Writing Family Secrets

When I began memoir writing I had no intention of chronicling my family’s drinking, or mine, for that matter. I wrote because my new doctor led a program in expressive writing. He said writing would cure my chronic pain. He was the last stop on an exhaustive trip that was going nowhere, so I took a chance. He was right.

As a kid, I was singled out to write the all-school letters; thank you notes to the local bakery for Christmas cookies and expressions of sympathy to teachers who had a death in the family. Once I wrote a note in French to the French teacher congratulating her on retirement. Every year I’d write an official letter to the president inviting him to visit our school.

When my sixth-grade class was assigned to write about our Thanksgiving vacation, I wrote that my family’s leftovers were wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator where they’d stay until the smell got so bad someone would finally throw out the rotten food. Until I retired, that was the only time I wrote anything revealing about my family.

But looking back now, I’m starting to understand why so much of my memoir-writing includes stories about alcoholism. Bonnie Carlson, author of the novel Radical Acceptance, says retirement liberated her to be open about her recovery from alcoholism; she didn’t have to worry about the stigma at work.The stigma of alcoholism at work never worried me, but retirement did free me to write fearlessly about consequential decisions resulting from alcoholism and mental illness. Shame broke like a water balloon all over my writing, and dissipated into my own edited words. I’ve dared readers to accept the chaos of my family’s alcoholic life. More than that, I’ve added my own voice to the truth-telling writers of recovery whose stories help explode the stigma.

Frank McCourt’s powerful language forces us to relive his impoverished and loveless childhood in Angela’s Ashes. It’s quite a feat to write about his alcoholic father with forgiving humor. Pete Hamill in A Drinking Life, Mary Carr in The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life all give us stories of violent alcoholic behavior that make me wonder how they ever managed to get out alive, much less write about it.

“Write what you know” is attributed to Mark Twain. But I could quote all my school teachers saying it. I’ve always known it doesn’t mean to write descriptions of my school 9EC7F9F3-1257-4DA2-9AD7-FD17975A7022_4_5005_croom or home or even all the gory details about my parent’s drinking. It means to write that I wished my mother was more like I-Love-Lucy or that on most mornings I put my finger under her nose to test for life.

Writing like that was forbidden when I was a child, as were any vocal or facial expressions of the fear, the self-pity, the distress. Those emotions settled in my soft tissue and came out to physically torment me in my fifties.

James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer of writing therapy, hitches recovery from the health aftershocks of secrets to expressive writing. Expressive writing reveals feelings through events, memories, objects, or people. It’s not so much what happened as how you feel about what happened or is happening. It’s that all-important question we hate to hear from a therapist, “how did that make you feel?”

Eyeballing your feelings in your own writing can be unpredictably gut punching. It’s a fast-acting treatment though, this bibiliotherapy, a painkiller and a healer.

LSD Insanity

In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, Brad Pitt’s character casually smokes an LSD soaked cigarette. Just as the acid-induced hallucinations kick in, three people bust into his house armed with knives and guns. He laughs at them. He doesn’t think they are real.

“Did you ever do acid?” Mark asked me.

Mark and I have been friends for almost thirty-five years. How does he not know this about me?

“Are you kidding? I used to take acid three or four times a week,” I shrugged, “For about six months. Maybe longer. ”

“Why’d you do that?”

“I wanted to see God.”OIP.u5D65V-WwphdhnASj8pIbQAAAA

“Did you?”

“Of course. At the end, I hoped I’d go to heaven overdosing on sleeping pills and booze, but ended up in a coma and went to an insane asylum instead.”

“Wow. What was that like?”

Here’s what that was like: In December 1970, a friend found me unconscious in the beach cottage I’d rented with my long-gone boyfriend that winter. An ambulance drove me (from the hospital where I’d been revived) to New Jersey’s notorious Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital.

Initially I was housed in a locked ward. For about forty-eight hours I suffered the shivering sweats and hallucinations of delirium tremens (DTs) due to the sudden withdrawal from alcohol. Swaddled in a straight jacket, I watched Donald Duck, Goofy and Mickey Mouse playing on my floor. When they danced up the wall and out the window, I screamed for them to come back. After three or four days on heavy tranquilizers and anti-psychotic drugs, I was moved to a three-story dormitory, one of many Tudor-style hospital buildings surrounded by old oaks and acres of farmland in pastoral Monmouth County. Patients were supposed to be grouped by similar diagnoses. I have no idea what my diagnosis was but I do know I wasn’t as crazy as most of my eighty housemates.

