Caroline Knapp, in her masterpiece memoir, Drinking, A Love Story, wrote, "Alcohol travels through families like water over a landscape, sometimes in torrents, sometimes in trickles, always shaping the ground it covers in inexorable ways. In some families alcohol washes across whole generations, a liquid plague."
My mother always warned me, "You had better watch out. It runs on both sides of the family." And she wasn't kidding around. There was my father's cousin Billy, who made it home from World War II and his boat getting torpedoed by a German submarine, only to get hit by a car and killed after stumbling drunkenly off the curb. My maternal grandmother 's two sisters were alcoholic and one even died from cirrhosis. My maternal grandfather's sister was also alcoholic, but she was high-functioning and fixed cars and did other handy crap. My fraternal grandmother's sister was a bar-drinker and used to drag my grandmother to the bar with her after my grandfather died back in the 30's. My grandmother didn't appear to have drunk over that magical line into becoming an alcoholic like her sister, but she did re-marry a bar-drinker.
My grandmother's other sister was more of a lace-curtain alcoholic: she married well, lived in a gated community in Mountain Lakes. My father remembers this aunt as being a rather passive mother, sort of the go-with-the-flow type, like the time he and his cousin were little and riding in her car: the cousin started beating on her head with a hard toy while she was driving and she said anemically, "Now don't do that, Dear..." My father put it together later that she was in a constantly medicated state. And when her husband threw her out of the house, she came to live in the modest apartment with my father's family. My father's mother didn't keep alcohol in the house so after several days, his aunt got down on her knees and begged my grandmother to drive her back to Mountain Lakes. But her husband didn't want her back in the house if she wasn't going to change her ways. He eventually took her back but she couldn't stop. Years later, she died in a motel near the Lincoln Tunnel. It wasn't clear what happened to her and the police were only able to put together that she had met a man at a bar and he told police when he left the motel, she was still alive. Her story may be one of the saddest ones I've heard from my father.
Another sad story is the one of my cousin, who is about five years older than I am. I remember her at 17, beautiful, with long brown hair and flawless olive skin. And I recall her a few years later: a young, urban professional in her West Village apartment, having our family over for a cocktails. It's so hard to believe she was that girl by looking at her Florida mugshot which is actually posted on the internet. It was taken a couple years ago. She was only 48, but she looked much older, with her frizzy, unkempt hair, droopy eyelids, bloated face and floating teeth. Gone was the olive skin; it was a blotchy waxy color. My mother says she is sober today and doing better but she is chaotic and lives with my aunt.
I think a lot about this idea of alcoholism running in families and how it runs sometimes in "trickles" and other times in "torrents." I think about how some alcoholics seem to have been born with the disease while others have drank over the line into alcoholism, some finding that line in their 20's and some in their 50's or later. I think about how it presented as a "liquid plague" in my family in the 1930's and '40's and how seemed to barely run as a trickle through my parents' generation, only to bubble up again through me and a few others in my generation.
What is really chilling to me is that this disease doesn't seem to be passed down just through the bloodline. It seems to look for help in an almost Darwinian way. Just when the disease seemed to find a dead end, it still finds a way to replicate. For instance, how many adult children of an alcoholics, too disgusted with alcohol to drink enough of it to cross that invisible line into the disease, find themselves inexplicably drawn to alcoholics? Too many.
I am trying to break the chain by stamping out the flames of my active alcoholism but I can't help but notice little sparks coming from one of my sons. Just little early warning signs in his personality. All I can do is model sober behavior for him, love him and hope for the best.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am furiously working on my family tree and going through my father's many photo albums and scrapbooks. It is fascinating, astonishing and often heartbreaking to put the faces with the names of all of these whose lives were marred by alcohol, some so young and fresh-faced, like my father's aunt, the one who would, one day, be on her knees begging my grandmother for access to a drink. There is a portait of her looking so flawless, like a Franklin Mint doll. And another one of her sitting on porch with her husband, both dressed in smart outfits, looking like they had it all. And Cousin Billy in his military portrait. Page after page, photos of relatives with their lives ahead of them. And just like today, when alcohol is "in the picture," it never shows up in the photo, it stays behind closed doors until it can no longer be contained.