The Book That Let Me Know I Was Not Alone

By Leah Odze Epstein

As the daughter of an alcoholic mother, I often wondered if there was anyone else out there in the world like me. None of my friends had alcoholic parents and I felt like a freak. I was the only girl not invited to a neighborhood friend’s birthday party because her mom worried that I came from a bad family. I knew this because my best friend tried to console me by telling me that the girl said it wasn’t her fault I wasn’t invited–it was her mother’s.

Eventually my mom got sober, went to Alcoholics Anonymous, and explained how she could never tell who else attended the meetings at the local church. It was a secret, but trust her, some of our neighbors were there. How would I ever find someone like me out in the real world when alcoholism was a big secret that everyone kept?

My solution was to read everything I could get my hands on, to see if I could find someone like me.  I devoured all the realistic fiction in the library–Freaky Friday, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed Up Files, Bridge to Terabithia, The Brothers Lionheart. I loved that many of the adults and kids in these books were the opposite of  the sparkly, perky perfectly put-together TV people in shows like Father Knows Best and The Brady Bunch. Parents in books were inattentive, harsh, insensitive or otherwise flawed. Kids were complicated creatures whose problems were existential or monumental and couldn’t be solved in the literary equivalent of one episode.

I’m sure I read books with a drunk father or a town drunk (always a man) lurking in the background, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first read Robin F. Brancato’s Something Left to Lose, a novel featuring the daughter of an alcoholic mother.

The book’s main character, Jane Ann, likes to play it safe, but she is drawn to the charismatic Rebbie, who has an alcoholic mother and a highly successful father who is never around.

Finally, here were girls just like me! Jane Ann’s mother disapproves of her daughter’s friendship with Rebbie, just like that neighborhood mom didn’t want her daughter to invite me to her birthday party. I, too, had a rebellious best friend who drew me into situations that thrilled and scared me.

A book doesn’t have to mirror your life exactly to change it. Unlike Rebbie, I never felt like I had nothing left to lose. My older sister had already taken that route.

I’d always pigeonholed myself into the role of the good, safe, responsible girl–the “Jane Ann”–but while reading Something Left to Lose, I found bits and pieces of myself in all the different characters: Rebbie, the confused rebel; Jane Ann, the artsy dreamer; and Lydia, the perfectionist peacekeeper.

Eighth grade, the year I read the book, marked the year I broke out of my shell. Previously, I had a habit of slumping down in my seat and shrugging my shoulders if anyone spoke to me. If the teacher called on me, I’d say, “Sorry,” before I spoke, and then when I answered the question, I’d turn bright red.

Something Left to Lose made me bolder, made me feel less ashamed because it gave me a model of a bad-ass girl who experienced the same thing as I did and instead of internalizing everything and shrinking inward, used her anger, disappointment and upset as fuel.

At the end of the book, Jane Ann’s family decides to move to another state, but she is forever changed by her friends.

She carries some of Rebbie’s boldness inside her. “How’s your mother?” she asks Rebbie. When Rebbie answers, “O.K.,” Jane Ann presses on. “Is she drinking?”

Brancato writes: “[Jane Ann] is surprised by how easily the question came out–no substitute word–just the question, pure and simple.”

Jane Ann dares to ask Rebbie about her mom’s drinking. It is no longer a secret.

As long as we continue to hide the dark parts of our lives and present a one-sided story to the outside world, there will be girls and boys like I was, aching to find characters that show them all the different ways of dealing with life’s actual problems.

Here are some additional books for daughters of alcoholic mothers:

My Mama’s Waltz: A Book For Daughters of Alcoholic Mothers (nonfiction)

A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles (young adult fiction)

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (young adult fiction)

Teens Talk About Alcohol and Alcoholism (nonfiction)

I’d welcome any additional book suggestions. Was there a book that saved your life when you were a kid?

Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press). Her essay in the book is about growing us as the daughter of an alcoholic.

