Mom is alcoholic, Dad is dead: Why do I feel so alone?

I knew I had to leave home to make my own life, but my past seems to follow me everywhere.

Published April 10, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have read your column for a long time now, partly in the vain hope that one of the problems will resemble my own, which I find difficult to find words for. I have for a long time now felt that something is missing from my life. Not something tangible, like a partner, a job or a purpose in life, but something indefinable. A certain way of feeling, which I vaguely remember from my younger years but have felt very seldom and only for brief periods of time since. Perhaps it was a feeling of peace, perhaps it was a feeling of strength. I do not know.

I am 22, graduated from university last year with an adequate degree but one that was less than I was capable of. I live with my boyfriend of three years, and am currently unemployed, having spent the last few months temping and being at the moment unable to find employment. A large part of my problem, I believe, stems from having been brought up with an alcoholic mother. Herself and my father were binge drinkers up until my father died of cancer when I was 12. From that point on my mother's drinking steadily began to worsen. I made my escape to university and away from my home at the age of 17. I thought this separation would greatly improve my life, thinking the physical distance would be enough to separate me from my mother. I soon discovered this was wrong and realized that physical distance from an alcoholic parent does not dissolve the feeling of responsibility. I used the university counseling service and after many years managed to make a break from my mother, to realize that her drinking was not my fault or my responsibility, and that to continue with my own life I would have to break from hers. I have not seen her for almost three years and have not spoken to her for over one, though I have heard from other relations that she is not in a good state.

While at counseling I also tried to resolve some of my own issues, which we discovered stemmed from my mother's drinking. At my counselor's recommendation I saw my G.P. and began a course of antidepressants for eight months. I finished up with my counselor at the end of my university year, I finished up with the antidepressants and I remember this feeling I spoke of returning for a while. I had also felt it on having finished a previous course of counseling. This feeling seems to have slipped away, but so gradually that I can hardly remember what it was like or when it disappeared.

I feel as though my sensations have been dulled for a long time. I believe I have felt depression but have never allowed myself to crash. I have never hit rock bottom. I haven't pushed away all relationships, I haven't fallen into the gutter, I haven't completely failed at anything, yet I have drifted along without ever working to my full capacity. I am very shy and have few friends. I am terribly self-conscious. I feel different from everyone else and can never feel completely at ease around new or numerous people. I often feel lonely and wish I could reach out and join the world I see around me, but retreat under my blanket. I feel like I'm waiting. At this moment I sit in my living room with the curtains closed. I feel too guilty to do anything with my life at the moment as I am in a period of unemployment rather than a holiday and feel as though I should spend every moment job-seeking. This is not to say my life is bleak, cold and completely unhappy. I socialize to an extent, I can laugh, I can be happy. But all the while I feel that there is something missing.

My partner and I are relocating as soon as he has a new job and it will be to a city where my prospects of finding a job in the field I want should be greatly improved. It's the chance of a new start, but I do not want to continue as the person I am now and I worry about my ability to embrace this change.

What am I asking you here? I'm not sure. Perhaps there is no question. Maybe I just wanted a way to articulate what I feel and communicate this to another human being from the safety of a computer screen. Or perhaps I am asking you the impossible. What is it that's missing and how can I find it?

Missing Piece

Dear Missing Piece,

I know exactly what you are talking about, and I, too, fled my family and found myself lost, ungrounded, disconnected ... and yet I fled my family in order to survive and grow, and I knew I could not return to the family because return represented failure and retreat. So I persisted, with all my baggage and ignorance of the world. I persisted in this belief that I was to become a writer, and I kept at it until I hit bottom and even then I persisted in this crazy belief that I had a right to forge my own life, and I had a right to my own voice. So it was a costly exile. Yet it was necessary for reasons that one can explain only up to a point and then must simply harbor and protect the knowledge inside oneself, knowing that to leave was to survive. If we were hobos on a train we would look into the faces of the other hobos and there would be this knowing: We all left for one reason or another, no use trying to explain, we know why we left.

Your letter is about leaving. Your letter is also about the discomfort of the moment, a discomfort that crackles in the air as though it were background radiation from our own big bang, our own birth and formation, our own seminal moment, our dawning of consciousness, the dawning of our dilemma and bind, our predicament: Bang! Mom is passed out on the floor and Daddy is coughing or puking or simply wasting away! Bang! We see we are imperiled! Bang! This is the birth of a life we did not expect and do not know how to deal with at the age of 12! Bang!

This is a life trauma and it echoes all around us as we walk the streets of London or Madrid or Istanbul. It echoes palpably and we think people can sense as we stand in a cocktail party suddenly this image of our mother passed out on the floor floods back and we think, am I the only one who has flashbacks like this, am I the only one who is haunted by such a past, and isn't it evident to everyone?

We are haunted, and it is a private haunting but it does not have to remain private. For it is related to a political haunting. How can we find strength in this feeling?

