A Recovered Alcoholic Tells About the Disease That Ravaged Three Generations of Her Family

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of alcoholics in the U.S. exceeds 23 million (10 percent of the population). The effects of the disease, moreover, extend beyond the victims and interfere with the lives of employers, friends and family. Those affected the most are alcoholics’ children. Robbed of the warmth, respect and direction essential for healthy emotional development, these children routinely suffer from low self-esteem, while an alarming number become addicts themselves.

This is an all-too-familiar scenario to Monica Wright. The daughter of an alcoholic father, Wright, 57, began to drink in her early teens. She married an alcoholic, and of their six children, four became addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Wright’s husband eventually died from his disease, but she was jolted by a family crisis into seeking help. Her recovery led her to pursue a career as an alcohol counselor. Today she is executive director of Breakthrough Concepts, an in-patient treatment program for the chemically addicted and their families that is affiliated with New York City’s Grade Square Hospital, a small psychiatric facility. Wright, who estimates that 91 percent of her patients come from alcoholic families, spoke to Assistant Editor Bonnie Johnson about the battle her family continues to wage against alcoholism and drugs.

I believe that alcoholism is an inherited disease. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, as were my father and a couple of my uncles. Drinking was something that everyone in my family did, and many did abusively. When you are brought up in that environment, drinking is second nature to you.

Although my father was the alcoholic, in my eyes my mother was a bigger problem. My father was a jovial and expansive drunk, and I enjoyed being around him. My mother was so preoccupied with trying to maintain the family structure that she was unable to nourish my two younger sisters and me emotionally. She criticized us constantly. She was religious, and in her eyes we all seemed to be in a state of sin. I began to drink when I was 13. I remember that first experience vividly. It was my birthday, and my father asked if I would like a drink. It was a martini, but I recall thinking to myself, “I wonder if I could get a second.” It changed the way I felt. My father was a large German, and I take after that side of the family. But after that drink I felt thin and I felt funny. By the time I was 16, I was drinking a lot and regularly.

Four years later I met my husband. He liked to drink too. He was very ambitious, and so was I. We had a boozy, breezy courtship, and five months later we were married. At that stage we had no trouble with alcohol because we didn’t have a lot of money. Then we began to build his real estate business together; over the next years he made millions. As he became more successful, we entertained a lot and always had alcohol available. When I was 21 my first child was born. During the next 10 years I had five more. I was ill-prepared to have children. Because of my own upbringing, I had no self-esteem, and the idea of being responsible for other lives terrified me. I felt that I was not going to be able to parent well and indeed did not. My values were very much like my mother’s: Make sure the kids have a balanced diet, take them to the doctor for regular checkups and keep their clothes clean. I loved them very much, but I had great difficulty expressing it.

By the time my fourth child came along, I was demonstrating what I now know were classic symptoms of alcoholism, such as blackouts and waking up in the night wringing wet. The blackouts terrified me, but for a long time I did not associate them directly with the drinking. I believed they were due to stress or because I didn’t eat properly. I went to a doctor who prescribed two Librium every four hours and an ounce of whiskey every two. It turned out that he was an alcoholic too. That was a ghastly period, but it didn’t last long because I was afraid of the pills. At least I didn’t get hooked on those.

Conflicts between me and my husband had begun to develop around the time our second child was born. Like a lot of people who make a lot of money quickly, he didn’t know how to handle it. He started gambling. We lived in West Hempstead [Long Island], which was a very “wet” neighborhood. I began to drink with women friends in the afternoon. After a while my husband began to complain. He wanted me to wait until he came home and begin my drinking with him.

At my worst I drank every day, though I didn’t get drunk every day. The trouble was, I never knew when I would get drunk or black out. At first the drinking gave me confidence. Then the symptoms of childhood that alcohol had always cured—fear, anger, low self-esteem—all began to return.

The last time I did any drinking was the first time I couldn’t meet an emergency in the house. I had gotten up early, feeling anxious, sweaty and tremulous. I knew that a drink was the best medicine to make those feelings go away, even though drinking caused them in the first place. I had had six or eight drinks when my husband awoke with chest pains. I was so shook up that I had to get a neighbor over to call the doctor. The next day I went to an international self-help group. It was very difficult to stop drinking. I went cold turkey. This was 22 years ago and no one, not even my doctor, knew of any facility I could go to for help. I had a week of great physical discomfort—chest pains, weakness, anxiety. Some of my friends stuck by me, but others were heavy drinkers themselves, and I had to disengage from them. For most of the first year I was emotionally paralyzed. I had begun to drink so early in life that all of the things I felt I was—my sense of humor, my smarts—all came from a bottle. The only feeling of success I had that first year was that I kept my commitment not to drink.

