An Adult Child of an Alcoholic Finally Grows Up

By Sean Mahoney 07/10/17

I was playing my preordained role as the alcoholic family scapegoat, causing problems to divert attention from the real issues simmering beneath the surface.

An angry boy screams at his reflection
It never occurred to me that my life was problematic.

I can’t be sure but I’d venture to say that there are thousands of 70’s and 80’s children who listened to the Annie soundtrack so many times that they wanted to become orphans.

Surely, I can’t be the only one who’d listen to “Tomorrow” and “Maybe” and wonder if perhaps by some far flung set of circumstances I wound up adopted or switched at birth or kidnapped? Even my childish brain knew this was a stretch but growing up in an alcoholic home it felt like the only possible thing that made sense. This childhood built on so many masks and stories swirling around the disease of alcoholism was just bizarre enough that the plot twist that I may have somehow wound up in the wrong home didn’t feel that far off.

Yet even at a young age, I knew the writing was on the wall and these were undoubtedly my people. We were all the same flavor of sarcastic/crazy and there was no denying that we looked alike. Still, I could hold out for a billionaire with a singing staff of maids and butlers, just in case. When my dad got sober at the beginning of my teen years, there was my answer: I felt off and my childhood wasn’t as good as everyone else’s because my father was an alcoholic. I wrapped this in a bow and chucked into the “Their fault” pile so I could quickly move onto being a royal pain in the ass.

And boy was I. Since I felt shafted and awkward and not to mention more effeminate and fabulous than other boys my age, I decided that the world owed me a free ticket. Shoplifting, drinking at school, dropping acid at the mall and lying about every possible thing were just a few of the ways I killed time between Smiths records and Camel Lights. What I didn’t know was I was playing my preordained role as the alcoholic family scapegoat destined to cause problems to divert attention from the real issues simmering beneath the surface. Nevertheless, I was playing the hell out of that role.

When I finally realized I was gay at the age of 17, I had already done cocaine and been busted for stealing liquor. I was on a mission to do whatever the hell I wanted and if it pissed people off, all the better. Had I possessed the necessary genetic equipment to get pregnant and join a girl gang I would have done that too. It should be noted that I didn’t realize this is why I was doing all of this stuff. I really thought bad things just happened to me and because of my poor lot in life they would continue to do so. It was a childish and borderline insane notion but one I held onto tightly. It never occurred to me that my life was problematic.

Besides, my parents were the screwed up ones. My dad was the alcoholic. He had a problem, not me. I just liked to get wasted everyday and ditch school. It felt like a rite of passage, not some sort of “issue.” I was an outsider and pretty severely bullied (before that was even a behavioral buzzword.) So you’d do the same thing if you were a gay boy dressed in all black in 1989, wouldn’t you? Flash forward to 2008 and this juvenile way of operating my life was still heavily in play. What might have been spunky and rebellious in my teens was now just delusional in my mid-thirties. I gave “sobriety” a half dozen half-hearted tries throughout the years but I honestly never thought my problem was like my father’s. I really believed the people in my family who got sober were being dramatic and I thankfully didn’t have what they had. I was different from them, remember. But a series of metaphoric and actual face-plants finally made me face the music and get sober. This would involve me calling my parents and my siblings and admitting that maybe I was more like them than I had previously hoped.

The minute I made those phone calls to those people whom I grew up with something magical started to happen: they really became my family. Given the fact we’re a clan with mostly Irish and Swedish roots, addiction and alcoholism are not unfamiliar landscapes. We alcoholic families do crisis better than anyone so the Mahoneys hopped into action the minute I said I needed help. Plus, with my dad and sister both armed with intimate knowledge on how to quit drinking, I couldn’t have landed in a better place.

However, I’d be totally lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that still blamed my childhood for being a hot drunken disaster. It was an old story but it was a comfortable one. If they caused all my problems, then I’d never have to admit anything and I could skip off into the sunset. Fabulous! Sadly, from what I’ve personally seen, recovery doesn’t really work like that. Kind of the reverse, in fact. What I had unknowingly signed up for when I got sober was changing every dishonest, entitled and shady personality trait that I had carefully crafted in my misspent youth. I also had to take a long hard look at my family and see where I had caused harm and made things worse for these people who I really loved. It wasn’t a pleasant process but drugs and alcohol had sufficiently screwed up my life enough that I was willing to give anything a chance, including admitting I was wrong.

From what I had heard in meetings, this was pretty standard inventory stuff and something I shouldn’t fear. But what I didn’t expect was the overflow of compassion that I felt for my parents. Not just for having to raise a gay teen drug addict nightmare from hell but for struggling with alcoholism while trying to take care of four kids. Forgiving them for a less than perfect childhood then came pretty easily. Before I knew it, my long-running victim soap opera had been cancelled. The storyline didn’t work anymore. There was no possible way I could be sober and live stuck in a childhood lie. What I’m trying to say is, it took until I was in my thirties but I finally grew up.

Over eight years later, the story continues to change. I’m now able to show up for my family and be present, like when my grandmother died last year or when my niece graduated from high school. This is major for someone who used to take forever to return relative’s phone calls or lie about why he was late to functions.They have my back, no matter what and I try to do my best to return the favor. They really are my people and I’m lucky to have them and to know them sober. I laugh when I think about my hard knock life and wanting to be adopted because the reality is: I think I would’ve chosen them anyway.

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