Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.

Anonymous Prayers

Father Long asks to meet on the wrap-around porch of the 19th century worn-out resort hotel in Spring Lake, NJ. I just left my husband and live at my mother’s house with my two-year-old boy. Assuming he wants to force feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I hang an emblematic roach clip on an anti-establishment leather string around my 22-year old neck to compound my defiant hippie ensemble. He talks about my marijuana use.

Give it up for your mother’s sake.

Are you talkin’ to her about givin’ up drinking for my sake?

He once had a job as the disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys school. Realizing I’m no match for him, I make a fast exit scrambling out of the painted-wood rocking chair as I hear over my shoulder.

I’ll pray for you.

My mother’s cousin, Jesuit Arthur Long Jr. spends a few weeks every year near Sea Girt where I live during my spiritually-sick adolescence and young adulthood. This summer his vacation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is interrupted by my mother’s cry for help—help for me, her addict. Her lips never part for the word pray nor do her thoughts ever enter the prayer realm. How drunk must she have been to ask for help from her cousin, a soldier of God?

I wonder if Father gets dispatched to other wayward children sprung from his very wayward relatives. 

A few years later I make it to Alcoholics Anonymous and after six months sober I’m the speaker at a large meeting in Montclair, one of Manhattan’s bedroom communities. I talk about my inability to stop drinking, stop smoking pot, stop consuming illicit drugs, until I get to AA. I’m happy to be sober and tear up at gratitude for my father who brought me into the Fellowship. My father sobered up five years before me in Town’s Hospital Manhattan and started his sustained abstinence in meetings on the Upper East side during the time I was dying, way out there in some other dimension. We hadn’t seen each other for five years before he arrived at the public mental institution I overdosed into at 24 years old. He suggested I go to the AA meeting on the grounds.

After my six-months-sober talk at the Montclair meeting, a petite pearly lady stands back from a line of well-wishers before approaching me.

I pray for you everyday.

What? Do I know you?

I go to meetings in New York with your father. We helped him when he went to see you unknownin the hospital, told him what to say, to just share his story, what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now, and suggest you go to meetings—like we do with any
other alcoholic. A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time.

And here I am.

Thank You Alcoholic Writers

After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.

Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.

Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that 51MsewjwbIL._AC_US218_ 2
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”

Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.

I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay.  “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”

We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.

 

Prostitutes and Protein: My Father’s Anti-Social Diet

Prostitutes and Protein: My Father’s Anti-Social Diet

From Lake Point Tower’s third floor 3-acre resident-only garden, I peered through my binoculars out past Navy Pier to the Harbor Lighthouse by the locks at the mouth of the Chicago River. My father’s latest girlfriend pitter-pattered up beside me in her high-heeled sandals and gossamer brown bikini and said, “I fucked someone out there once.” My father, clad in Gucci swimming trunks, was striking a favorite yoga pose—standing th-4on his head within sight of all the bathers and sun worshipers around the pool. I sensed, in that instant, that this, my favorite spot in all Chicago, would be tainted for the rest of my life.

He prided himself on choosing a reformed prostitute matriculating at the University of Chicago to move in with him. We were both around 33 and I was celebrating the yearly anniversary of my last drink at AA meetings. She celebrated her reformation announcing milestones like,“It’s been 90 days since my last trick.” They had a few things in common including their food intake which they discussed constantly. Avid devotees of the Dr. Atkins Diet, they packed their 57th floor fridge with a lot of white protein—cottage cheese, plain yogurt, eggs, chicken and tuna salad and sugar-free Vernor’s ginger ale. They disdained calorie counting (though she kept a chart) and instead tracked protein grams and carbohydrates.

In the early 1980’s Dr. Atkins’ high-protein low-carbohydrate diet bubbled up everywhere in Alcoholics Anonymous. My father cornered newcomers and hammered a Dr. Atkins wedge into their soggy brains as he handed over his phone number and said, “Call me anytime.” Whenever he saw someone at an AA meeting holding a donut he’d explain that a no-sugar low-carb diet keeps the blood sugar regulated and in turn, reduces the craving for alcohol. Beginners were known to eat all-protein tuna fish right out of the can to follow his dictates.

The grocery store on the second floor had a deli counter with a superior version of my favorite food, cole slaw. After the day on the terrace, I purchased a pint each of cole slaw and tuna fish salad, rode up to their apartment and faced the former prostitute in the kitchen.

