Generation -- The Repetition of Addiction

Karin L. Burke
Generation: Because the act of writing about my alcoholism turns out to be the act of writing about my father’s alcoholism, and recovery from my addiction is actually a recovery from his.

They say that. That alcoholism is a family disease. Give or take genetic tendencies, we are who we are because we are what our parents gave us. It is common to hear a drunk, or maybe even a normal person, say they swore to never be like their father while shaking their head and looking off into the distance. That gaze, that middle distance, turns out to be important. It turns out to be the thing we have to look at.

The middle distance made up of memory, emotion, faded photographs and recollections of kitchen tables, bedroom smells, old cars that no longer exist. Yet there is a split of discontinuity: the medical fact that alcoholism is a family disease is not the same thing as realizing, one morning, that your alcoholism was fully formed when you were six, that you chose your career and slaved 30 years of your life away because of a percieved slight you got as a teen, or that you married four successive disappearing men because your father never seemed to be listening to you even if said father is still there, still present, never divorced or left or hurt you; just sitting in his armchair listening to the baseball game on the same radio he had when you were a kid while you’re, now, a grown woman and trying to figure out what’s wrong with you.

The fact of a generational disease is an easy thing to take, intellectually, while being less obvious in the here and now. Because we want to believe in ourselves. The reality of ourselves. We want to believe that we’ve made choices, that we are aware, that we knew reality all along. To admit you’re less yourself than you are a mimic of your parent, that you have never lived in reality so much as a puppet show, can pull your self-confidence and balance out from under you like a rug. And it can be difficult to see how a gene, say, or even a bunch of conversations from your childhood, have anything to do with the present moment of the really here, here and now.

But the practice of attention, honest attention, to what shows up in me and life everyday has not only leeched over into the infinate generations of my niece’s life and the life after hers, but floats backwards, too. This is not to say we should live in the past, nor to argue for determinism. It’s just to say that any real attention to the present proves to have the past fully in it.

"It’s never to late to have a happy childhood," said someone. It’s usually implied that one can parent oneself, can experience joy and childish wonder and love of life just as well now as they could as a kid. But what if it means something else? What if it means we have this childhood, this history, this truth, that has been one way our entire life, and suddenly change our relationship to it? "Forgiveness," said a friend, "Is letting go the hope of a different childhood."  Accepting, he means, everything that has happened exactly in the way that it happened.

Psychologically speaking, we tend to repeat a thing until we have resolved it. Uncannily so. The same types of persons will appear and reappear in our lives, the same problems with money, authority, sex, friendship, over and over until we earnestly do the work of growing through it. Until, in our subconscious level of being, we have fully accepted a thing as finished, learned, done, or right. Get as mystical as you want. Some say we literally invite or manifest our circumstances to us out of the cosmic drudge. Some say we simply see the same patterns, projecting our reality onto a pretty loose framework.

The Fourth Step [AA] begins a wild process of resolution. This is that script, that maturity process of learning life’s lessons. This is where we learn how to deal.

We cannot really accept a thing unless we actually know what it is we’re accepting.

But knowing itself isn’t the thing. Insight, sure. Self knowing. But the actual resolution is a thing that takes place in real time, in real life, on real human bodies. We have to experience the thing. Live it. We can’t feel the relief of a pain until we feel the pain, and then feel the joy of something different until we actually do a different thing.

I’ve always known that my dad was an alcoholic, and that alcoholism is a family disease. But I had to learn the lesson myself.

A week past, there was a single day that went through a strange retrospective of the seasons before resolving itself to a thundery dawn. Like the scenes of life flashing before a dying person’s eyes. First, there was a kind of balmy, yellowy stillness. The cattails nodded, and the telephone wires swayed, and a clutch of finches danced in the brush without any of it seeming to interrupt that larger feeling of stillness and immobility. Pewter gray clouds banked in the south, and eventually, a thin wind came from that way, too.

The afternoon happened, and the bank of purply grey clouds pulled closer, filling the sky like a pouring stain. The wind upped. All the trees and all the trees branches began to wave a little hysterically. There was a howling, moany quality that came and went. Then, rain began.

The rain quickly changed to thin flakes of snow, then needled points of sleet. Enough white came down that the distance disappeared for an hour or two. The spring things, a turned over garden, a running gutter of meltwater, the pockmarked ice on the pond and a tricycle, were covered in ashy snow. The wind lifted it and threw it about in a parody of a blizzard.

But the clouds bunched together, like muscle, and went from looking sheen and slack to something powerful and prescient. Inside, lightening flickered. The wind, still south, was warm and then seemed warmer, and the snow turned wetter, then wet, and then was gone. When dawn finally broke, the purple cloud rumbled and then cracked. The early light widened everything open again, and the earth seemed thirsty, and the first spring rain began in earnest.

It’s always this way. That there should be a struggle, the tumult before the calm, that life should be freshly caputured by each new generation and not simply handed down like the baby’s old clothes.

My father told me about alcoholism. I knew. And fifty million generations of humanity have known the experience of god, and grief, and resentment. But that’s what it means, to say the human experience is the experiencing of god: that we have to do it our own self. We have to learn the hard way.

~Karin L. Burke

Wanting more honesty in the world, Karin named the blog that began from her personal letters Whiskey and Porn for Everyone. Karin writes from her own experience as a drunk, a barmaid who danced for tips, an abused woman, a journalist anthropologist, and social advocate of all stripes. She's shamelessly trying to raise money for yoga certification, and the income it'd allow, but would like you to visit the blog because you might find something you need there.

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