People always tell me, ‘Jenny, it’s so good to see you so happy!’ or ‘Jenny I wish I had a life like yours.’ They only see what’s on the surface, what I present; they only see the product of years of struggle. If only they knew how much work it took for me to get here, if only they understood that this has not been easy.
Flashback to Jenny at two and a half years old. Her dad is drunk. Again. She is in her room listening her parents scream at each other, but can’t sleep. Finally, she can take no more and runs out of her room to stop her parents from fighting. She smashes her head against a banister and starts crying hysterically. Jenny’s mother – let’s call her Marge – can see that it’s now or never to make a change for their family. Marge gives her husband an ultimatum: either he gets sober or she and Jenny are leaving.
Jenny’s dad started attending AA and actually did get sober. One night, Marge told her husband at dinner that it was a good thing he did get sober because she actually would have left with Jenny years ago. According to Marge, this notion spun her husband out of control. She claims he never forgave her for that and starting drinking again after three years of sobriety.
And so was the story with Jenny’s father. By the time Jenny was seven, Marge confided in Jenny all the details about her dad’s alcoholism. As would happen in many homes afflicted with alcoholism, the child became the parent’s confidant. She knew things about how much her father drank, but she never really witnessed them first hand.
Jenny was the first girl who had a cell phone in seventh grade so she could call her friends in case her dad picked her up from school drunk. Jenny began to catch on to the fact that her father had a problem:
I didn’t really understand that my dad was an alcoholic until I turned 12. My mom dropped me off at a ballet class and I couldn’t wait to get home so I could show my dad my new white jacket that I loved so much. Finally, I got home. I knew not to go into the study and wake dad up, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I ran in and my dad wouldn’t wake up. After about ten seconds of being absolutely terrified, like TERRIFIED, I dropped a dictionary on him – I didn’t know what to do, I thought he was dead. I was shrieking and finally my mother came into the room.
Jenny claims it was the most hysterical she has ever gotten. To this day, if her husband makes a noise in the bath she will think he is drowning.
It’s amazing how 5 minutes thinking my dad is dead changed my brain chemistry for my life.
How did Jenny’s dad react?
I’ve never seen him more devastated in my whole life. He couldn’t believe this whole thing had happened. About 30 minutes later, my mom said something that pissed him off and he left that night and came home after drinking even more. I told him like most 13 year old children of drinking fathers do that I would fix everything and that I would make everything better, that he could stay married to Mom. He pushed me off of him and said, “That’s not happening, this is over.” The next day, my mom asked me if she could divorce my father. I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ I have never felt so relieved.
Now that his drinking was more out in the open, Jenny’s father continued to pass out on the couch each night until Jenny and her mother moved out. Jenny’s Dad had run through a lot of the family’s money, but he still had enough left that he could afford a nice home for himself when everyone left the family house. This didn’t last.
Jenny and her mom moved away, and the only time Jenny would see her father was when her dad would come visit her and stay at a hotel for a weekend. Jenny once found two big bottles of Johnny Walker in a brown bag next her father’s luggage. When she came across the two bottles after his four-day stay in town, they were empty. Jenny describes her situation:
The fact that I got into a car with him while he was visiting me and survived is a miracle. I used to put the seat all the way back because I figured if a car hit us, I would have less of a chance of dying. At that time I was living with so much denial, but to confront your father at 15 and say, ‘I’m not getting into the car with you’ was out of the question for me.
Throughout high school, Jenny dated people that were just like her father.
As much as I was self-aware, I was getting into really toxic relationships.
One morning she woke up and told her mother she couldn’t remember the last time someone hugged her and she truly felt loved.
I knew that people loved me, I just couldn’t feel that anymore.
The man Marge was dating at the time – himself sober for 20 years – set Jenny up with a therapist, which helped her a lot.
When I was 18, I was genuinely happy for the first time since I was six years old. I was terrified to go to college and stop these once-a-week sessions.
Flash forward 2 years of college later and, in Jenny’s words ’19 beyond disastrous relationships later’, Jenny finally met one really nice guy. She didn’t feel like she deserved this person.
