When I was seven, my mother told my father to choose between her or bourbon. He chose bourbon. He moved to a boxy apartment and put his recliner in the living room, student papers and hardcover books scattered around him like countries, my father their king.
Then he moved back home. Within a few days, my mother asked him to choose again. This time she moved out; for the next few years, he parented my brother and me alone. He’d arrive home after a day of teaching at the college, start drinking, make supper, keep drinking, load the dishwasher, and then withdraw upstairs to his recliner, returned to the place it belonged in the corner of his bedroom, where he lay back and graded papers or read the Times Literary Supplement. Beside him on a table was a full ashtray, bottles of eye drops for his glaucoma, dirty glasses in Styrofoam koozies, and used Kleenexes. He came downstairs only to refill his glass but greeted my brother and me as we watched TV on the couch, which we did all afternoon and evening with a break only for supper.
“Well, hi,” he’d say. Behind him the dining room was dark, vacuous.
“Hi,” we’d say back.
“Y’all doing all right?” We lived in Iowa but my father was a Georgia Southerner, his accent thick but without the sugar.
“Yep.” By then he was slurring his words, his usual resonance turned sloppy, his frayed bathrobe hanging open over his boxers and undershirt. As he returned to his room, we heard his feet on the hallway floor above us and thuds of missteps as he bumped into the walls.
When I was eight and my brother 11, he took us to see a student production of Romeo and Juliet at Grinnell College, the tiny liberal arts school where he was a professor. I remember a vacant set, black and platformed, a spotlit balcony, and male actors in tights.
In Act V, Romeo, banished from Verona and living in Mantua, learns of Juliet’s death; he doesn’t know it’s been faked. The actor lifted his fist into the air and yelled loud enough to leave an echo, “I defy you, stars!” I put my hands over my ears and winced, which made my father laugh. I kept watching, riveted, as the rest of Friar Laurence’s plan for Romeo and Juliet collapsed, one failure giving way to another. Romeo convinces an apothecary to sell him poison so he can kill himself. He sneaks back to Verona and arrives at the Capulet catacomb, where Juliet has just been laid to rest. After he kills her paramour, Paris, he holds the deadly vial in one hand, looks down at Juliet, and notices how alive she looks:
…Beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advancèd there.
…Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair?
Because she’s alive, dummy! I wanted to scream. She’s about to wake up! Hold on!
Offstage, a bass drum beat low and slow and ominous.
Romeo drinks and dies. Juliet wakes up, stabs herself, and dies. Their last chance at paradise. Lost.
Afterward, I asked my father what Romeo’s stars meant.
“Elizabethans thought stars determined your fate,” he said, pouring as he stood at the kitchen counter. I watched the bourbon unsettle the ice in his glass. His wallet lay open in the lumpy clay tray I had made for him at school. “Romeo was trying to challenge them, but there was nothing he could do.” They-ah. Nothin.
“He could have gotten to the tomb one minute later.”
“Nope,” he said. “His fate was predetermined, you see. The stars had already decided.”
“That’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not,” he said. He put the bottle back in the cabinet. “That’s exactly right.”
My mother had moved an hour away from Grinnell to Iowa City. We stayed with her two weekends a month. She became active in Al-Anon, the Twelve Step Program for spouses of alcoholics.
“Your father is in denial,” she would say. “And because of his drinking, he neglects you. He’s very sick.”
Eventually, she sued my father for custody and won. The day we left, my brother and I loaded our suitcases and the last of our boxes into the hatch of my mother’s car. My father stood watching us from the top of the stairs on the back porch, his hair unwashed and blowing greasily in the bright Iowa breeze. His bathrobe billowed around him, his old slippers mushed at the heels. He might have been drunk. He looked sad. It was August.
I started fifth grade in Iowa City, sensitive and desperate for friends. I was bullied a lot. My mother took us to a family therapist and then forced us to go to Al-a-teen, the Twelve Step Program for children of alcoholics. The group met weekly in a giant house near the University of Iowa campus. Downstairs, Alcoholics Anonymous met every night at 8:00. Upstairs, throughout the week, in what would have been bedrooms if a family were living there, were meetings of Al-a-non, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Al-a-teen.
We sat around a beaten table, windows overlooking the gravel driveway and into the thick of elm and hickory trees. We all struggled with friends, school, family. None of us were okay. Sometimes we actively participated and shared with the group; other times we waited for the meeting to end. Sometimes we talked about our alcoholic parents; other times we didn’t. I crossed my arms a lot, teenaged purse snapped shut in my lap.
