“Is alcoholism contagious? Can it be inherited? Did my behavior affect my children?”

If I could drink socially, I’d still be drinking.
If I could drink socially, I’d still be drinking.
Image: Thomas Picauly/ Unsplash
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This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Jack, 50’s

Growing up, drinking was a favorite family pastime. Everything that we did included alcohol; when something bad happened, my parents drank. When something good happened, my parents drank. When nothing happened, my parents drank. When I turned 15, I started drinking, too, and once I started, I just couldn’t stop. My parents might as well have replaced my bottle with a six pack.

My dad was the one who really had a problem, and my problem was that I looked up to him. Seeing him behave that way made it seem as if it was alright for me to do the same. I idolized him even when he came home so drunk that he’d piss the bed and I’d have to help my mom change the sheets and turn the mattress over the next day. He was a man, and that’s what men did in those days. I don’t even think he thought about the effect his behavior had; he just went to work every day and kept the family fed, and he figured he was doing alright by us.

And wouldn’t you know it, I grew up to be just like him. I was a “working alcoholic” — never missed a single day at work, paid all the bills and all that. But instead of taking my kids to the park after work, I went to the bar. I don’t know how it happened but my oldest came with me one night and I got too drunk to drive, so the two of us just walked the few miles home. I was stumbling all over the street, slurring my words, holding on to the kid’s shoulder so I wouldn’t fall on my ass.

Eventually, it caught up to me. Twenty one years ago, when I was in my thirties and my oldest son was six years old, I went on a drinking binge; I got pulled over and I got a DWI. I researched the Alcoholics Anonymous program, but I never went to a meeting. I knew that it would take some radical changes to get me to stop drinking, though, so I cut myself off completely from friends and family until I thought I was secure enough in my sobriety to be around them again. That helped, but people were much less supportive than I thought they’d be. I detected a lot of resistance and annoyance, especially from friends. But I stopped drinking cold turkey.

Even though my three sons were very young when I stopped — I doubt the two younger ones even remember anything — I still have this overwhelming fear that they’re going to turn out just like me. I feel so guilty. I’m grateful that they still love me, but especially with my oldest son, I can’t help but feel that we’re not as close as we should be. I wonder what he remembers from my drinking days. They’re grown men and they can all drink legally, but I get concerned when I see them — are they predisposed to alcoholism because of me? I thought I was, because of my father…

When my oldest graduated college, we threw a party for him. All of our friends and family were there, and a few of his friends, too. They started getting pretty rowdy and he got a little tipsy, and I remember just watching him the whole time, trying to compare him to the way I remembered myself being, and the way I remembered my old man being. When we sat down to dinner, his friends started yelling — “speech! speech! speech!” — so he got up with his beer in his hand and thanked everyone for being there. Then he turned to my wife and me and thanked us, and I toasted with my water. He said something about how it was bad luck, so he poured it out and put a sip’s worth of beer in my glass.

I just felt paralyzed. I considered drinking it just to get the moment to pass. But if I could drink socially, I’d still be drinking. The problem with me is that I could never stop once I started. And he just wouldn’t let it go, you know? It was so strange. He thought it was just something as simple as me toasting a big milestone with my beer, and then I’d be done with it. So I made a joke about it; I said — “Talk to your mom! I don’t want to get in trouble.”

He looked at my wife and said, “come on mom, one sip.”

And she didn’t even miss a beat. She looked at him, and then at me, and she said, “I don’t care.”

It might not sound like a big deal, but to me it was. I felt so much resentment towards my wife during my sobriety. When I was drinking, we fought constantly. To spare my children and my family, I stopped. But it just didn’t seem to be enough. And I know what people are going to say; they’re going to say — “you stop drinking for yourself, not for anyone else.” But honestly, if it were just me, I might have kept going.

My wife resented me when I drank, and resented me when I didn’t. I felt that I wasn’t being valued enough for what I did, and the feeling would flare up every time we had another conflict. So I start rationalizing it, thinking, “maybe I should have another drink since you don’t appreciate my sobriety.” She and I peacefully coexist; we have totally different interests and lives. I still love her, but it’s not romantic love. We just aren’t close, especially since the kids are gone. So I find myself thinking, more and more, that there’s less to lose now — that maybe a little sip wouldn’t matter as much.