I couldn’t sleep at night. I felt that I was so [messed] up and I just didn’t deserve him.
Eventually, Jenny went abroad in college and the relationship ended. She was lonely and depressed. She had always heard of Al-Anon, a 12-step program not for alcoholics themselves, but for family and friends of alcoholics. When her therapist would suggest it to her, Jenny reacted against Al-Anon, but she went, in spite of her feeling that a good therapist was all she really needed, and she was hooked. She went to meetings almost every day for six months.:
I felt like I was shown a manual for life that everyone else around me had their whole life.
Jenny experienced a huge shift:
My life started to change – I started to understand that alcoholism is a disease and that the person who has it may have caused me pain, but that they have a disease that causes them to take these actions, that I was right to believe that my dad really loved me the whole time. I just didn’t know how to set boundaries – it was always all or nothing.
Jenny’s relationship with her father was on and off, but when she first met her husband a few years ago, they hadn’t spoken in a long time. Her husband encouraged her to reach out to him.
I always wanted to call him, but I felt like if I was a recovered person I wouldn’t want to reach out to this person who [messed] me over in so many ways. I learned that that wasn’t true – I loved my Dad and he loved me too. But I couldn’t loan him money, I couldn’t take care of him. But I could love him and he could love me.
It turned out that during the time in which they weren’t speaking, her dad had been in a serious car accident and broken his neck. He was declared dead in the hospital and then revived. Currently, her dad lives in the southern U.S. in a house that requires him to be sober in order to live there.
My dad is figuring out how to be an emotional human being.
Jenny is appreciative of her Dad’s newfound peace, but says it wasn’t easy arriving at that conclusion:
Effing good for you, man – where’s my college tuition? Where were you for the last 18 years? I would think that. I felt like I had all that anger, but when I did the work it began to dissolve over time. My dad now says ‘How are you?’ when we talk on the phone. He listens for a whole minute, which is awesome. My dad is just a gentle giant human being. We’re really not that much different. My dad can’t always give me that much, but he can give me the fact that he’s sober.
What lessons did Jenny learn along the way? First, that recovery is hard work:
In no way was grieving or dealing with this easy. Getting into recovery and understanding that I couldn’t blame my father anymore and understanding that my father had left me with a series of baggage that was now mine. As much as I hate that and resented it, I had to go through those bags. If I wanted the life that I have now, no one could have done that besides me.
I also felt like a totally crazy person the whole time I was trying to fight off this disease by myself. No one should believe they can read a book and they won’t have a load of problems the next day. Get out of the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. Just get out of there. Get out now. I don’t believe in self-help. I believe we need other people. ‘Get out of your own head, it’s a bad neighborhood,’ as they say in AA.
Going through all of this made me feel different and weird. It’s a courageous choice to go decide to recover from something instead of going to a bar or getting high for years and years. I’m talking about the people who push it away or work themselves to death. It’s really easy because it’s socially acceptable. Now that I’m out of the real [crap], I will have seven of my friends over for lunch and they all talk about how they met me and in one way or another I’ve been there for these people in a way that I couldn’t if I hadn’t if I didn’t take care of myself.
Jenny made small adjustments in her life that added up. For example, she found that a lot of pop music was about really toxic relationships. One way of taking care of herself was listening to music that makes her feel really good. Another technique she has mastered is praising herself for the little things.
If I make myself breakfast, I give myself a little pat on the back.
Would Jenny have changed anything about her past?
I would have let myself have more fun. I was terrified of becoming an alcoholic. I wished I looked for the similarities between myself and other people instead of always seeing the differences. I spent so much of my college years judging myself so harshly. You can have a lot of reactions to what I went through, perfectionism is a common one. Letting go of my perfectionism was the best thing for me. I don’t think that abstaining from something just because you’re afraid of it is the answer.
Jenny and her dad are in a good place and she still goes to Al-Anon once or twice a week. She has a job that she enjoys and a husband that treats her with respect and love.
If there is one thing that Jenny would like others to take away from her experiences, it is this:
The greatest thing I can do for my happiness is not to ask other people to change, but to take people as they are and to get myself to do things differently. It only takes one person to change for an entire relationship to change.