The Twelve Steps were printed on a window shade poster in black, bold ink. They seemed ceremonial and religious, except Step One:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
I connected “alcohol” only to my father: I was powerless over his drinking. I could not control it. Years earlier, when my mother had taken us to a friend’s apartment in Marshalltown for the night because my father refused to stop drinking, I had confronted him about it.
“You’re in denial, Daddy,” I said into the telephone. My brother sat beside me on the couch and rolled his eyes. It was night. The shades were up.
“No, I’m not,” he said. No Ahm not.
“Please just admit it. Please, Daddy!” My voice sounded strangely high as if I were much younger.
“Anna, I can’t,” he said. Caint. “I’m not going to tell a lie.”
When he was drunk, if you asked him whether he was drunk, he’d say no as he poured himself another bourbon and swayed like a lone ear of corn in a breeze. Once, to appease a custody lawyer, he admitted himself to a three-week inpatient treatment center in Cedar Rapids. I attended his graduation ceremony with my mother, even though they were separated. Families sat in folding chairs in the facility cafeteria, which resembled a small gymnasium you might find in an elementary school. We all faced a portable stage platform where patients waited for their turn at a standing microphone so they could admit they were alcoholics and say a few words. When it was Dad’s turn, my mother put her arm around me.
“Well,” he said. “I’m Ed, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Mom got tears in her eyes. “How wonderful,” she said.
“I don’t suppose I have anything else to say. Thank you.”
Everyone applauded. My mother removed her arm from my shoulders. My father returned to his seat on the stage and crossed his legs, crossed his arms. He had succumbed, given in, sacrificed his principles. He looked depleted.
I read Step One again.
What did “powerless over alcohol” mean? Did alcohol control you? Did invisible forces radiate from a bottle and make you drink?
I twisted the strap of my purse around my finger. Liquid in a container did not have power over anyone.
But the stars were there, hanging on the wall.
When I was 16, I was put on an anti-depressant. My doctor told me that drinking alcohol could make my heart stop, but I drank anyway. Heavily. My behavior scared my mother, so she sent me to an adolescent, inpatient rehabilitation center based on the Twelve Steps. I quickly admitted I was an alcoholic and became euphoric about being sober, as many of us do when we start working The Program. I went from a secular person who rarely thought about God or religion to an urgent believer. Everything happened for a reason. God had a plan for me. I was right where I was supposed to be. My human will was catastrophe and I would resist it; God’s will was truth and I would follow it.
I returned home from treatment, and AA became my routine. I went to meetings and started a teen AA group. I told my story to psychology classes at my high school and to the Parent Teachers Association. I was quoted in an article on teenage addiction in the Press-Citizen, the Iowa City newspaper, as an authority on recovery. My biggest moment was on a stage in a junior-high gymnasium, speaking into a stand-up microphone to 200 eighth graders. They sat on the waxed floor as I spoke.
“My name is Anna, and I’m an alcoholic,” I said. The giant ceiling lights were off, but daylight shone through the huge raised windows. I told them how I had wanted to drink so badly that I risked my life, that if I took a drink, my disease would spread like a cancerous tumor. I begged them never to drink. Never ever.
But as I drove myself to a meeting—sometimes two—I wondered whether I was an alcoholic. I had drunk relatively little compared to most people in the program, and for only a short period of time; I rarely craved alcohol or the feeling of being drunk; I had never smoked pot or used other drugs. And what if I had never been on medication? Wouldn’t that mean I drank only like a wild teenager? And I was on different meds now. Should I drink and see what happened?
No. I was secure and safe in AA. I had friends that felt real. I had for the first time ever a set position within social structures and cliques. If I drank, I would lose this place, fall off the pedestal I thought I was on. Drinking was out of the question. And drinking just a little, to stop once I started, was nothing I ever considered. You used alcohol only to get drunk and you stopped when you passed out—just as my father had, snoring from his recliner as his head drooped to the side. Above him, a fluorescent reading lamp beamed warm light down one side of his face.
I left Iowa City at age 18 to start college in a small town in Eastern Illinois. I knew I would start drinking again once I left my AA community. I knew all my doubts would have room to expand. I tried not to acknowledge them by going to one meeting in my new town, but I made no efforts to reach out. Three weeks into fall semester, I decided to get drunk in a basement dorm room. The walls were cinder block, painted white. I drank beer after beer and when someone passed me a bong, I inhaled hard. I sat at my friend’s desk and stared at its surface: dust, eyedrops, hairbrush, dirty plate, books, a stapled paper with red comments on the title page. I gazed into the dank hallway. I was between heavy and light, a space ephemeral and glorious. I felt joy while aching for the joy to be permanent, as if I were floating and longing to float at the same time.