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“The Cycle” Part 1: The Mother

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by Karen Franklin

My father’s alcoholism was an embarrassment.  Some families had their dirty little secrets but my dad was so extreme with his drinking that I felt like everyone knew, which made it feel even more humiliating.  My family lived in a two-story house with my mom’s brother and family upstairs.  I imagined what they must have thought as they listened to my father’s drunken rages against our family.  I hated everything about alcohol; how it smelled, how it tasted and how my father behaved when he drank it.

So how did it happen that I too touched the bottle to my lips at the age of thirteen and became an instant alcoholic?  I was smarter though because I didn’t need to drink every day, only when I felt I needed it.  I moved far away and married a man who was a quieter version of my father and we started a family.  His increased drinking and abuse of drugs soon disillusioned me.  If he was the problem, why did I still feel so empty after I divorced  him?  I curtailed my partying as I took on the role of single parent and breadwinner while creating an illusion that my life was under control.  That worked well until the addiction started to show up in my young teenagers.

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When the pain of watching my children being consumed by addiction became greater than my occasional need to self medicate, I knew that it was time to break the cycle.  I understood that my family was once again being destroyed by addiction and it was time to take action to stop this legacy of pain.  I became willing to take whatever action was needed. My sobriety date is one month behind my daughter Lauren.

In a way… I guess you could say we saved each other.

Karen Franklin, the co-author with her daughter of ADDICTED LIKE ME, A Mother-Daughter Story Of Substance Abuse and Recovery (www.addictedlikeme.com), has spent the past twenty-one years recovering from the legacy of her family addiction. She resides in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and has committed her life to helping others in their personal recovery process.

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Al-Anon Ambivalence

meeting streetby Leah Odze Epstein

The problem with Al-Anon meetings is they’re not fun. In fact, they’re so depressing, they could drive a person to drink. Okay, so maybe I’ve only ever been to two meetings in my life, and I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but still…

As the daughter of an alcoholic, I sometimes need to vent, and it’s better to vent to people who’ve been in the same position. But couldn’t we  lighten up the mood a little bit? Couldn’t we change up the location so we’re not sitting in the basement of a fluorescent-lit church, on a hard chair, drinking bad coffee?

Were the two Al-Anon meetings I went to eye-opening? Yes. Paradigm-shifting? Yes. But they kind of left me spooked.

One day when I was in my late twenties and living on the Upper West Side of  Manhattan and very few things in my life worked, I felt compelled to drag myself to my first Al-Anon meeting. I was used to fixing things by myself, but the nightly bottle or two of red wine I shared with my best friend just wasn’t working anymore. I was waking up flushed and hung over.

On my way to the meeting, I was riddled with the fear that I’d run into somebody I knew, or worse—that they would ask, “Where are you going?”

Irrational? Well, this is the kind of secrecy and shame I learned as the daughter of an alcoholic. My lifelong code: Don’t let them see you crack. It may have been hard at home, but no one had to know. That would only make them criticize my mother, and by extension, me.

That code made it kind of hard to want to go to a Meeting. In public. But I suppose that’s part of the battle: getting to the meeting to break that feeling of public shame.

As a teenager and young adult, I wore the façade of an untroubled free spirit, so when I walked into the Al-Anon meeting on that crisp Fall evening, it jarred me to look around at my fellow attendees. Like me, most people at the meeting were in their twenties. Unlike me, most of these people exposed their trauma right there for all to see. They were like live wires, with their unlit cigarettes and shaking hands clutching coffee cups. The room buzzed with energy.

I cringed as the guy beside me told of his alcoholic parents locking him in the basement–torturing him. I heard about incest. Evil stepmothers. Runaways. I was nothing like these people. What I’d suffered was long ago. Minimal, compared.

My memories of my mother’s drinking were as fuzzy as a drunk’s vision. I was nine when she stopped drinking. The stories I remembered seemed minor. And yet I carried them around inside of me, like my driver’s license in my wallet with its unflattering photo, slightly out of focus.