For one thing, we can allow ourselves to genuinely feel that we were wronged. Immediately, as I say this, I want to be the adult and say, "But it wasn't so bad." And in truth I was not the child of alcoholics nor was I abused. But to be healed, whatever our sufferings, we have to say it: "Yes, I was wronged. What my mother did by drinking was wrong. I was angry at her. I remain angry at her." Yet this anger at our parents is not allowed when we are children. We fear we will destroy them with our anger. We must shield them from our own anger. We must help them continue in their deluded way, to protect them from the truth. So we hide the truth from ourselves.

As we grow older we grow tired of protecting them, and the truth of our feelings keeps pushing at the door. It is so exhausting to be protecting them from the truth -- which is that we are angry at them, that we are injured, damaged, that we want to cry out and say what you did to me was wrong! If we were abused, or neglected, or children of alcoholics ... we live with this feeling that what was done was wrong yet it is also wrong of us to feel anger about it.

This has been written about so much. There are so many books. And counselors know about this. So you were helped by counseling, twice, and after each round of counseling you felt you had that aliveness back, that you knew what was up, and then naturally after no counseling for a while you have lost that feeling you describe, the good feeling, of feeling alive and connected. That feeling comes of telling the truth, the truth that has been suppressed. It feels good to speak the truth.

That is why we take to the streets, because it feels good to speak the truth. We simply must do it! It feels good to speak the truth and even now as I think about the faces of newscasters on CNN and how they smirkingly dismiss the protesters in London and throughout Europe who gather when leaders come, I am reminded that our relations with our parents are like our relations with the state and also with newscasters and politicians, and that when we take to the streets we are in a sense getting honest about the fundamental situation, that it is about power and who has the power and whose side you are on, and we take satisfaction in not playing the game of debate, like these assholes we debate on TV every night, whose mission is obscure and treacherous and covertly hostile and yet absurdly futile, and we watch like children at a dinner table watching the adults deride each other and snipe! And we see one party trying to take the high road and being brought down into the dirt.

All this has roots in our childhood. Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?

We must oppose to recover. It is not enough to simply find out and accept, through questioning and therapy, that there is pain in our childhood; we must connect it to our current situation and see how we have been misled, stifled, abandoned, tricked by our allegiance to foul, disturbing leaders.

So we regain strength by actively opposing. So recovery is a political question. Every struggle is partly a political question. I often feel that in speaking to people individually through this column I am not working politically. But the connection is clear: We have been mistreated and ignored. We have been treated like children. So do we continue to do the work of those who have ignored our needs? Do we continue identifying with our oppressors? See the faces on CNN! They do not get why protesters in London are out in the streets, showing their dissatisfaction with what has happened, risking the humiliation and derision of the popular press! The faces of CNN smirkingly dismiss the protests because wrongly, as journalists, they have identified with the glamour and power of television rather than with the needs of the powerless.

Do you identify with power or do you identify with those upon whom that power is cruelly exercised? As children, we are powerless. As adults, to respond with compassion to the world, we must contact that powerlessness that a child lives with. We must sense injustice, and not by intellectual discernment; we must have a gut sense that something is wrong.

If Mom is passed out in the floor then we have a secret. If Daddy is dying of cancer then we have another kind of secret, not a shameful one, perhaps, but still a secret of failure and grief. So we have this failure, this difference, this secret. It makes us different. We know it does. So we go into society and we know we are different because our mother was passed out on the floor and our father died when we were 12, and no one got us help because ... because? ... because they did not know our needs? They did not care about our needs? Or they did not see our needs? So we had to decide, either our needs were not important, or the adults were cruel and wrong, and the adults could not be cruel and wrong, for they were the adults. So our needs must be trivial. We must be whiners. Our needs must be unimportant! So we limp along, trying to take care of ourselves, not asking to have our needs met.

I feel very political today. I feel that to speak out today and say that we are unhappy, that we are not being treated right, to gather in the streets and say that someone stole the money, that it did not just disappear, that someone stole it, to gather and say that for the last 30 years we have been getting shit on, to say these things is somehow akin to admitting yes, I am the child of alcoholics, or yes, I was abused as a child, or yes, I was neglected and I introjected the neglect so that I could view my neglecters as righteous people ... and yes, I do not have the legalistic debater's mind to put all my case in order and prove them wrong but that does not make my complaints any less real. That does not mean I am any less of a person just because I cannot join the CNN faces at the table and snicker and smirk at the protesters on the street. In fact, that is why we go out into the streets, because we recognize that although we may not be able to argue our cases persuasively, we know our cases are just. We are people, we are aggrieved and that is enough. We have rights and grievances and we declare that we have value simply by being in the street, simply by showing up.

I feel very much aligned with the protesters in the street today. My rage is their rage. My disgust is their disgust. I am in my office, worrying about taxes, trying to build a little company that will make enough money so that I can survive into my 70s or 80s without a big corporate pension or retirement savings or inheritance or military pension or big 401K; I am doing this because no one is going to take care of us and we know this. So I am sitting here in my isolation, my individualism, with my secret distress about the future that is shared millions of times over and yet so few are in the streets, so few are saying we've been robbed! It is like a dirty secret! Perhaps we are sheepish because we all conspired a little in our undoing! We all dipped a little in the till! So like children we all feel guilty for conspiring in our own neglect and bringing about our own fate! And ... and I could feel guilty for not having taken the safe way, not having saved, for having taken the path of being a writer and feeling at this stage comparatively lucky to be employed at all, and by such a wonderful company as Salon, to be paid to do what I do. And yet I know that our culture at large, our country, will not be taking care of us, and those of us who followed our hearts, we will be in trouble. So am I supposed to just feel grateful and shut up? I have a chance to speak for many thousands like me this morning, who have made the best choices they can and yet find themselves screwed over, with no security, no future, no comforts! So I choose to speak; it is better than silence. Even raw and rambling it is better than silence.

