Follow the Leader

Lone Sheep

Since I was a young girl, I have always been a follower.  I moved across the country when I was in 6th grade.  Middle school is notoriously difficult, so add being the “new girl” on top of that…not fun.  Then throw into the mix that this is also when my father really started drinking heavily.  My new best friend that I met in my new school had a VERY strong personality and naturally took the lead.  I was happy to stay in her shadow because she was popular and by association, I became popular too.  One time when we were in 7th grade, she got mad at me about something and because she wasn’t talking to me, neither did anyone else (she was quite the little queen bee!).  I was completely ostracized at school.  For the duration of that fight, I was sick…like physically ill- not eating, crying, etc.  I remember staying home from school several days in a row and sleeping in my mom’s bed, as she worriedly questioned me about what was going on at school.  The next week, when my friend decided she wasn’t mad at me anymore and things went back to normal, I had an instantaneous and complete recovery.

I remained a “follower” for most of my adolescence and into my adult years.  Presently, in my late 30s, I still have these tendencies.  At the high school where I teach, I am a co-adviser of a club with another teacher, who happens to also be my closest friend.  The other day we were selling tickets to an event and reached our minimum goal.  I asked her if she wanted to add on an additional day and she said no.  So, when the students asked me about it, I told them no, much to their confusion and disappointment.  It was only when I was talking to my sister and she asked me why we couldn’t keep selling tickets (the more the merrier, right?) and I told her I wanted to, but my friend said no.  My sister and I had a whole conversation about it and it really made me think about how I constantly defer to other people.  Even though I thought having another day was a good idea, I ASKED her for her permission and then ACCEPTED her saying no, even though we are supposed to be equals.  I told my sister that I think a big reason why I always defer to other people is that I am afraid of them getting angry with me.  In fact, THIS is the root of the problem…I used to bend over backwards to make my exhusband happy because I lived in fear of making him mad. The idea of someone being mad at me makes me so upset and anxious that I regress into that 12 year old girl hiding in my mom’s bed.

The irony is that when I was chatting on the phone a day or so later with my friend, I mentioned I thought it might be a good idea to add another day to ticket sales and she immediately said, “Ok! Let’s do it then”.  All my worrying, all my biting my tongue, all my anxiety usually turns out to be for naught.  If I had just been honest and said this from the beginning, I could have avoided a lot of inner turmoil.  In a lot of ways, I am my own worst enemy when it comes to this and I know I need to have more confidence in myself and my decisions.  I need to remind myself that I am not the same person I was when I was a teenager, but that I can use those painful memories to realize when I am regressing into that same behavior.

 

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A Christmas Miracle

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For most of my life, I have been envious of other people’s families during Christmas.  Don’t get me wrong…even as dysfunctional as it is, I love my family, but there always felt like there was something missing.  I think it was a combination of having an alcoholic father and an incredibly small family.  Growing up, Christmas was always just my mom and dad, my younger sister and myself.  We had no relatives who lived anywhere near us and I have a grand total of three cousins spread across the country.  Many of my friends had big families, with their aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. all living nearby.  Their holiday family gatherings seemed so lively and festive and I always wished I had that, too.

Now in my 30s, most of my friends have children.  I think for most families, many holidays really revolve around children…Easter bunny egg hunts, Trick or Treating on Halloween, Santa pictures for Christmas, etc.  Even though I was pretty sure I was not going to have kids of my own, I still felt a sadness when I would see all the fun things other families did for the holidays.  My small family of four had our traditions, but they were very low key, quiet and often stressful based on whether or not my dad would be drunk.

My sister had a baby girl this year who turned seven months old right before Christmas.  My niece is the sweetest, most adorable, happiest baby in the world (*slight bias!)  This year, the holidays were ALL about her…her first Halloween, where we all made matching costumes…her first Thanksgiving, when she had her very first bite of “real” food…and of course, her first Christmas.  It was awesome- my favorite Christmas ever!  This is the first year I didn’t look through my Facebook feed feeling that twinge of longing for what other people were doing with their families.  That actually just occurred to me for the first time as I am writing this!

 

Add it to the list…

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All my life, I have been a list maker…I love lists!  I make them for grocery shopping, chores I need to do around the house, Christmas gifts, etc. The “notes” app on my phone gets a lot of action.  I cannot relax after work until everything on my list has been checked off.  Perhaps I have a touch of OCD (my sister would say more than a touch!), but I feel like my lists help me stay organized and it is such a great feeling to check things off.

