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Surviving My First Dry January: Reflections on Sobriety as a Child of an Alcoholic

The longer I live in Boston, the better I deal with the cold. The lack of sunlight? Cuts a little deeper every year. This year? SAD is kicking my ass. Of course, why wouldn’t it? I’m mourning the loss of my father. To honor his memory, I'm doing Dry January. A month of sobriety shouldn’t be that hard, right? Right?

As the child of an alcoholic, my relationship with alcohol has always been a little fraught. There are, in my opinion, three camps: those who never drink, those who become alcoholics, and those who develop perfectly healthy relationships with alcohol. I’ve always seen myself in the third camp. I don’t drink often. When I do, it’s not a lot. Even still, with my father’s early death being directly linked to a lifetime of alcohol abuse, it’s hard not to think about whether or not I am an alcoholic.

Enter: A month of intentional sobriety. 

a flight of 4 glasses of beer

I’ve never been intentionally sober before. I’ve gone swaths of time since I started drinking at 16 without alcohol. I’ve never been blackout drunk before. I’ve never had an entire bottle of wine in one sitting. Not that these things even make you an alcoholic. Do they? The question got me thinking: What makes you an alcoholic?

Of course, a lot has already been written about this. The Stout Street Foundation has a succinct post about it, pulling in some oldies but goldies from Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, there are only two factors that AA lists as defining someone as an alcoholic:

  1. If you find that when you are not drinking, you are obsessing about when you get to drink

  2. When you do drink, you cannot control how much you end up drinking

Laid out like that, I’m not an alcoholic, though I wonder if I obsess about not drinking what that makes me. Again, it feels common for the child of an alcoholic to be hyperaware of their own consumption. “If I want to have two drinks at dinner, does that make me an alcoholic? Because I want two drinks?” 

At my lowest in the last year, while fighting for my life in grad school yet again (y’all, I don’t think I thrive under stressful conditions anymore), I definitely drank more than usual. A lot more. So, when my dad died, it caused some alarm. The whole week I was home for his funeral, I refused to drink. I didn’t want to run from the pain. I didn’t want to numb out to the emotions. A month later, though, I noticed myself drinking more than usual. Was his death going to be the thing that led me down the path of my father, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, etc.?

Not if I can help it. I really want to help it.

exterior of a church at night

When I was seven or eight, I remember going to church with my family. My dad had remarried at that point, and I had two step-brothers. Though they’d only been married for a year or two, alcohol had already caused strain on my dad’s relationship with my stepmother. He wanted to be sober. There was a revival in which our church hosted a bunch of other churches, and everyone prayed over everyone else. It was loud in the sanctuary that night. A lot of people went up for the altar call. That pastor was on fire that night. I may not be a religious person anymore, but there was something big in that room, even if it is the energy that a large number of people can kick up when they enter a collective flow state via repetitive music. 

At some point, the pastor was praying over my father. It was always scary to see that, to see my father worked up to the point of tears. I’m not really sure how I got there, but suddenly, I was standing in front of my dad and the pastor. My dad had both his hands on my shoulders, just staring deep into my soul. His eyes were so dark and wet that I could see my reflection in them. Then he said, “The curse is broken.”

When you’re seven, and your father tells you some fairytale shit like that, it sticks with you. Part of me is convinced that the real reason I’m not an alcoholic now is because he really did remove a curse from me, took my birthright, and rewrote my story.

More than twenty years later, during a random January, I contemplate the legacy of alcoholism and find myself with a deepening well of empathy for my father. Abstaining is hard. Abstaining from something that is ingrained in our culture is even harder. I’m not sure what I’m learning right now other than the fact that my dad was just, well, a person. 


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