I am putting myself in your shoes. I am saying of course you are feeling vague and grayed-out; of course you are feeling apart-from and shy; and of course it is not just personal: You reflect the feelings of millions. You must find ways to connect in the world that allow you to be who you are; you must risk embarrassment and discomfort and say yes, this is who I am, these are my feelings, I was an innocent child who deserved to be taken care of by a competent adult and I was left to fend for myself in a household of illness and addiction. I was left to fend for myself and I cried tears of rage and tears of abnegation and the fierce hot tears of neglect, and I did not apologize for those tears at the time because I was a child and they were my own tears and I had a right to them. At least the child has a right to her own tears! At least the child can cry and bang her fists and say this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong! But then later as young adults we say we are cool. We say yeah, that happened, but I'm OK. We say I'll get through this on my own, I'm not a child any longer. We go into the world. Meanwhile we walk surrounded by a bubble or a cloud or a shield or a wad of cotton, feeling nothing; or we walk as though we had no skin at all, as though to bump us is to murder us, exposed, naked, unable to hide what we come from. That is, whether numbed or hypersensitive, we go into the world without the easy defenses of the comfortable ones. We go into the world pretending. And of course we get into trouble.

We go through a lot of shit. The hitting-bottom thing: I so relate to that! I felt throughout my punk years that I had no right to my own rage because I myself had had it comparatively good. I was not from the gutter. I aspired to the gutter! But I came from the suburbs! I aspired to the gutter because the gutter would explain everything; it was the objective correlative to my poverty of spirit! I aspired to the gutter and eventually attained it but not without struggle and hard work! And then, having attained it, having reached my dream of ending up face-down in the gutter, I finally felt, having lost everything, that I had the right to my own suffering!

How perverse is that! How perverse and yet how real, how true, and how common! I had to go there. I had to go there and then say, yes, OK, now I have hit bottom, now, OK, I can ask for help.

Because I was such a tough guy. Because I had it all figured out. Because you could not tell me anything. I had to go there.

What a nightmare! Is this the thinking of a well-educated man with a balanced mind? No, this is the thinking of a bruised, angry child. But that is what happens when we think we can leave the child behind and become a man: The child does not leave us. It tags along, chirping with its complaints. It takes over until it gets what it needs. It takes over until it is heard.

So all I can really say is that what you describe is all quite real to me, quite apparent, and that how we get along in the world is that we seek compatriots to whom we do not have to explain and defend our experience; we seek compatriots who can see it, who have been there, and who know. These are the people who are sometimes referred to in the archaic language of the addiction texts as "lower companions" and yet we do not feel that they are lower at all because they, of all people, know what we are talking about with our silence, our silent drinking, our silent descent. They are the ones with whom we seek our private sessions of camaraderie and knowingness.

But as we get better we also take our struggles outside to the streets where all the world can see that we are not Rick Sanchez of CNN! We are not all aspiring to that power in the world, that power that neglects and scrutinizes for signs of weakness! That power that ostracizes the criers, the moaners, the complainers, the ones who say enough is enough, the ones who say there's something wrong here! That power that seeks only its own voice and its own face and thus is the institutional embodiment of narcissism! We are not aspiring to that power but to the quiet certainty of our own testimony.

I am so sick of CNN. It is like their faces are the faces of our oppressors. I'm sorry but it's true. (See how even now I am in the habit of apology for my own distress?!) I cannot help feeling this. I have given leash to the child within now, the one who is different, the one who stands outside the door waiting for punishment or reward, the one who does not know what goes on inside that room, the one who is frightened and alone. I have given a voice to the one who goes about seeking others who have been there, others who have their secrets, others who have their aloneness and their blunted senses and their feelings of a dulled life.

And now I have to edit all this down to something manageable. At least I should edit it down,  having been raised in the catechism of expensive-paper journalism in which column inches equal wasted ad space equals a sad shake of a head and a finger pointing toward the door: You must write concisely! Well, I don't write concisely. I write with unfolding passion. I write for the hustings, for the streets, for the barricades. So be it. I am angry. I am angry the way a child is angry. I am angry that your mother left you to fend for yourself. I am angry that your father had to die. I am angry that we are such a cold society. I am angry that we do so much pretending in the midst of great suffering and systemic cruelty. I am angry. And I am on your side.

So bless you. Bless you, child. You have a right to happiness. You have a right to be treated with respect and dignity and tenderness. You have a right to be here on this planet. You have a right to your feelings. You have a right to your own perceptions. Bless you, child. You have a right to be who you are.

Hey, reader! There's more where that came from in this here book!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cancer Motherhood Psychology Since You Asked