Complications of Alcoholism

Samhita wrote something a while ago that struck me. She wrote:

Many of my female friends drink in excess, not because they wanted to be “one of the guys” but because they had lives that were difficult as women, either for internalized sense of failure, experiencing abuse, depression around money, depression around social stature or failed relationships. I am not just talking about drinking for fun, of course women engage in that as well, but I am talking about drinking as a way to numb the pain, difficulty and reality of this often cold cold world.

This stuck out in part because at the time I was already talking about this. Vanessa had just posted about quitting smoking, I commented about my mother’s untimely death from lung cancer. I thought it might have come off as a scare-story, which women hear too much. So I emailed Vanessa. In the ensuing exchange, we talked about how smoking is more common among folks in oppressed groups: women smoke proportionately more than men, black folks more than white folks and gay men more than het men, for example. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that’s a response to stress – the constant pervasive stress of being on the losing side of an oppressive social structure.


Samhita’s post reminded me of something else people do in response to stress. It reminded me that when middle school let out for a half-day and I got home, my mother lay on the couch, most of the way into the biggest jug of cheap wine that the liquor store sold, and unable to walk. It reminded me of visiting my mother in in-patient rehab. Driving by the place decades later I mentioned it to my spouse, who took a long look at me and said, “you’re so not-fucked up, sometimes I forget.” I remember the wreck of the little Mazda wagon. I remember the blood on her knuckles from the night she literally crawled home. I remember her swinging at me and stumbling and falling the night I soaked her cigarettes under the faucet. I remember her standing while diarrhea leaked down her leg, sick and drunk and too confused or unsteady to make it to the bathroom.
Many addicts follow the Stephen Tyler pattern (he of Aerosmith): getting drunk or high regularly in their early teens. This was not my mother.
She was a scholar and athlete in high school, though she was so poor that she lost her teeth to malnutrition as a teenager and wore dentures my entire life. She grew up in a house with no father around, a mentally ill mother and too many children, whole family in two rooms with no running water in rural New England in the depression. She bore, physically as well as mentally, the scars of her childhood. She was a serious case of prewar rural poverty, using babysitting earnings to put food on the table. (I’m not talking about someone who was merely as poor as the community – there was a nasty local nickname for the entire family implying that they had lice.) She scored in the 1200s on the SAT, but college was out of reach for women in her social position. Instead, she self-taught, devouring stacks of library books.
My mother only started drinking heavily to self-medicate. She and my father moved into a tumbling down house that they could barely afford in a school district that would get their kids somewhere better in the world. After long weeks, on weekends she would help my father sheetrock the workshop space that had been the first floor. She hurt her back. Doctors didn’t listen, thinking it was a muscle pull. The pain only got worse, but my father wouldn’t and didn’t take up any of the slack – physically or emotionally. There are enough issues there for a dozen posts, and I maintain a relationship with my father, so there’s only so much I’ll say. What she said to me, as I grew up, was that no matter how much it hurt, there were things that had to be done and she had to do them because my father wouldn’t or couldn’t; and that he withdrew emotionally when she needed him most.
And so she drank. And, for several years, she self-medicated for pain, second-shift, bad marriage, and the other ills of a broken and wrong gender system by drinking herself into a stupor.
(My father’s drinking and his anger were themselves medication for patriarchy. I love him, though I don’t love the man he was then. Manhood, as it existed for him, was crippling. He was beset by anxieties. He didn’t know how to live on his own; he went from his mother’s house to his wife’s. He was desperately dependent on her, yet he couldn’t rely on her for emotional support, and he made her the target of his rage. It was … an unpleasant environment to be a child in.)
Nothing lasts forever; things either get better or worse. Things got better. Rehab didn’t work, but when my father also quit drinking, they were able to do it together. They became a couple again. They became parents again. Eventually, I was able to get past blind anger and self-destruction and chart a course for myself. And today, I don’t remember my mother primarily for those years of heavy drinking. I remember her as a strong-willed mother, pushing education and financial self-sufficiency. I remember her as my feminist role model; a woman who told me the truth about the ways the world was unfair. I remember her as someone who could talk frankly with me about sexuality, even when it embarrassed me and probably her. I remember an amazing person who should have had a much easier path in life, and I feel sad that things were never, for her, as good as she deserved.
The way I grew up, though, has left me with a particular view of substance abuse. When I posted this in response to Jessica’s post about the new propaganda about hook-up culture, Zuzu (who knows me very well) emailed me privately to note that I do not particularly have a healthy view of alcohol use. This is entirely true. (I decided when I was 13 that I do not drink alcohol. That remains the case.) I know people who drink socially and in moderation. But what I’m really familiar with is people who drink to make things go away: the pressure, the fear, the voices, the demons, the constant weight of living with something that ever-present something.
These people are self-medicating for oppression. And, for many, it’s hard to say precisely what oppression. The circumstances of my mother’s life, for a time, exceeded the strength of her coping mechanisms. Because she was a woman? Because she was raised in poverty? Because she was abused? Yes. Yes to all of those things. I am thinking here of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s term, popularized in the feminist blogosphere by Sudy at My Ecdysis: Kyriarchy. The organization of power layers into a pyramid of sorts, not two levels of oppressors and oppressed but a morass of relative rather than absolute privilege; the impact on one life of race, class, sex and gender identity and sexual orientation and ability and size and … they don’t separate into neat components for easy tracking. They fold into each other, producing confusing patterns often only barely comprehensible to the people living them, and often not any better understood from outside.
Is it any wonder that some of the best and brightest and most amazing women, the ones that refuse to fit other people’s narratives, that break the rules and break the mold, and ones who see the world for what it is or see a better world and try like hell to get there – is it any wonder that some of them give in to the strain and look for a way to make it all stop? Or that it’s hard not to keep doing that until they drink to deal with the fallout of their drinking?
Hothead Paisan was created when Diane DiMassa was getting clean and sober. I don’t think my mother ever read HHP, but she would have loved it. She would have understood. And it was my mother’s feminism that helped her understand what had happened in her life and to pick herself up and move forward. She read all of Maya Angelou, all of Toni Morrison at tremendous gulps. The women whose voices spoke to her were those whose lives were defined not by one struggle but several – interlocking and overlapping power dynamics of class and/or race and/or sex and/or sexual orientation, interacting like wave patterns to produce rough, broken seas and the occasional rogue wave that can capsize a life. And the women who helped her understand that were the ones that helped her stay on her feet.

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