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I AM NOT SILENT … ANYMORE
I spent the majority of my childhood outdoors.
Like most children, I had chores. Unlike most
children, many of my chores were in a category
all to themselves. The dissimilarities however,
were not apparent to me for a number of years.
In some ways, I lived within a bubble and to the
outside world, it appeared normal. I had no frame
Chores came with rules, rules that changed at a
moment’s notice, most often under the influence of anger and alcohol. Other chores came with benefits that allowed me to escape. Some chores left me deeply scarred, shattering my world and pushing me into the abyss of fight or flight.
I enjoyed feeding the animals, brushing down the horses, laughing at the chickens and even cleaning out the large dog pen. This was my domain, mine to share with Papaw and it never felt like a chore. Late afternoons, regardless of the weather, I helped him feed his small herd of Black Angus cattle. On a good day, he would hop up on the bull and they would wander around the pasture. I would dig up roots and gather various things to take home, leaving bits of corn meal and tobacco as offerings.
Often we would hunt squirrels. He taught me to skin them and later we would feast on fried squirrel with biscuits and hot coffee. On other days, he was hurried and anxious and he would drive to the neighboring town and park in front of a little white building. I never went inside. I sat in the truck, waiting, staring at the red letters. LIQUOR.
The brown paper bag went behind the seat and later as the cattle milled around the truck, he would reach inside repeatedly. By the time the cattle devoured the hay and range cubes, he was feeling no pain and I was driving us home. Surprisingly, no one paid any attention to a nine and a half year old behind the wheel. Strangely enough, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary for me. Again, no frame of reference.
Two chores were not an issue unless my dad was at home. Two simple things like burning the trash and watering the trees; a task I was more than capable of completing without constant instruction or supervision.
Nonetheless, when he was at home, both chores escalated into something disproportionate and in his mind, I was incompetent. Regardless of how I watered, it was never right. If I held the hose up, he wanted it down on the ground, yet on the next day to water when I sat the hose down, everyone in the neighborhood was aware of it. I was supposed to hold the damn hose, not put it down on the ground. Walking away from the tree, or sitting down by the tree, neither could happen on his watch. Depending on his moods and the alcohol level, it was same with the trash. Stand by the barrel, leave the barrel, I never knew which would set him off. Regardless of following his demands to the letter, I was never right and it was never good enough. As time went on, I deemed it the ‘hose up, hose down syndrome’ as it apparently applied to 99% of everything I did.
A few years later, I found myself forced into a darkened realm of deception. Never acknowledging his own dance with alcohol, my dad pushed me into deceiving the one person whom I trusted the most. Papaw. Each day became a day of stealth, searching his house, his truck and his ’47 Buick for the ubiquitous Mogen David bottles. Search and destroy. One at a time, half the wine down the sink, covering the odor with whatever I could find, and after refilling with water to the appropriate level, I returned each bottle to its respective concealment. ‘Don’t get caught’ became my mantra. With each day, my torment grew, encapsulating my distress. One night, I missed the signs and he came in wasted and jacked up the truck on the side of the garage. I saw my dad hit his own father and I lost all reason. I became Papaw’s protector. I lied when questioned about his sobriety, I drove when he could not; I became his co-dependent ally and my own nightmare.
When he was sober, he was my teacher. Stories flowed easier than the wine, leading me through my journey, assuring me of who I was and who I would become. When he was drinking, he was a lost soul and I was convinced I was the one who could save him.
Papaw provided the respite in a world of chaos, giving me time to breathe and be myself. At that time, I refused to see him as a part of the turmoil, only a willing victim to an unending cycle.
I watched my dad spinning out of control in the same cycle. Like his father before him, when he was sober, he was a different man. He was a hard worker, creative, funny, and likeable when he wasn’t drinking. Despite the ongoing conflicts with him and the sadness and frustration with Papaw when he drank, I loved them both deeply. Alcoholism claimed them, possessed them and colored everything in our lives and more often than not, the picture was not pretty.