This is what I was meant to do, how I was supposed to be, how I was supposed to exist. I was certain. I put my hands in my lap. It was near midnight. I heard cryptic twangs of the Velvet Underground from a ghetto blaster. This had been my destiny all along. Thank God I knew my true self.
The first time I read Macbeth, when I was in high school, I thought: why does he hasten the foretold future? He stabs King Duncan and his servants to death, orders the murder of his best friend Banquo and the wife and children of Thane Macduff—all to make happen something that the witches predicted. Who was making decisions: fate, stars, Macbeth? The Weird Sisters? Were their prophecies fate, or were they shaping fate?
In college, when I called my father from the pay phone in the basement of my dorm to ask for help with a Macbeth paper for my Shakespeare class, I had the same questions and asked them.
“Well,” he said, pausing to indicate that my interpretation was simplistic. “It’s very complicated.”
On those first, young reads, I had missed a lot. In Shakespeare’s time and place, the reality of fate was a given; his emphasis on this was not as deliberate as I thought. I had not paid attention to the language, the line-by-line and word-by-word reversals in Macbeth’s oceanic moments of rationalizing. In Act 1, when the Weird Sisters reveal the prophecy that Macbeth will be king, he is immediately tempted to kill the current king and talks himself out of it. But in the next scene, when he learns that Duncan has made Malcolm—not Macbeth—the Prince of Cumberland, (before any conversation with Lady Macbeth, by the way), Macbeth again chooses to ignore his instincts.
… Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
Again and again and again, Macbeth talks himself into making corruptive, tragic decisions. He convinces himself to murder and betray. He cannot help it. His desires are too great, his vision of himself too large, so gigantic that he hurls himself with full force into his delusions. Then he dies.
I stayed in my college one summer, worked full-time on campus, and sublet an apartment with a friend. We were partying next door with our neighbors across the hall. It was late. I left them and went to our apartment, walked through the living room to the kitchen. I heard muffled music, happy and ardent voices. I opened the cabinet and pulled out the Beefeater gin, leftover from the day before. As I drank, I counted each swallow. 1. 2. 3. 4. The bottle was thick, frosted glass; it made the gin look chilled but it was warm as summer air. Why wasn’t I bringing it over? Someone might have joined me; a few others would have laughed and told me I was crazy. No one would have objected. But I did not want to be seen. To exist in this moment, I had to be alone. I also didn’t want to pass out or miss anything, so I opened a bag of ground coffee, ate a heaping spoonful, and washed it down with more Beefeater. It was disgusting. I almost threw up. I put the bottle back, released a warm, nauseating burp, returned to the party, and sat on the floor, waiting for extreme drunkenness to take hold.
Twenty-five years later, I went to an AA meeting, angry and ashamed to return. I felt that The Program had brainwashed me at a vulnerable age. All that happiness had been fake-God euphoria. I had never believed any of it. And over the decades, because of the way the Twelve Steps demand such unrelenting self-reflection, I had become a vicious critic of all I did, all I felt and thought. My resentment raged like fire.
But I could not stop drinking. I had tried for years, day after day after day. Every morning I swore it off as I hid the shakes and held back the runs and accepted the fact that I was a piece of shit. By dinnertime, I had convinced myself to give in, persevered through the desire to quit. I told myself that this drink would be my very very last, while also telling myself I needed it and could not possibly function without it and could not resist it. Drinking was a part of me and had been a part of me and there was nothing I could do about it.
These rationalizations were intimate and brutal; they left me demoralized and sick. They are a pattern for alcoholics, a porous defense from the humiliation of being unable to quit.
And we devastate those who love us.
When I was a child, whenever my father was drunk in front of me, which was all the time, I asked him if he was drunk. He said no and I felt immediately as if I had intruded, hurt his feelings, damaged his pride and his love for me. How could I doubt him like this? And—was I crazy? He was drunk, wasn’t he?
When my husband asked if I was drunk, I tried to keep from slurring and said, of course not, not at all—then ignored the guilt and took another large sip of wine from my glass. When he left the kitchen, appalled again at the obviousness of my lie, I grabbed the bottle from the top of the refrigerator, pulled out the cork, and drank.