“Don’t let your father see you eating that cole slaw. It’s loaded with carbs.”

I’m pretty sure I knew cole slaw was not loaded with carbs, but she scared me so much I hid the offensive food in the closet until I left for home.

The kitchen counter groaned with the makings for a maniacal high protein drink. The bartender-grade electric mixer stood over pricey containers from Sherwyn’s Health Foods. Powdered desiccated liver, brewer’s yeast, magnesium, Vitamin C and flax seed were carefully measured and poured into the glass jar with liquid amino acids,

th-1
Liquid Lecithin

sunflower oil and liquid lecithin, a brown substance that could lubricate a car. The concoction reached digestive jubilation when blended together with ice cubes and water.

She, like those before and after her, looted the towels when she split, but left the kitchen counter intact. He binged on coffee Haagen-Das for a few days before resuming his sociopathic eating habits.

The Reunion by Regan Burke

In the locked ward of the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I was withdrawing from my demons – cheap wine, LSD, amphetamines and marijuana – when my long-absent father appeared before me. I was 24 years old. The last time I’d seen him, the week before I was to enter Monmouth College, I’d knocked on the door of his mid-town Manhattan apartment seeking money to pay my first year’s tuition. He was drunk, wrapped tight in a dirty blue bathrobe. He wrote me a check, then stopped payment before I could get to the Admissions Office in Long Branch, an hour down the Garden State Parkway.

Fresh out of a straight-jacket, I had no clothes or shoes of my own, having arrived at the public madhouse in an ambulance after a drug overdose. I wore a short-sleeved baggy muslin dress from the institutional collection designed and made by the permanent residents.

“You have a visitor,” the nurse said before escorting me from my cell-like room to the end of the hallway into a clean and airy space she called the Day Room. There were windows along the wall opposite the door, starting maybe six feet up from the floor and reaching the ceiling. For the first time I realized my confinement was subterranean.

My father turned toward me. His brown felt fedora, soft brimmed with a hand-creased crown, topped his elegant duds: white open-necked shirt, tweed sports jacket, gabardine trousers and cordovan wing-tips. A miasma of feelings engulfed me. I feared him. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him.

Why didn’t she say it was my father? I had no idea how to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. My body shook and rattled as I searched for some kind of appropriate words. I knew only hippy language.

“Hey, man. Far out. You’re here. I’m a little strung out.”

He told me his story of recovery from alcoholism. He loved the effect from his first teenage beer. After that, once he picked up the first drink he binged until he was forced to stop. He had been in and out of jail for getting in fights, drunken driving and cashing bad checks. He couldn’t hold a job. In the end, he holed up in the New York apartment drinking quarts of scotch round the clock until an old friend knocked on his door.

“Had enough, Burke?”

After years of trying on his own, these bewitching words got him to open the door and allow a few men from Alcoholics Anonymous to enter his life. The obsession to drink lifted. “A miracle,” he called it.

He told me about an AA meeting at the hospital. He didn’t suggest I go, didn’t offer to take me, didn’t tell whoever was charged with moving me around my current existence. He just laid the words down. And then he left. He never removed his hat.

About 25 years into my own recovery — admitting defeat, examining resentments, practicing forgiveness, making amends and consciously increasing a spiritual life — that reunion with my father came back to me. I now know supernatural love and courage drove him to bestow his abundant legacy, the gift of sobriety.

People Say They Did the Best They Could

What My Parents Believed

No One Ever Said We Were Democrats. Neither of my parents campaigned nor wore political buttons nor wrote thoughtful letters to politicians. They were Catholics, went to Catholic schools, Catholic colleges, married in the Catholic church. They took on the mantle of Irish Catholicism as if it were a physical birthmark, a once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mental tattoo unaccompanied by belief in God or Jesus. They took advantage of the culture of the sacraments— Holy Communion, Marriage, Baptism—to display how beautiful we all were in our expensive clothes, polished shoes, fashionable hair styles.

They argued. About money mostly. And other women, other men. They agreed on important things. Pope Pius XII was a backwater imbecile for invoking papal infallibility in 1950 when he proclaimed all Catholics must believe Mary didn’t suffer physical death and was assumed into heaven. This new doctrine, along with the Pope’s insisting the Church of Rome stay neutral during the Holocaust, put a stake in their religiousity.

