down to the basement would deter him from drinking. Clearly, he was struggling and he knew that. I never told my dad I was worried about his drinking, because we didn’t have that type of open dialogue. Maybe I didn’t expect that he would hear me.
Amazingly, toward the end of his life, my dad did quit drinking.
I still have no idea what finally inspired him to stop. He lost weight. He was doing well. He’d started biking to work and in general, he seemed happier. Our relationship was beginning to heal. On my birthday, he brought me a dozen pink flowers and a chocolate advent calendar. Normally, I got gifts my mom had purchased signed, “Love, Mom and Dad.” I was awestruck by my dad’s gesture, and also holding my breath. Would it last?
Close to two months after my birthday, my dad was diagnosed with liver cancer. Even though he was a functional alcoholic all his life, and even though he’d finally made the brave choice to quit, he couldn’t change the past. All those years of abuse had unfortunately caught up with him.
My dad died the way he had lived.
He was emotionally unattached about the diagnosis and in denial about his fate. He did, however, acknowledge the reality once. He came to my room and said, “I really fucked up.”
“Dad,” I said, “it’s okay.”
I spent the 12 weeks leading up to his death caring for him. Regardless of our relationship, he was my father. I put my emotions aside and loved him in the way I’d always wanted him to love me. I had to make hard decisions. I took his car keys away because he was too sick to drive. I spent the last night of his life helping him rotate between morphine and Lorazepam every 45 minutes to keep him comfortable until he passed early in the morning. He was only 60 and I was 27. Watching someone you love pass away is difficult, and when you have a strained relationship with that person, it’s even harder.
There were so many things still left unsaid when my dad died, and so many wounds left unhealed.
I still don’t understand my dad’s behavior, but I have found forgiveness. I know that he did the best he could do with the tools he was given.
I also know that alcoholism is a disease and not a moral failing. Whether the alcoholic is functional or not, the consequences are devastating for both the alcoholic and everyone around them.
Since my dad’s death, I’ve lost an aunt (my dad’s sister) and an uncle (my mom’s brother) to alcohol-related diseases and accidents.
I often wonder how many of the alcoholics on both sides of my family suffered from mental illness and were drinking to self-medicate. I know when I was drinking, that’s exactly what I was doing: numbing the pain by drowning it out.
I still suffer from anxiety. I also have PTSD from the abusive relationship I left when I was 20. Over the years, I’ve learned ways to treat my symptoms that don’t involve medicating myself with substances. I’ve chosen various modes of therapy to heal myself and to change the pattern going forward with my own children.
My goal is to leave them with a different legacy than the one that was offered to me by my father.
In our house, my kids aren’t exposed to a lot of drinking, so they understand that alcohol isn’t a necessary part of life. I try to be present with them and to allow them to express themselves. I want them to feel safe and protected and never like a burden. I try to give them everything that my dad wasn’t able to give to me. I want to show them what self-care looks like and that it is not selfish. I want our household to be a place where mental health is just as much a priority as physical health. My hope is that by allowing my kids the space to share their feelings now, they won’t want to self-medicate down the road.
The pain of having a functioning alcoholic parent is confusing and corrosive. Because if it didn’t look that bad, if your parent wasn’t out in the street or losing jobs or hurting you physically, then how bad was it, really? Did it really affect you?
Recently, I was telling a friend about my dad and she said, “Wow, my dad was totally a functional alcoholic, too, but I never thought about it that way.”
Functional alcoholism is more prevalent than we know, and in my opinion, it’s not discussed often enough.
I want to give a voice to the children of functioning alcoholics who feel confused, abandoned and ashamed. I want them to know just because their parents went to work and did all the things that society deems important, that doesn’t mean their alcoholism didn’t cause pain. I want people who grew up in the same type of environment as I did to feel validated, and to know that it’s possible to heal.
Written by Jessica Lopez
Today you can find Jessica giving a voice to the children of functioning alcoholics who feel confused, abandoned and ashamed.
If you love her as much as we do, go follow her at @all_things_jess_lopez
Thank you so much, Jessica, for giving hope to others by sharing your story ❤