As a teacher, I get home a lot earlier than my boyfriend, who has a lengthy commute. I do a lot of the chores around the house completely by my own choice (he gladly helps out when I ask him to).  I notice that I often give him a run-down when he gets home, like a verbal list of everything I did- I “took out the garbage, brushed the dog, emptied the dishwasher”, etc.  I honestly do not do this to make him feel bad, but I never really thought about WHY I do do it…until this past week.  I was having a conversation with my sister, who was complaining about all of the things she does around the house.  She said she has a tendency to tell her fiancee the daily chores that she does, too, and bluntly stated, “you know it’s because dad always called us ‘do nothing takers’, right?”.  I was floored…I never really put the two together.  That was my father’s favorite insult towards us throughout our childhood and he still calls us that to this day.  I never really thought about that being an influence for my need to prove to other people that I DO things.

I am a proud list maker and I have no desire to change that.  However, I do think it is important to recognize behaviors and examine why we do the things we do.  I do not like to blame the way I act or how I think on my childhood, but it would be naive to think the way I grew up and how I was and still am treated by my father did not influence the person I became as an adult.  It makes me want to be more cognizant about when I do this and why.  I will add that to my current list 😉

 

The year of firsts…

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Having a baby niece has been amazing for so many reasons.  These past few five months have been some of the best of my life.  I am so lucky to live so close to her and to be such a big part of her growing up.  It has been so fun to see all of her “firsts”, especially holidays.  In an alcoholic family, holidays can be dreadful and stressful.  I have definitely experienced my fair share of ruined holidays.  I jokingly said to someone the other day that I feel like my niece is the reward for having such a dysfunctional family.  She is just so sweet and innocent and happy.  And she makes my sister and my mother and me SO happy.  Tonight was her first Halloween and my mom made her costume.  I know this was such a wonderful experience for my mom- to make something special for her granddaughter.  It may seem silly that we all dressed up and made such a big deal about a baby going trick-or-treating that isn’t even able to eat candy yet, but it was just another of so many sweet memories with her.  I usually do not look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas the same way other people do- I mean I still really like the holidays, but since they involve my family, they are usually stressful.  But this year feels really exciting and special and it is nice to actually be looking forward to the next few months!!

Auntie Bear

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Ever since my niece was born, I more clearly understand the concept of being a “Mama Bear”.  I do not have children of my own and she is the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me.  I would do ANYTHING to protect her.  She is only four months old, but it is already frightening to think about all the things in the world that could hurt her- both physically and emotionally.

Growing up, I was super protective of my younger sister.  It was always just the two of us and having an alcoholic father made us incredibly close.  She is only three and a half years younger than me, but a lot of the time I felt partly responsible for her.  And now she has this beautiful, innocent daughter of her own.  Our childhood was so painful and traumatic…I just want my niece’s childhood to be a happy one.  I want her to look forward to holidays instead of dreading them.  I want her to be excited to spend time with her family rather than hating every second of it.  I want her to be able to look back on her childhood as an adult and be full of happy, fun memories.

Today, my sister brought the baby to my parent’s house.  My dad has only seen his granddaughter a handful of times since she has been born, although my parents only live 45 minutes away.  My mom and sister were out together and my mom convinced my sister to bring the baby inside.  Dropping by my parent’s house unexpectedly has always been a wildcard and it is something that is generally always avoided.  It is just too much of a risk, not knowing if my father is going to be drunk or not.  Long story short, against her gut instincts, my sister reluctantly agreed to go inside and my dad was indeed drunk. While she was pregnant, my sister told my mom she was not going to have the baby around my father if he had been drinking.  My mom tried to convince my sister to stay and even wanted to placate my father by letting him hold the baby for a few minutes. Luckily, my sister did not have to stay at the house long and was able to make a quick escape before anything bad happened.  My dad was sloppy and yelled as she was leaving, but it obviously could have been worse.

On her way home she called me and was upset with herself that she allowed my dad to see the baby after he had been drinking.  We both agreed that my mom put her in an awkward spot, which made me recollect a lot of times my mother did that throughout our childhood.  Strangely, I have never really held a lot of resentment towards my mom and she, my sister and I are very close.  I think I always thought of my mother as a victim, too.  However, there are memories I have where she should have protected us more.  My sister has made the point that my mother “sacrificed” us- making us bring my dad dinner so she didn’t have to or forcing us to confront him about his drinking.

I hate thinking about my baby niece in that situation.  I don’t want her life being influenced in any way by alcoholism or addiction.  I also know that I can’t control that 100% or prevent other bad things from happening in her life.  I am just incredibly grateful that I am able to be a part of her life (and am able to spoil her!) and I will always do whatever I can to make sure her childhood is as happy as possible.

‘Til death do us part

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I recently read an article online and came across a quote that struck me.  It was written by a recovering alcoholic who stated, “All of us stop drinking at some point. It’s just that for some people, that point is death.”