I never gave voice to my rebellion: Stay out of my drinking. It is mine. It belongs to me. It is none of your business. We will not discuss it. My love for it is forever newborn. And when I pulled out the sofa bed after my very young children were asleep so I could drink until I passed out, free from the fury of my husband, who had grown to despise me, who was so, so tired of my manipulations and negotiations—I felt what I had wanted throughout my life.
Kinship with my father.
I understood him like no one else could.
I asked my father once when I was six why he smoked cigarettes when he knew they would make him die. I was on the floor playing with dirty plastic blocks, looking up at him in his recliner. He exhaled and flicked his cigarette into the ashtray.
“I might get hit by a car and die tomorrow,” he said. Tamarrah. “Doesn’t matter.”
Fate is always death. I believe now that this certainty is how my father justified his drinking. We all die anyway: Did it really matter if he fell asleep at Thanksgiving dinner? Had a seizure in front of my brother, or at the drive-thru bank window? Drove his children to elementary school on icy roads while still drunk from the night before? Took a sip from the bottle of vermouth behind the bookcase or in the toilet tank or beyond the back wall of the barn while his second wife, Barbara, smart and generous and loving, baked bread in the kitchen?
And look at the state of the world. His drinking, his drinking, was insignificant. A tiny thing.
My father was right. We are all tiny things.
When we lie to ourselves, our words are rhythm, the poetry of vindication, the images of innocence.
Did he ever sincerely try to stop? Did he love me but rarely demonstrate it because he was an alcoholic, or did he… not care very much? One night when I was in my twenties, I was lying on a couch in the dark, drinking after everyone else had fallen asleep. I felt the depths to which my father rejected me. Because he had, hadn’t he? Did knowing why matter? I would never heal or understand and I would never be okay. And then instead of the shadowed apartment ceiling I saw—I promise I did—stars in a plain of black, unending space and time. My emotions, joy and despair and love and indifference and terrific sorrow, were grains of sand, human cells, specks of dust glistening in dark air. I felt fear but then lifted the bottle to my lips and took another few swallows of wine. Grateful to be drunk.
When my father died in August 2018, I had been sober for several years. He had quit drinking not because he chose to but because he had glaucoma, cataracts, COPD, and arthritis. He could not move or drive or see or breathe without pain.
In July, he went into hospice. I spent the last weeks of his life with him, more time than we had shared since I was a child.
At one point, from his hospital bed, he said, “My one great regret is never getting to know my grandchildren.”
I was stunned. There were so many things he could have done to get to know them! He was such a privileged man! A professor for 37 years, he had been legendary in the classroom—a literary force. He had worked for and lived a life of the mind with Barbara. He had traveled in the United States and seen much of Europe. He had money. He could have done just about anything he chose.
He gazed up at “Young Woman With a Water Pitcher,” a print of the Vermeer painting hanging from the yellow wall of his room, the water from the spout looking like milk, the shadows blending into actual, late-day sun. He thought there was nothing he could do to change, so nothing mattered. Had nothing mattered because he viewed himself this way, or had he told himself he was helpless and therefore nothing mattered?
And was any of this important now, when his life was about to end?
As I write this, I have been sober for six years with one misstep. After major oral surgery, I convinced the doctor, who was reluctant to prescribe Vicodin, to prescribe it anyway. I could not wait to take it. During my last decade of drinking, I had taken painkillers whenever I had them. They were left over from C-sections, from back spasms, from knee surgery. I swallowed them with beer or wine or whatever because they restored that sense of lightness that had long been missing from solely intoxication.
I took the Vicodin as directed, lay down, and waited. Nothing. Without alcohol, it was not enough. I took another Vicodin, then stood in the bathroom and panicked. What if two were not enough? What if I took a third, a fourth, a fifth? What if being high made me want to drink, and I couldn’t resist? I knew by this time that if I drank I would not be able to stop. My husband would kick me out. I would lose my home, my children, my family. And how could I keep such a secret from everyone? From my husband?
I poured the rest of the Vicodin into the toilet. The pills rippled the water and floated like boats from the view of an airplane. I confessed to my husband and A.A. mentor right away; when my mouth was healed enough for me to leave the house, I went to a meeting and told them all what I had done, grateful to have saved myself, pulled myself out, halted the circular process of deception. Slowed the inevitable progress of my own death.
But as I stood over the toilet, the empty prescription bottle in my hand, I was panting. Salivating with desire. I flushed and watched all that potential whirl away.