NAVIGATING THE EMOTIONAL WORLD: "MY WHOLE FAMILY IS ALCOHOLIC."
The environment in which Judy was raised had a profound effect on her emotional, cognitive, and psychological development, and it significantly altered the trajectory of her life as a result. Everywhere Judy turned for support she found addiction, loss, secrecy, and exclusion. Alcoholism and drug abuse were rampant in her family. Both of her parents and many other family members struggled with alcoholism. In her attempts to navigate the complexities of her painful emotional world, she too succumbed to the maladaptive coping mechanisms that her family introduced. Ultimately, Judy was the only one to find her way out.
When we talk about substance abuse, my whole family is alcoholic. I am the only family member . . . who has recovery. I started drinkin’ at the age of four, my father was a bartender for over forty-five years, uhm, and, I got to learn how to make my own drinks. I would go to the liquor store, buy what I need, go home make it, get smashed, go to bed.
Judy’s family history includes many accounts of psychological distress and loss that were further complicated by an atmosphere of secrecy. Therefore it is difficult to know how far back the ghosts originated. Attempting to navigate this environment in a safe and coherent manner as a young child was nearly impossible. Judy absorbed the damage, absorbed the unfiltered pain until she could not tolerate it anymore. It was only after she hit “rock bottom,” what Judy called “a high emotional low,” that she began to turn her life around and to seek the support she had been lacking from her family and immediate social network for the majority of her childhood and early adult life.
By the time this happened, Judy’s alcoholism had already begun to take its toll on her physically, mentally, and emotionally. Reflecting back on this time, she wondered whether the emotional pain she was experiencing had prompted her drinking problem or whether the drinking had exacerbated her emotional suffering. The recognition that alcohol had become problematic in her life marked a turning point in Judy’s recovery.
Uhm, which started first- which made the alcoholism, the drug addiction and the mental illness? I don’t know but uhm, I know that, in . . . ‘91, uhm . . . was when I really hit bottom because . . . I started getting physically sick and I was bleeding internally and the doctors wasn’t sure why. And in October, I went to a church meetin’ and I hooked up with a lady named Phyllis who happens to be in AA, and uhm, it was a Thursday night in October that I remember uhm, in the church basement and, uhm . . . it was that night that . . . I would describe like hitting my high emotional bottom. And I just ran in the kitchen and I just basically cried.
Judy was able to further link the issues of secrecy and rejection that she had felt while growing up directly to her substance abuse: “In AA, according to the twelve steps, they talk about honesty openness and willingness. That’s what I live my life by now. I don’t I don’t want to live in games, lies . . . it’s gonna- it’s gonna mess up my recovery, my health.” Unfortunately, substance abuse was commonplace throughout her family, and this fact exacerbated the already strained relationships that Judy had with her siblings and other relatives.
Judy described an incident in which one of her nieces had physically assaulted her. When Judy decided to pursue the case in court, she mentioned in a very casual, matter-of-fact tone that as a result, “of course my father wrote me out of the will, too.” On her father’s death, she was excluded from the right to mourn along with her family. When Judy arrived at the funeral, she told her mother, “ I’m just up here just for- just- just- just- just for you. Just for five minutes and then I’m gonna leave because I know I’m not wanted by my brother, my sister, and the kids, and, and I left.” Judy felt completely rejected and excluded, even while mourning the death of her own father. This was yet another blow, in addition to the loss of her dad. Again, her own mourning process was foreclosed by circumstances that would not allow a space for her experience of loss to be expressed or shared with others. She was left to handle this death on her own, as she had several times earlier. Judy’s sense of alienation that began in early childhood continued throughout her adult life. And aside from the sadness and pain that this caused her, a part of Judy recognized that she had to maintain significant distance from toxic relationships lest they consume her.
I really don’t have any family left. . . . Yeah I do have a brother, my sister and
the kids here in-----County, I don’t talk to them they don’t talk to me, because
they are still doin’ drugs and alcohol but I know where they are. They don’t know where I am. I lost both parents, I lost my husband. It can’t get any worse than (laughing) that.