In my immediate family, it was a common practice to occasionally give the kids a small sip of wine at dinner or a taste of beer at a party -- the idea being, I believe, that this taught you to be a sort of smart, know-what-you're-doing, drinker-type person.
My parents were not at all alcoholic. It's not like they had wine with every dinner served at home. But they were of the World War II generation -- Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" -- the generation that viewed drinking as fun, social and sophisticated -- prohibition and wide-spread religious intolerance of drinking was, culturally then, a thing of the past. After all, this was the generation that, once they got home from the war and got busy, invented the Three Martini Lunch, and popularized drinks like the Manhattan, the Cape Cod, the Sidecar and the Gimlet. So my childhood was far from some unusual, libertine, irresponsible environment in which the kids in the house had free reign over the liquor cabinet, and sat around "partying" with their parents. It's just that alcohol was, understandably, in their eyes, not that big a deal -- an intelligent, able person should have no trouble with it, and the occasional excess at dinner parties and country clubs was no cause for alarm, and all in good fun.
I'm the youngest of four. By far the youngest. My three older siblings are close together in age, then there's a gap of nearly ten years, and then ... tah dah! Me. I was highly verbal and pretty well behaved -- if not a little spoiled, as the youngest, and there being such a gap in the kids' age range.
What this meant, though, was that when I was about fifteen, and my father got transferred to a different part of the country for work, my mother and I moved, but my siblings were all old enough to have their own lives going, and thus I went from being one-of-four to a sort of only-kid-in-the-house dynamic.
And just as we moved, at fifteen years of age, my alcoholism woke up. It hatched -- like one of those monsters exploding out of your chest in the "Alien" movie series. (Remember the first time you saw that? Damn.) Some dark alchemy of inborn "ism," raging hormones and adolescent rebellion came together and almost overnight I went from a pretty decent kid to as close to a daily drinker as I could manage to be as a minor who was still living at home.
I can reflect on my childhood and see the seeds of my addictive nature all the way back to very early ages -- but through the eyes of recovery, looking back at that time in adolescence, I can pinpoint very clearly when and how being powerless over my alcoholism manifested -- I can tell you the thoughts exactly . . .
Once upon a time my parents, (my mother in particular) slept relatively peacefully. Before every squeak of a floorboard or click of a latch meant I was off again, they, like anyone else, just considered the sounds of their house in the evening as the normal creaks and sighs of any home at midnight after everyone's in bed. The whuff-chunk of the refrigerator turning off, the ticking sigh of a water heater cooling, the occasional branch scratching a windowpane or squirrel skittering across the roof -- these noises were hardly cause to sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and go check to see if your son is in his bed. Yet.
Apparently as an infant I slept through the night very easily, and my mother did not have the sleep deprivation common to parents of a newborn.
I made up for that later on.
I started sneaking out almost every night I could. I would steal a little money from my mother's purse or my father's dresser drawer (front right corner, under the handkerchiefs were the big bills, smaller were just casually on the dresser top.) Naturally it never occurred to my parents that under the influence of alcoholism their own child was morphing into what might have clinically been described at the time as a borderline sociopath. "Right" and "Wrong" were not concepts I began to think in. "I want" and "I don't want" were the only filters that came into play.
I would wheel my ten speed out of the garage (of course as soon as I got my driver's license I'd be rolling one of my parent's cars down the driveway, but at the outset it was the ten speed) and pedal over to the 7-11. I would buy a six pack of Colt 45 or Schlitz Malt Liquor (look out for the Bull!), tallboys (the 16 oz. cans), and drink them all. In short order I graduated to Mad Dog 20/20, -- It came in red and white, but I preferred the red, as it was 18% alcohol by volume, and would absolutely get you there. Also I found that it tasted the same coming up as it did going down, a benefit that the 20/20 Wine Company neglected to feature in any of their promotional materials. (Yeah, that's their actual name: The 20/20 Wine Company. Nice. Classy.) I was tall for my age, and in those years and that part of the country the "check ID" craze (which pushed all the budding 15 year old alcoholics who came after me into the arms of drug dealers everywhere) hadn't really taken root.
As you can imagine, that level of alcohol consumed in a few hours by a 15 year old boy had three predictable and fairly immediate effects:
1. I got shitfaced. Exactly the goal. No one drinks malt liquor or MD 20/20 for taste. No one.
2. Sneaking back into the house was a lot trickier than sneaking out of it, once I was blind drunk. And you know the kind of tik-tik-tik that ten speed bicycles make as you wheel them along? Those things sounded like gunshots to me in that sleeping house, as I tried to quietly make it back to my room.
3. I began to have blackouts. At 15. Not the kind of whole-night-gone blackouts, but definite and recognizable holes in my memory. You push that much ethyl alcohol through your brain you're going to literally anesthtize some cells and temporarily suspend your ability to record information, be you 15 or 55.
Now, I knew this blacking out was going to get me caught, eventually. I wasn't worried about getting in trouble, and as my heart began to ice-over with alcoholic self-centeredness I had no concern at all for upsetting my parents -- but I knew getting caught would get in the way of my being able to continue to easily get out of the house at night.
And here, kids, is where alcoholism tips its hand, and shows how it was already running my show. Here's the evidence, the eggshells of its monstrous hatching:
The idea of taking a break, of cooling it for a while, of slowing down, hell, of not going out at all, did not even occur to me.
Instead, I would lie in bed, and wait for the sound of my parents breathing from the other end of the hall to even out, signaling they were both asleep, and silently chant to myself, "Tonight I will remember everything. Tonight I will remember everything."
I want to be clear about this point: It is not as though I briefly considered the idea of not going out and then discarded it -- literally, the idea never even crossed my mind.
I was 15 years old, and powerless over my alcoholism. I just didn't know it yet. I was already beyond any human aid in this regard. My thinking was not that of a rebellious teen -- it was the thinking of an already full-blown alcoholic.
15 years old and, spiritually speaking, terminally ill.