The people at the Al-Anon meeting told their stories willingly. I remember thinking they must be so messed up they had no choice but to tell. Then a girl—a beautiful folksinger with long, wavy blonde hair and faded jeans—stood up and spoke. She was an artist, a true free spirit; the girl I was pretending to be. I sat there, listening, my body trembling, as I tried not to cry. Not one single outward detail of her life story resembled mine, yet the emotions rang true.

There, in that room, I finally found people who got it–who felt like me, alone and alienated most of the time, except there, in that room, when they told their stories. I felt those people could help me, if I let them. But I couldn’t bring myself to go back to that depressing room.

Nearly a decade later, plagued by some of the same issues that seem to haunt adult children of alcoholics (control issues? Check. Accept nothing less than perfection? Check. Alienated? Yup), I went to another Al-Anon meeting in the suburbs. Again with the dimly lit room. Again with the hard chairs. Again with the basement. Were we trying to re-create our childhood suffering through the setting? I didn’t get it.

There were only eight of us sitting in a circle, and I was the youngest. No one smoked or drank coffee. The energy in the room was flat. I couldn’t breathe. But I sat there and listened to the forty-something woman with the twisted hands talk about her crippling rheumatoid arthritis and her nightmare mother. I listened to the nearly 300 pound man talk about his bad mother, too. And the woman whose lips barely moved when she, too, spoke of her evil mother.

I never went back to Al-Anon after that. I’m not saying it’s not a lifesaver for many people. I’m sure it is. Still…

Sometimes, I fantasize about the kind of meeting I might like to attend. First off, I wouldn’t call it a meeting. Maybe a Girl’s Night Out. There would be women my age, maybe a bit younger, some a bit older. The women would be smart and funny. Some would have battle scars, but they’d talk about them with humor. Maybe we’d laugh until we cried, sharing our stories, and how we turned out after all that craziness. I picture sitting in a warm cozy place, maybe on a red velvet couch–My fantasy Al-Anon meeting takes place in a restaurant, or a bar.

I shake my head to wake up from my dream–we’re supposed to be scarred by alcohol, bruised. But in my opinion, we’re the lucky ones, the ones who escaped, the ones who didn’t qualify for AA. That calls for celebration: bright lights, a nice glass of wine and a comfortable chair. Or at the very least, a latte.

Leah Odze Epstein is co-editor of Drinking Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @Leaheps and you can become a fan of drinking diaries on facebook.

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Remember Kitten from Father Knows Best?

kitten from father knows bestRemember Kitten from “Father Knows Best,” one of those oppressive shows that made you feel really bad about your own dysfunctional family? Turns out she, too, came from a dysfunctional family, and the TV show of her actual life might have been more aptly titled, “Thank God Father Knows Best Because Mother Is a Freakin’ Nightmare.” See below–Excerpted from TCPalm.com

VERO BEACH — When Lauren Chapin played the character of the youngest daughter on the hit TV series “Father Knows Best” half a century ago, the small-screen version of her life projected the warmth and stability of the archetypal 1950’s nuclear family.

But Chapin, now an ordained minister at Immanuel Church of Vero Beach, wants women to know that her real life wasn’t always like that. Her real-life mother was an alcoholic and Chapin was abused as a child.

But she also wants women to know that if she can overcome such obstacles in life, they can, too.

Chapin, 64, recently moved to Vero Beach and will share her life story in a new series entitled Women of Purpose, which is offered Friday evenings at 7 p.m. at the Immanuel Church. The 16-week program, starting this Friday, is free and open to the public.

“This is going to be an interactive program,” Chapin explained. “I’m not going to stand up in front and lecture people. Instead we’re going to share our stories with each other, pray for each other and apply the word of God to our lives with joy. It’s going to be very casual and comfortable.”

The series is open to women from diverse backgrounds, be they of different faiths or non-believers, she said. It is designed to benefit women dealing with such problems as drug or alcohol addictions, prison records, loneliness — or those without such problems, she said.

AND HERE SHE IS TODAY, HAVING SURVIVED IT ALL: 

Lauren Chapin            

Lauren Chapin

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