The year is 1951
I am nine years old.
For most of my life my father drinks. Not just now and then, it’s his full-time occupation.
The electric bill is unpaid and we live by candlelight. This is not dinner for two at some fancy downtown restaurant--- just catsup sandwiches in a dimly lit kitchen in Brooklyn. We are without power, not just living in the dark but powerless to change our life. My father continues to drink. He tries to stop and is sober for a while but then he starts again.
When he gets the DT’s he goes to the G building at Kings County Hospital, It is where all the crazy people go. When he dries out they let him come home. He tells me stories about the terrors of withdrawal—the spiders crawling all over the room, all over him. He tells me things I don’t want to hear about and over time I learn words that are atypical for a child my age. Words like hallucinations, delirium tremors, and assault and battery. I am old beyond my years and wish it were otherwise. He tells me that this time, he is going to stop drinking. I have heard it all before.
Father McLane visits him in the Crazy House hospital and tells him about Alcoholics Anonymous. He offers to take him to a meeting. My father is willing to try anything to stop drinking. I don’t hold out much hope. That night I say a prayer to St. Jude, patron of lost causes to help my father.
For the next few weeks my father doesn’t drink.
He attends AA meetings...sometimes two a day. He has a sponsor to help him with the struggles of staying sober—Someone who has been through the program and knows the difficulties my father is dealing with. When my father falls off the wagon, he goes to meetings and his sponsor is right there to help him.
In 1951 there is no support group for the children of alcoholics. I don’t know what to expect and try to figure things out on my own. It is a confusing time for me and I feel isolated. My father stays sober, gets a job and is active in AA.
The year is 1956
I am thirteen-years-old.
He comes home from work with a bottle in a brown paper bag. He has twisted the bag at the top, the way he did when he was drinking. I am hysterical.
He has no idea what is going on. I point to the twisted paper bag. He opens it to reveal a bottle of Stephens’s hair tonic.
“I thought you started drinking again.”
He has been in recovery for five years. But the wound that never completely closes, tears open. I am reliving the fear.
That night he goes to his meeting and talks about what happened. He has been dealing with his recovery. It never occurs to him how his drinking affected me. Someone at the meeting suggests he take me to The Club (that’s what he calls it) and maybe I will be reassured that he stopped drinking and that everything is OK.
The Club is on Sterling Street. A large black twelve is painted on a green metal door. There is no sign to identify that it is Alcoholic Anonymous. It is like a secret society that only the members know about. We climb a narrow flight of stairs and enter a room with worn linoleum. There is a large soda cooler, a counter with stools, tables and chairs, and a giant pot of coffee that never empties. There are mostly men who smoke cigarettes, drink the coffee and talk to each another. I understand why this is my father’s safe place...Honestly it looks a lot like the bars he went to...the bars he took me to when I was little.
“It’s nice to see that there is a safe place you can go-- a place where you can socialize and be with other alcoholics who are struggling to stay sober. I’ve been curious about The Club. I’m glad you took me here today.”
“I was hoping it would reassure you that my not drinking is something I work on all the time. AA has changed my life for the better. Without it, I’d probably be dead.
“Tell me what I need to do to make you feel safe and understand, that my drinking is a thing of the past.”
“Time. It will take more time for me to trust you.”
He squeezes my hand and says,
“I’m sorry for what you had to live through.”
I am surprised at what he says.
“This is the first time you ever apologized to me…ever acknowledged how your drinking effected my life. I have waited a long time to here those words.”
“God, I hope I’m not too late. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Your ‘I’m sorry’ was a long- time coming. As I said before, I need more time. But it’s a great start.”