I was 14 years old when my father died.
The death certificate records his death as due to carbon monoxide asphyxiation, but he really died as a result of alcoholism.
I’m able to write about it dispassionately because decades of distance offer a clearer perspective. But my youthful experience with alcoholism can never be totally erased: the slurred speech and wavering stride of the drunken man, funny in the movies, pathetic in reality; the pleadings and initiatives to help – all to no avail; the anger and recriminations that became so frequent and so futile.
There were the nightly muffled arguments we children were not supposed to hear, but with pillows clutched tightly to our ears, we heard all too clearly.
There was the discovery of bottles hidden all over the place: in the heating vents, in the drawers, behind the books. There were the excuses and clumsy jokes used to explain my father’s absence from school or family events.
There was the frustration of not knowing what to say to help. And there was always the fear of not knowing when to expect the next explosion of temper or where it might come from – the nerve-wracked mother or the broken father.
My mother had been in the AA program for more than a year, during which she encouraged my father to get involved. Whether from the pressures of hard-drinking friends or from the increasingly strong hold alcohol had on him, my father found it impossible to quit.
He was a talented carpenter, but his work began to fall off. He got fewer jobs and spent more time brooding – and drinking. His physical condition deteriorated, but suggestions that he enter a hospital were angrily denounced. When, for the first time in their marriage, my mom got a job to supplement our meager income, my father sank into a deeper despondency. He killed himself in 1969, a victim of alcoholism.
I am writing this column because of some encounters I’ve had with individuals in the LGBT community who are clearly caught in the maw of alcohol and drug addiction. I am also writing it because of enabling behavior I’ve witnessed by friends and acquaintances of these individuals.
People are often afraid to say anything or are unsure about the proper way to intervene. If you really care, please put your fears aside and take the risk. If your friend or loved one has become unreliable, a source of embarrassment due to public intoxication, or argumentative or abusive, it’s time for a talk.
Guidelines about the “dos” and “don’ts” of interventions are on the Internet. Have other family members or friends reinforce your concerns. It’s all right to express your disappointment. People under the influence do hurtful things, and they need to know how their behavior has affected others. But be encouraging about the changes they need to make and be prepared to offer resources and support for their recovery. Expect resistance and denial – they are part of the problem. Be firm but loving.
Recovery is a long, ongoing process. There may be relapses along the way. Some people, like my dad, don’t make it. Many others are able to turn their lives around and learn to enjoy family, friends and work drug-free. It’s always worth the risk to help them do this.
Jamakaya has been an award-winning writer, historian and feminist activist in Milwaukee for 40 years. Her writing has appeared in dozens of local and national publications. See more about her at http://www.Jamakaya.com.