Every morning I woke to someone running around ranting and raving nonsensically. We all had lockers but a patient warned me if I put anything in mine, she’d take it. I had no clothes of my own. I wore left-behind shoes and calico cotton dresses made by long-term patients. The huge day room in the center of the building had overstuffed chairs and couches organized in small conversation clusters. After breakfast most patients ran into the day room to their favorite chair and pushed it up against the wall. On my first day, I sat in a chair with my back to the open room. A patient ran up behind me and squeezed Unknown-1both hands around my neck until an orderly pulled her off. All the other patients laughed. That’s why they kept their backs to the wall.

At my first session with the psychiatrist, I thought he was mad at me. He showed me photos of babies without heads born to mothers who had taken LSD. I knew nothing about drug and alcohol addiction. Neither did he. He thought I had a choice.

I was in Marlboro for the month of December. Church groups sent buses to take us involuntarily to their Christmas parties. Time spent at church socials in my nut house clothes was equally as tortuous as recovering from my demons.

I never swallowed a hallucinogenic after that—not because headless babies scared me. I tried to reach heaven and didn’t make it so I figured God had other plans. It took four more years for me to recover from alcohol. My last drink was forty-four years ago today. 

 

Irish Buffet

Irish Buffet

A Hero’s Kitchen

I have no memory of my mother’s cooking before she left my father. After their Midwest life of drunken brawls, evictions and midnight moves, she relocated my sisters and me to the unfamiliar Jersey Shore as we approached adolescence.

The kitchen appeared to be an afterthought in our new four bedroom stucco: four corner doors led to the living room, the backyard, the driveway and the dining room. The backyard door swung open and shut on one side of the stove. The fridge sat on the other side, leaving no wiggle room between it and the stove, it and the living room door. It’s as if no one was expected to cook in there.

In an attempt to provide a semblance of order in her new-found single motherdom, Agnes sat her four daughters down to a gourmet dinner every night. Chopping and mixing occurred on the space between the stovetop burners or on the drain area of the sink opposite the stove. An unspoken rule kept food preparation away from the dining room table.

Agnes insisted my sisters and I learn to use the pressure cooker she’d acquired to whip up potato salad in the summer and mashed potatoes in the winter. After the lid blew off and the contents hit the ceiling, I never went near it again. Her recipe for pressure cooker spaghetti sauce required bunches of fresh basil, and Agnes could only find that at the summer farm stand. I don’t know how much the recipe called for, but she dropped so images-1 2much of it into the tomato sauce it came out like basil stew, delicious over spaghetti but awkward to twirl around a fork.

She thought gourmet cooking meant stirring wine into every dish, usually at the last minute. That way the alcohol wouldn’t cook off. She added wine to chile con carne, shrimp newburg, chicken a la king, beef stroganoff and all au jus sauces. My sisters and I exchanged glances when dinner guests remarked on the richness of the sauce. We’d dare not say anything about Agnes’ cuisine, especially the wine additive, for fear of her embarrassing reprisals like, “what do you know about cooking?”

Agnes cherished continental dining. We sat down to dinner around 8:30 depending on how long she stretched the cocktail hour. My sisters and I fought every night about whose turn it was to clean up. We were so tired by the end of dinner we often left dirty dishes piled in the sink. No one ever took the garbage out. Two or three grocery bags full of empty beer cans continually took up precious kitchen floor space. A friend once referred to the sight of it as an “Irish buffet” which Agnes thought hilarious.

As her alcoholism progressed, Agnes’ dinner-table attempt at a normal life fell by the wayside. But for a few brief years, in that tiny trashy kitchen, Agnes was a culinary hero.

 

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

On the afternoon of November 23, 1963, I walked through my empty high school cafeteria to pick up the receiver hanging from the pay phone in the corner. As I said hello, I noticed the cooks in the back of the kitchen huddled around a radio. My mother, Agnes, was on the line.

“Are you all right?”