I never talked to my friends about any of this. The often stated, resounding rule prevailed, keep your mouth shut. In moments of ironic proportions, I saw my dad stand in defense of others when strangers allowed alcohol to rule and traumatize their spouses and children. I think perhaps that it was a paradigm of his belief system, as he if knew who he could be without the addiction and yet felt powerless to escape. In those moments, I felt overwhelmed with the conflict of immense pride in his actions and wanting to hold the mirror up to remind him of his own downfall.
I lived firsthand with the effects of alcohol, the precarious walk on the tightrope, wanting everything to be normal when I wasn’t even sure what normal meant. What is normal anyway?
For some of my childhood peers, normal was Cinderella, vacations to Disneyland, and later designer clothes with cookie-cutter lives designed to mimic their parents’ ideology. I had no frame of reference to that.
I spent vacations hunting, occasionally swimming in creeks, and drinking a cold long neck handed to me in some random VFW hall before I was even twelve years old, despite my mother’s silent displeasure. Sadly, that wasn’t the first time I drank beer, nor would it be the last. How I managed to skip the genetics of alcoholism continues to astonish me. I do however profess a great fondness for good tea and that is my splurge and my comfort.
My frame of reference remained limited in some areas. I walked the hallways of high school with my peers, the majority oblivious to the context of my environment. I was still playing by the rules of the game. I was on the outside looking in, wearing shades to keep prying eyes from seeing the real me, while I waited to see who that really was.
I played the game; I kept my mouth shut for a long time. I watched them spinning on the satirical merry-go-round revolving around the next drink. I hated the stench of cheap wine and any brand of rum. I hated the deception of dosing Papaw’s wine and the fact it continued later with my dad’s stash of rum. Did it even make a difference? Perhaps on some level it did, as far as reducing the overall effects of the alcohol. However, it continued to be a dance of trepidation for me, a balancing act of epic proportions that charged excessive fees I could not pay. I tried to slow the merry-go-round and ended up stepping right into the turmoil. For a while, I drank to forget what their alcoholism cost me. Irony at its worst.
Then I remembered. I remembered the stories of the Old Ones, I heard them singing, and I listened and I stepped out of the abyss.
I used to wonder what triggered my dad and my grandfather to drink. What was the reason for that first drink, before genetics kicked into high gear with alcoholism? There are so many factors, from early life trauma, historical trauma, stress or social acceptance. I could speculate, but there is no plausible way to know. I had to move past the ‘what if’ aspects of how it affected my life and find constructive ways to cope with the past.
Alcoholism affects us all, one way or another. Over the years, I’ve read countless studies related to alcoholism, genes and epigenetics. The assumptive reports of the past stating Native people are more susceptible to alcoholism is simply an assumption, based on the typical colonialist belief that we were an inferior race. I came across an article recently titled “No, Native Americans Aren't Genetically More Susceptible to Alcoholism” by Maia Szalavitz. While Szalavitz’s article clearly states addictions (all, not just alcohol) are elevated in aboriginal peoples worldwide, it does clarify “there is no evidence that Native Americans are more biologically susceptible to substance abuse disorders than any other group” 1
The link between trauma and addiction is clear, and according to Szalavitz’s findings, the earlier in life a trauma occurs, the risk of addiction is even higher.
Knowing what my Elder would ask of me, I hold my focus more on the lessons I learned as opposed to what it took from me. The cattle are long gone, but I spend time walking on our land, remembering. I water the trees in my yard any frigging way I want to. I am stronger, more resilient and aware. I don’t take anything for granted and I work to keep relationships balanced without co-dependency. I laugh aloud at crazy things, I have tattoos and multiples piercings in my ears and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. I listen to Spirit, to the Old Ones, I remember, and I trust.
We are not without our memories and that’s ok, even with the less than stellar ones. I have learned what I want in my life, what is acceptable, and what is not. Like most, I am a work in progress. I have chosen to own who I am, including the many parts that were traumatic and painful and I am getting help with that. Backing down was never an option, not as a child and sure as hell not as an adult.
I’m not silent anymore, much to my mother’s dismay and that’s ok too.