A Heritage of Poison: How recovery allowed me to disrupt generations of addiction

This is Part I of a two-part series. Up next: practical ways I diverged from my family's path. 

I just got back from a trip seeing my grandparents. I'd prepared myself for an anxiety-inducing, emotionally draining trip that would leave me exhausted for days after returning. I even set aside three days after my vacation to recuperate! But what I found in Florida was the exact opposite of what I thought I'd been seeking and expected.

First, a Little History

My grandparents have lived in Florida for my entire life. When my mom was just 18, they loaded up their house and youngest daughter and went looking for work in the sunshine state. My mom, newly in love and tightly attached to friends, had no desire to uproot her life and join them. So she stayed. 

Two years later, out popped me to the waiting arms of my mom and grandma, who'd flown up for my birth to the reluctant house of my biological father. My grandma describes himas a "selfish asshole." You ever want to get my sweet grandma riled up, ask her about my father during the first two weeks of my life. She's got a lot to say.

Raising a baby is hard. Raising one at twenty years old is harder. Doing it all as a single mom 800 miles from family was impossible, so my mom finally swallowed her pride and moved us down to Florida. For the next 12 years, we lived with them off and on, trekked back and forth between Illinois, where my mom was determined to be, and Florida, where my grandparents always kept a room waiting to catch me.

I've written before about the magic of stability in a tumultuous childhood. My grandparents' modest, tidy home was an oasis of nightly dinners at the table, Golden Girls on the television, and coffee each morning at their little kitchenette. Given the choice, I often picked their home even when we had our own.

It wasn't that they spoiled me - they didn't. It was that each day looked exactly the same, and over time these days stitched together into a durable life. I could find the salt shaker here, clean towels there, dinner at this time. The predictability with which my grandparents organized their lives dissolved tension I held in my neck.

Me in front of the house my grandfather built in Naples, FL. It's for sale and it only costs about 5X what my grandparents paid for it - what a deal! 

Me in front of the house my grandfather built in Naples, FL. It's for sale and it only costs about 5X what my grandparents paid for it - what a deal! 

Stories of Addiction & Loss

I asked for stories when I arrived. They told me a whole history passed through photo albums and anecdotes. Photos of birthday parties, my grandma in a bikini after 5 kids (!),  and stories of move after move (what we call geographic cures in recovery). A devastating house fire put my mom and her 4 siblings in a school bus for a year while my grandpa rebuilt their house by hand a few hours each night after work.

Mixed in these were the stories of alcoholism. Over and over, the mean drunks beat their wives or spent the family grocery money or died early, everyone a little relieved.

My grandfather's side came from Yugoslavia and found the impossible lives of poor immigrants waiting for them. His father carved his words until he'd cut his accent away, but he carried around the evidence of his mother who never learned enough English to get by in the new country. While my grandfather speaks with a kind of reverence created by losing his father too young, even he admits his father was an awful drunk.

As new generations formed and our family branched out, new stories of addiction formed, too. My mom's early 20s were marred by a decade-long wild streak of substance abuse. Another family member never appeared without a glass of Coke in her hand. We'd stop along the road sometimes so she could fix her drink from an ice chest in the trunk. It took years to understand that she travelled with a minibar back there, her Coke spiked with rum and her days spent floating on a fizzy buzz.

New decades brought more insidious addictions. I heard the story of OxyContin, fueled by a prescribing physician. What started with a bad back eventually slid full force into my family member increasing her own dose just by asking. The doctor writes a prescription for undercover agents and is quickly arrested. Suddenly with the supply cut, she finds herself with rehabs too full to take her and a body violently in withdrawal. She spends an awful year in her parents' home, everyone miserable and near their breaking point.

There are others. People who haven't spent a day without weed since their teenage years. Controlling and violent husbands with a love for whiskey married into our family. Heartache and tragedy and what seems like more than one small family should endure.

In all of it, I recognized myself.  I am every character in every story.

What We Don't Name

In all of these stories, no one ever said alcoholic. Addict. We used euphemisms like "he was a drunk" or "she drank too much." We never said disease or hereditary or "me too."  Alcoholic meant someone homeless who couldn't keep a job, had no family to be responsible for. Alcoholic meant male. It meant someone who drank ceaselessly, not someone who hadn't drunk in 30 years.

There were also other related things we did not name. Severe depression and its cycles. Anxiety so crippling we can't leave the house. An overwhelming sense of helplessness as we watch people we love struggle to control self-destructive behavior.

I remember so clearly when I first started taking anti-depressants and the medicine finally clicked. I was driving, radio silent, and suddenly it was as if color had come back into the world. The sky brightened, my hands on the steering wheel came into to focus, my body physically lifted.

Over time, I recognized the cycles of my depression as identical to my mom's. Listening to my family talk about their struggles, I heard those same cycles, too. We are a family rife with mental illness who have self-medicated sometimes to death.

Disrupting the Cycle

Me as Recovery Superhero. And my trusty sidekick, Ru the Werepig

Me as Recovery Superhero. And my trusty sidekick, Ru the Werepig

I don't think anyone in my family actually knows what recovery is. They know sober. They understand not drinking. They think of addiction as a matter of resolve and will. Weakness. But they don't know about looking at ourselves through the lens of our addiction. Detaching from the things we cannot control. Seeking lives at peace with what is. They don't know what's possible when we accept that we are addicted and need to heal.

I told the story last night in a circle of women about the Universe intervening at moments when I couldn't be trusted to make good decisions. It's hard for me in these stories to give credit to anything I do. With credit comes automatic damning of the people I love. If I've done good things to deserve this life, it means they've done terrible things to deserve theirs. But we have all been depressed. We have mostly been addicted. So, why me? 

Honestly, I don't know. For whatever reason, someone sat down next to me when I was close to giving up sobriety. I was clear enough to see the second time around that I couldn't drink normally. I've been lucky with the love and acceptance and generosity of people around me. But I have also done things to disrupt the cycle. I've taken steps to address my own compulsions. From my time hearing all the old stories, I see how desperately these things must be torn out at the root.