The Ugly Stuff: Writing about Addiction

I grew up in a family of alcoholics.

For many people it takes a lot of time to admit that, but for me, it took a lot of time to even know that. As an adult, when I started delving into 12-step programs, I heard horror stories about what it was like to grow up in an alcoholic family. Parents who frequently got arrested for drunk driving or getting into bar fights. Parents who were physically or verbally abusive when they got drunk. Parents who took off for days and weeks at a time on binges.

My parents didn’t do any of that stuff.

Neither one of my parents ever broke the law, abused me in any way, or frightened me because of their drinking. We always had enough money and my mom went to every single parent-teacher conference that she could. I knew that I was loved and I felt secure in my home.

But…

There was this huge wall of silence surrounding so many things in my house.

Money, for one thing. No one in my family ever talked about money. I knew my dad made the money and no one else did, but that was it. I had no idea how much money we needed to live, or how one went about spending or saving money. When I asked questions I got looks that made me feel like I had just committed the most shameful blunder, so after a while I stopped asking.

Emotions were another thing that seemed to be trapped in the cocoon of silence. I never saw either one of my parents express anger, or even frustration. I never saw them cry. They divorced when I was nine years old, but before that I never saw them be physically affectionate with each other, not once. In my family it was made very clear that a person should never be out of control, and never be at the mercy of their emotions. Weirdly enough, this was made clear without anyone saying anything at all.

And then, there was the drinking. Another thing no one talked about. Everyone in my family drank, every day. When the clock hit five my mom and grandma started mixing drinks, and soon after my dad got off work and started making martinis. There was always beer and wine in my house, and a fully stocked liquor cabinet. We drank with dinner, out by the pool, while watching TV, while doing yard work or puttering around the garden, and at every holiday gathering. We drank from late afternoon until we went to bed, every night. The first thing we did when a visitor came over was mix them a drink. The first thing we bought to celebrate any special occasion was a bottle of gin.

Stomach problems seemed to run in my family, too. Ulcers, digestive issues, and the like. But no one in my family seemed to know why. Must be something genetic they said…some people just have bad stomachs…

Yeah, that must be it. Some people just have bad stomachs.

For years and years it was impossible for me to talk about these things, not because I was ashamed—although shame was definitely part of it—but because this was how I was raised. My family’s severely dysfunctional attitude toward emotional repression and alcohol abuse was all I had ever known. It was normal  to me. And when I started to get older and meet more people outside of my family—when I started to see that a lot of other people didn’t drink like my family did—and I asked questions, I was immediately shut down.

This is the thing that makes it so hard to talk about addiction, and almost impossible to write about it sometimes. The family pattern of silence and the feeling of betrayal if you break that silence. For people who grow up in homes with alcoholics and addiction they get the emotional message early on that if they question what’s going on they’ll risk being cast out.

For writers, this is an extremely difficult issue to deal with, because writers question everything around them by nature. We can’t shut off the part of us that observes and is constantly trying to put the pieces together. Most writers are also deeply invested in truth. We feel a calling to expose the hidden, dark parts of the world by pulling them out into the light.

For a writer who comes from an alcoholic or abusive family, this usually means we’re called to write some sort of memoir.

And that’s where the blocks come in.

Writing about family and your past is hard under any circumstances, but when it involves addiction issues or abuse it’s doubly so. Because the writer was coached from a young age to maintain the silence. So, as an adult, when we sit down with pen in hand to write our truth, it feels very much like we’re betraying our parents and betraying our home. It feels extremely threatening to us, like we stand to lose everything and everyone we’ve ever loved.

As a person who has written about my past experiences with alcoholism, I can tell you that those feelings are not easy to deal with, but it is possible to move through them and even use them to inform your writing with honesty and compassion. But in order to get to this place, you have to face the fear head on. You have to jump into the fire and trust that you’ll come out the other side.

This is also why it’s so important for writers who are writing about past issues with addiction to have a support network in place to lean on while they’re writing their story. Your support network can be just two trusted friends, or it can be an online forum where you feel safe and understood. But you can’t go it alone. You need someone in your corner to cheer you on during the good writing days, and give you a big hug on the bad writing days.

If you are a writer who grew up in an alcoholic family, or has struggled with alcoholism or addiction yourself, and you know deep inside that you want to write that story, now is the time. It’s never going to get easier or less scary.

But after you start writing, it will get better.

Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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7 Comments

  • Reply Hilary Custance Green 14 September, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    I admire your courage. I have your book on my iPad.

  • Reply Michael Blaylock 14 September, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Some good stuff. It’s hard to talk about family or even personal problems like that without being uncomfortably honest or missing the point altogether.

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 14 September, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    Lauren, I’m glad you’re here for all of those writers afraid to confront ideas and behaviors that other people may try to keep from them, for various unfortunate reasons. I came from a family that doesn’t like to talk about things either and it’s been quite a journey to get comfortable expressing myself both in person and on the page. I’m lucky to have a patient wife. 🙂

    You said it all with your last sentence!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 14 September, 2017 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks Phillip. I’m lucky to have a patient husband too!

  • Reply Joanne 14 September, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Trust, pride & insanity.
    All these elements combine when we are learning to survive. It begins with that contingency of not asking any questions. So true. At a young age, I decided that all the madness must be normal. Unfortunately, in my thoughts in my confusion, I blamed myself. Mom and Dad are fighting again and the air is blue with their combined fury. They don’t see me, that little girl, five years old, clinging close to the edge of the door obscued in the half dark, staring with the biggest brown eyes full of fear and confusion. Oblivious, Mom throws a champagne glass and it strikes Dad on his temple smashing into fragments. Dad stumbles back as the blood streams from the side of his head. No trust, too much pride equals insanity.
    It isn’t fair to say that you have been trying to figure it all out. There isn’t any answers as they won’t hear the questions.

    Thanks Lauren
    I too am enjoying your candor…
    Praise for the truths.

    Regards, Joanne

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