I kept going back and reading those two sentences over and over.  It is such a simple statement, but it is really powerful and concise.  I never really thought about alcoholism in that way.  My father has never attempted to stop drinking and I have accepted the fact that he will most likely die an alcoholic (he may even be drunk when he dies).  My father’s alcoholism will not end until his life does.

Today, my dad wrote one of his obnoxious, embarrassing emails and copied various people on it- my sister and my mother, my aunt and uncle (his own brother from whom he is pretty much estranged), my other aunt (my mom’s sister who is an alcoholic herself), my cousin and about seven friends of our family (two couples and a few guys who have loyally remained friends with my parents from when they were first married).  Even though I am accustomed to the lunacy of his emails and can usually ignore them completely, sometimes I have to look at it from the perspective of one of these unsuspecting recipients.  They must literally think he is insane.  It is hard not to feel that it is a reflection on our family (or that at the very least there are several people who probably open his email and can’t help but pity us).  Most of what he writes is utter nonsense and this email was very tame compared to the majority that he sends, but it still makes me feel weird.  The other day when my sister and I were with my mom we were talking about hobbies and one of us mentioned that it was unfortunate that my dad doesn’t have any interests to keep himself busy.  My mom quickly replied, “he does have a hobby- writing his emails.”  It’s darkly funny and ironic…my paternal grandfather used to write in a journal every day when he was alive.  He had an easy chair in the corner of their living room, right next to a small bookshelf filled with little leather bound journals.  His journals seemed sacred when I was growing up and during my visits to their house, I was never tempted to read one of them.  After he died, my grandmother packed them all up in a big box and put them in the attic.  Many years later when she passed away, my sister was helping to clean out their house and found them.  She brought one to me as a keepsake (she and I are both VERY sentimental, especially regarding our grandparents).  I was shocked to discover that his journals were not filled with philosophical ideas and deep reflections, but rather the minutiae of everyday life.  He noted the weather, how he was feeling, what he did that day (“went to the dump”), etc.  If my sister and I were visiting, he would write about how much we had grown and about what we did at the beach that day.  I have to admit I was almost disappointed when I read it, because I was hoping for…more.  Now that I know he was an alcoholic, too, I wonder if this was his pre-technological way of doing exactly what my father does.  My dad treats his emails as a daily journal, although instead of keeping his inner most thoughts private, he copies various people on them.

When my dad does die, I wonder who will care.  I mean, I know people will care, but will they really care?  He has burned so many bridges with so many people.  During his brief two year sabbatical from drinking, he changed in so many positive ways.  If he had passed away during that time, it would have seemed more tragic…like he had so much to live for…that my sister and I had lost our dear father.  Now, he just seems pathetic.  His death will be a big deal for my mother, sister and me, but will be a tragic blip on most other people’s radars.  They will feel sorry for us, they will feel sad for losing the man they remember- the brother he was growing up, the friend he was in his 20s.  But when people think about him, he will always be thought of first and foremost as an alcoholic- a sad label that defined him for the past 25 years.

 

20 years later

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Yesterday was my 39th birthday (how is that even possible?!?!).  It made me recollect one of my earlier birthdays…my 19th to be exact.  That was probably one of the worst birthdays- no, actual days- of my life.  Weeks prior, my father assaulted me and was arrested and the police issued a restraining order against him on my behalf to prevent him from coming near me or to the house.  His court date was set afterwards and coincidentally landed on my 19th birthday.  I was pressured by my mother and my father’s lawyer to drop the assault charges, which I did, and after going to court, my father was cleared and the restraining order was dropped.  After staying in a hotel by his job for several weeks, my father was allowed to come home.  I do not remember (or chose not to remember) the exact details of that day.  I remember walking into the courthouse with just my mom.  I can recollect speaking to my dad’s lawyer, but not having to actually speak to the judge.  Most of my memories of that day are fuzzy.  I can’t even really remember what happened when we arrived back home as a “family”.  Did my mom make my favorite vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and M&Ms?  Did my mom, sister and dad stand around the table singing “Happy Birthday” as I blew out the candles?  Did my mom sign my birthday card, “Love, Mom and Dad”?  I really don’t recall.  I just remember it REALLY SUCKING.  That is a juvenile way of describing it, but when I think about that day, that’s how I felt…it just sucked.  It was awkward and forced and I was conflicted and confused.  I loved my dad, but he physically attacked me and most of the time we all just acted like nothing happened.

It is weird to think about that day.  Sometimes it feels like it never actually happened…like it was just a very realistic nightmare, yet it was one of the defining moments of my young adult life.  It is hard to believe that it was twenty years ago.  It is not something I dwell on often, but I do think about it every year on my birthday.