When I was fourteen-years old, I had immersed myself in the 1960 presidential race. Agnes hardly listened to me when I talked to her about it (what adult listens to a fourteen-year-old) but when it came time to vote, she asked me what to do. She didn’t want to vote for a Catholic. Now she had to report that my hero, President John F. Kennedy, had been shot. She was visiting a friend and suggested I catch the bus from Williamsburg to Washington to join them. I was under no one’s legal custody but my father had given the boarding school nuns orders prohibiting me from seeing my mother. I frantically called my father and asked if he’d sign off on letting me go to her. He said no.

I slinked over to sit with the downtrodden cooks listening for any morsel of hope. There was none. We lamented together—me and the Black kitchen workers in southern Virginia, slave descendants, whose hope for civil rights laid in the Kennedy White House. My sorrow could never touch the depth of theirs. They comforted me, as if my heritage had also been clouded by the despair of violence. They made me theirs. I was in the company of saints.th-8

The nuns had us boarding students go to chapel throughout the weekend then allowed us to fill our other hours watching TV. The next week I visited my father for Thanksgiving. While he and I were sifting through the magazine rack in People’s Drug Store at DuPont Circle, the store radio blurted out President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that Florida’s Cape Canaveral would now be known as Cape Kennedy (ten years later Floridians changed it back). 

“Hear that? Never forget where you were when you heard that,” he said.

Washington sputtered that weekend in the aftermath of the assassination—no one moved except the crowds advancing to JFK’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. 

At eighteen and without a driver’s license I capitalized on my father’s somber distraction to hone my driving skills with his car, visiting school friends who were home for the holiday. Everyone was glued to their TVs, trying to settle their own emotions. So I, having red-lighted my feelings, spent time alone learning to navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the notoriously confusing Pierre L’Enfant circles, Key Bridge, Pennsylvania Avenue and the cobbled streets of Georgetown. I stayed in the Northwest part of the city sensing something sinister about Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast Washington.

I cruised by the home I’d occupied with my parents and two sisters a dozen years before, wondering what happened to our family. I had no idea what alcoholism was nor did I realize I was living in the consequences of that untreated disease.

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

We stood in the street in front of my mother’s house five blocks from the Atlantic Ocean for what Walter Cronkite called the Eclipse of the Century. My 3-year old son Joe hippity hopped atop a bouncy ball clinging to the red rubber handle between his legs. Stacy, my 13-year old sister huddled on the frosty curb with her friend Billy. They had those cardboard gizmos with pinholes. I thought they got them at school but Stacy said Billy made them in his garage.

My mother never got chummy with her neighbors. A group of them came out from under the trees lining our sidewalks for an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. At one end of the house across the street, a construction tarp hung from the roof to the ground hiding a big hole. The mangled house was under repair after my mother pushed the wrong button on her 1959 Chrysler push-button transmission, slammed on the gas instead of the brakes, shot straight out of the driveway, jumped the curb and punched the house in its face. Unharmed, she passed out but not from the impact.

Billy reminded us earlier in the week that we needed a filter to look at the sun or we’d go blind.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you just have to look through the dappled sunlight under the trees,” my mother said. It was March. We didn’t tell her there were no dappling leaves.

The eclipse moved along the east coast from Florida to Maine. In her 1972 song You’re so Vain, Carly Simon memorialized the once-in-a-lifetime 1970 total eclipse of the sun. Cronkite and others reported that we wouldn’t see another eclipse like this until 2017, an absolutely unimaginable future time.

As the umbra started to move into position for the brief period it would black out all sunlight, my mother appeared on the darkening street carrying a can of Budweiser. Our long-haired white male cat, Mae West trailed along. He abruptly mounted a passing 308px-Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR.jpgtomcat prompting my mother to kick the cats and scream, “You queers! Cut it out!”

Joe stopped bouncing and looked toward the shadowy sky. Stacy bolted toward him. “Cover your eyes!”

I gawked at my mother, already relishing the laughs I’d get acting out this scene to my friends. They loved her. One of the neighbors hurried over to my mother, “Stop kicking the cats!” The others, distracted by the commotion on our portion of the boulevard neglected to look up. The dark cloaked us but we missed gazing at the Eclipse of the Century.

Billy, unfazed by the street theater, peered at the solar system event through his homemade cardboard pinhole filter for the entire three minutes the moon passed in front of the sun, his Eclipse of the Century. He lived to tell the tale for another five years before a drunken driver took his life.

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.