They hated right-wing bullies like Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy was a reckless demagogue who ruined lives with public witch hunts and unsubstantiated accusations against communist sympathizers. FBI Director Hoover amassed power by steering favorable press and policy his way using his secret files to blackmail Congress and Presidents alike. Throughout their lives my parents derided the Red Cross for raising money for war-time troops then charging soldiers and sailors for their so-called giveaways like toothpaste, coffee and donuts. My mother eagerly showed how smart she was in these matters. After all, my parents attended college in the nation’s capitol in the years leading up to World War II. She gossiped about under-informed conversationalists, “What do you expect, they don’t even read the New York Times.”

During the war, they lived in housing provided by the Navy in Key West. With no children to mind, they spent evenings in the Officer’s Club chattering about the day’s news, forming opinions and cooling off with rum smuggled in from Cuba. The men were Navy pilots and Naval intelligence officers. Some worked in the newly-formed CIA. Anyone who didn’t drink was not to be trusted. They never went to a restaurant, nor any gathering, party, picnic, or church function unless they knew alcohol would be served.

Any friend or relative who stopped drinking was derided as a reformed drinker, as if that were a dirty word. My father eventually stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he still steered clear of social events and restaurants where there was no alcohol. With all their strong opinions about religion and politics, the foundational belief of my parents was that life without alcohol was as unsophisticated and tasteless as a Greek diner.

My father, divorced from my mother, helped me get sober in 1979. When I told my family I was in AA, my older sister, glass of wine in hand, said, “Well. Just because you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t mean everyone is.”

 

A Gucci-Loving Spiritual Seeker Gets It in est

In the late 1970’s, my father attended the Erhard Seminar Training, est, a large-group self-awareness retreat founded by modern-day American guru, Werner Erhard, and known today as The Landmark Forum.

After 15 years of estrangement, I became re-acquainted with my father in 1975 when I had overdosed on drugs and alcohol at twenty-four. He visited me in a New Jersey psychiatric institution to tell me about his own downfall and recovery from alcoholism.

A year later, I took my 9-year-old son Joe for his first visit to his grandfather’s home in Chicago’s Lake Point Tower. He ran his coal-mining business from a 6th floor office overlooking Navy Pier, and lived on the 57th floor with a girlfriend whose name I’ve forgotten.

I found comfort in our common interests. We attended AA meetings together, ate according to Dr. Atkins, and searched for meaning in the writings of American buddhists Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Over the years, his Kool-Aid obsession with the est Training led him to attend more exclusive retreats, outdoor survival excursions and seminars that would have led to his becoming an est Trainer himself. He relentlessly pursued fellow AAers, the doormen, his girlfriends, passers-by, my sisters and me to hop on the est bandwagon.

Joe loved and admired his athletic, yoga-practicing, Gucci-loafered, new-age grandfather. After my two failed marriages, I thought my father would make a good role model so we moved to Chicago. Before long, I capitulated and went to the est Training. The Trainer coerced me into confronting all the bad decisions I’d made in my life, which tore my soul to shreds and kept it tattered for years afterwards. I helplessly allowed my father to enroll Joe in the Training at age 14, and silently cheered when Joe walked out the first hour of the 60-hour course.

With est’s emphasis on the Self, my father drifted far away from his Jesuit-educated God-centered roots. His spiritual life ballooned into a reliance on his interpretation of the “god within” — that we are all our own gods and are capable of directing our own lives with no outside help. He preached at AA meetings to accept ourselves as we are in the present with no thought of what we’ve done in the past or what we will become in the future. People in AA tell me to this day his greatest influence on them was his constant reminder that no human power could relieve their alcoholism, that dependence on a higher power was essential to recovery. I never knew anyone to challenge him on his illogical, conflicting philosophies.

In October,1979, Pope John Paul II waved to my father as he flew by his 57th floor living room window in an open-door helicopter, his white robes flapping. The Pope landed in Grant Park to perform an outdoor Mass for 200,000 congregants. We watched the ritual on television and my father claimed that day as his reawakening to Catholicism. He didn’t return to Sunday Mass until the est organization dissolved in 1984. About that time I started noticing a slow disintegration in his character. His live-in girlfriends changed more frequently; he concocted fraudulent business deals, pitted my sisters and I against each other, sold his business and exaggerated his wealth.

In the end, he acted like he was his own god, unencumbered by moral obligations or the consequences of his actions. Perhaps he was like that all along.