The Other Side of Alcoholism

Like many people, I grew up in a family affected by alcoholism. Actually what I want to say is “a family destroyed by alcoholism,” but as a writer I consider that verb and tell myself it’s a cheat, an attempt to wring emotion from a reader. The truth, though, is that alcoholism did destroy my family.

I’ve never written about this, and, even now, decades later, I can’t believe how difficult it is to put my thoughts about what happened to my family into words for all to see. I’ve written a number of sentences and deleted every one. For here’s another truth: I feel guilty writing about it because I love the person who was the alcoholic, the person who had the disease, the person who by some unbelievable strength of will was able to stop drinking. It feels like character assassination.

I realize my story is not unique. Sometimes it seems that almost everyone I meet has been affected by alcoholism because of a parent who drank, or a spouse, child, sibling, close relative, or close friend. Over the years, I’ve traded horror stories with others about what it is like to suffer when someone you love drinks too much, but I’ve never talked to an alcoholic about what it is like to be the person whose drinking is out of control.

If only I had met Caroline Knapp before she died at age 42. In her memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, she wrote about her struggle with alcoholism, telling her story “with candor and eloquence.”

Drinking is a short book, and Knapp’s prose is spare and graceful. She doesn’t ask for the reader’s sympathy, she simply tells her story, unflinchingly, and because she is so honest about why and how she drank, about acknowledging what her drinking did to those she loved, I couldn’t help but like and feel sorry for her. Partway through reading the book, I looked her up on the web and was heartbroken to learn that she was dead.

If those who live with an alcoholic feel both guilt and anger toward the person who is drinking, so too does the alcoholic carry the burden of these suffocating emotions. Time and again, Knapp writes about the guilt she feels upon waking with yet another hangover, remorseful and anxious about her actions, worried that she has finally, once too often, offended those she loves. For when she drank, she was not the stereotypical happy drunk, but was mean and full of rage — a rage made fluid by the liquor she drank.

Knapp was lucky that the people she cared for most did not abandon her. When you love someone, you can forgive the most unforgivable actions. It just takes time.

My wish is that all who have struggled with alcoholism or any other addiction — whether they are the alcoholic or someone in the alcoholic’s circle of family and friends — read this book. It may bring understanding and some measure of comfort.

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