Facing Parental Alcoholism and Finding Solace, Strength in Books
Brad Smith, Altarum Fellow

I was about 12 or 13 when I figured out there was something wrong with my folks, that the liquor stash under the kitchen sink was at fault for the change in personality that took place every evening. When I realized that the culprit was alcoholism, I felt totally alone and helpless to do anything. The first person I talked to about what I was going through did little more than hand me a book titled Getting Them Sober by Toby Rice Drews. I don’t remember the person’s name, or anything they said, but the book became the beginning of a significant period of change in my life. It helped me see that what was happening was not unique to me or due to something I had done, but was the product of a broader pattern. The period of growth and change in my life was brought home by another book recommendation five or six years later. A counselor who was helping me work through some unresolved issues gave me Ellis and Harper’s  A New Guide to Rational Living, which blew me away with the idea that the power of changing the way I thought and felt rested with me, and might be as simple as changing the phrases I said to myself in my head.

Culture Club
Zena Itani, Altarum Institute Senior Policy Associate

Every year, in the melancholy of early autumn, I have to remind myself not to go under. Don’t go in the hole, Zena. Take it easy, ya habibti. It’s going to be ok.

It wasn’t always as easy as this gentle reminder to myself. That’s because the hole used to be the most familiar, strangely comfortable place I knew. Depression was my reality ever since I was a child growing up in suburban Cleveland. Besides brain chemistry and genetics, the roots of my mental illness lie in cultural dislocation and trauma. As it turned out, Cleveland was not the greatest place for my immigrant parents, newly uprooted from family and culture, to try and raise well-adjusted “American” kids. Nobody there really got my white English mother and brown Lebanese father, or my Arabic name, but my parents were smart professionals, and I was a good student and athlete, so people just shrugged and looked the other way. But my mother’s depression and severe anxiety, whispers of past abuse, and the sheer grief of watching my father’s birthplace, Beirut, fall apart every night on the news gnawed at the edges of our suburban myth, and at the edges of my brain.

I descended into depression, into my hole, in elementary school, and stayed there until a breakdown in New York City in my early twenties sent me crawling home to that suburban nightmare. My parents were angry – children are supposed to keep it together and bring honor to the family! Look at all we have given you! I tried to find a new way to be Zena with the help of a therapist, church and Prozac. I started taking steps that led me away from my parents and towards people and places that helped me do what my parents could not – make sense of the United States, reconnect with my Arabness, and talk about culture, trauma and mental illness. In the process, I’ve made a career out of all three, a career that I’m very proud of. Being an advocate for culturally responsive health care and outreach to vulnerable families has become an anchor in my own recovery.

Nurse Jackie, Behind the Scenes

I love Edie Falco on the TV show “Nurse Jackie.” Not only is she hilarious, but she holds up everyone and everything, and looks like she has it all together. Even when her prescription drug habit catches up with her and her façade cracks a bit, it is still all good with the capable Nurse Jackie.

I get it. I had the happiest childhood ever, even amidst a family of addicts. Dad was a doctor, dinner was on the table every night and I was headed to college. I was also headed to a cocaine addiction, a dealer boyfriend and an arrest record. Who knew? That’s the reality for a lot of addicts – we’re high functioning (no pun intended), we’ll run circles around you and we hide a lot of damage. Even after my arrest, I kept using. I had a good job, a house and a car and wore a size 8 to boot thanks to my cocaine diet, so my addiction was easy to hide.

I stopped using not because I hit bottom, or because I had any kind of revelation. I stopped because it was no longer fun and I didn’t like who I’d become. I was tired of seeing my money go to my cocaine habit, plain and simple. Most of all, I missed spending time with my family. For a long time, drugs came first, taking me away from the big family gatherings and closeness with siblings, cousins and grandparents that I had growing up. My recovery is about family devotion, and rediscovering those close relationships. I still keep it all together, but my resources and the company I keep help lift me up, not drag me down.

Marking the Days of My Daughter’s Recovery
Janice Lynch Schuster, Altarum Institute Senior Writer

New parents invest in calendars on which to record infant milestones—first smile, first burp, first tooth, first step. I keep a calendar in my heart, where I track the lives of my six children, five of whom are now adults. One of them developed a serious substance abuse disorder when she was in her late teens. I do not know the date of her first drink, but I can tell you the hour of her last. That is because she reached a point in her life as a user when I could no longer bury my head and hide from the reality of what was happening to her. Her behavior grew more and more outrageous and self-destructive, and it was clear that without intervention, her life would be cut short. So I intervened, risking my relationship with her because I finally understood that doing nothing would risk her life.

There is a place in my heart where I note the day she became sober—and where I have kept count every day since in the ensuing three-and-a-half years. Each of those days has been hard-earned, and has taken her considerable personal strength as well as the support, love, and guidance of a whole community of people, from the just-met folks in her home group to her grandparents, from her siblings to her friends. Every day when she calls or texts me, I am grateful for the gift of her recovery. I am grateful that my heart’s calendar can record new milestones about her experiences—her first real job, her first day of college, her first day in her new apartment.

Recovery restored her life, and restored her to me. It is not a path I would have chosen, certainly not one I’d have envisioned in the early days when I was charting her baby steps. But it is a path we continue to walk, holding hands, moving forward.


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