As my own recovery progressed, I hoped my husband would do something about his drinking. He tried, but he was unable to sustain anything. As long as I knew him, he was never without alcohol longer than three weeks. He was also very unhappy that I stopped. He became abusive, physically and emotionally, to me and the children. He insisted that I continue to give grand parties for his clients. One time my husband went into a blackout shortly after our guests arrived at 7. He didn’t pass out; he just wasn’t aware of what he was doing. By 10 he wanted everyone to leave, so he called me into the back of the house and battered me very badly. He felt it had been my responsibility to get them out.

Soon after, the children began to fall apart. Something was cooking with every one of them, alcohol or drug abuse, acting out at school, trouble with the police or emotional upset. The way I felt as a child—well, they felt that way in spades, because they had two alcoholic parents. Consequently they felt rotten about themselves, and very early they tried to change their moods with a goody bag of chemicals. That’s what they had seen all their lives: people using something to change the way they felt about themselves. It was the classic alcoholic family network.

Although my oldest daughter, who doesn’t want me to use her name, was never an abuser, she also suffered from low self-esteem. She was the family hero, the one everyone seemed to turn to, including me. During my drinking I discussed a lot—like my relationship with her father—that she never should have heard. My second child, Bob, was the first to dip into heroin, alcohol, LSD, morphine and marijuana. I sent him away to prep school when he was 13 to try to get him out of the family environment. It was the worst thing I ever did. Feeling that I had rejected him, he turned to the drugs and alcohol that were rampant there.

The next two kids, Joanne and Arthur, were really lost children. Joanne tried to isolate herself from the situation at home, and Arthur became extremely depressed. They did not interact with other kids and turned to alcohol. Jerry, my next child, started to drink when he was 9. I had no idea. He was a very lively kid whom the doctors diagnosed as hyperkinetic, although I now know he wasn’t. He was placed in special school situations and put on various medications, but nothing worked. He was a fighter and once threw a youngster through a plate-glass window. The only one who reaped the benefits of my being sober was my youngest, Marybeth, the family peacemaker.

In 1970, seven years after my own recovery, I decided to leave my husband. It was very difficult, but I felt that if I stayed, the stress would lead me back to drinking, and then we would all be destroyed. There were times when two or three children were in some crisis simultaneously, and after the separation things got even worse. The two middle boys ran away and there was continuous acting out from all of them with drugs and alcohol. They had the feeling that I was deserting their father, and my husband, who could never admit that he was an alcoholic, promoted that idea. Because of his drinking and gambling, his business went down the tubes. He was broke and living in a furnished room when he died in 1978.

I realized I would have to go to work soon after our separation. My husband was not paying support or alimony, and I was in debt up to my ears, living in a large house that I could not unload. By this time I had spent years going to all sorts of self-help groups; so I decided to become a counselor myself. My first job was at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, Long Island as a counselor in a detoxification unit. It paid $150 a week, which didn’t even cover the food bill, but I had to get some experience. I stayed at South Oaks for seven years until I was contracted by Gracie Square Hospital to design a treatment program in 1980. That was the beginning of Breakthrough Concepts.

People come to us through their employers. First, patients are detoxified. They also get counseling. After 30 days patients leave the hospital, but treatment continues for a year, sometimes longer. Therapy is also essential for the addict’s family. I learned from my own experience that unless we are able to effect some change in at least one family member, we are not going to be able to provide an atmosphere that the addict is going to thrive in.

Since I’ve been at Gracie Square, each of my four addicted children have become involved in self-help programs. Three of them are also in therapy. Bob, 33, is a sonograph technician and has recovered from both alcohol and drug addiction. Joanne is 31. She married, had a child and then divorced during her drinking. Now recovered and in treatment, she works as a secretary for Planned Parenthood. Last October she remarried and is expecting her second child. Arthur is 29 and a chef. He is married, but still dealing with his alcoholism. Perhaps the most dramatic recovery is Jerry’s, because he started so young. Now 27, he has been straight and sober for 2½ years. Although my oldest and youngest daughters were never abusers, they are both dealing with issues that arise with being raised in an alcoholic family. Several of my children have been involved with Children of Alcoholics programs. Such programs were not available when they were going through their traumas, and they have since proved to be crucial to their recovery.

Initially I felt a lot of guilt about my kids, but I don’t now. They have faced their addictions earlier, and I feel I have been a role model for that. I feel good about myself, and I have an intact family that is well and getting even better. It’s been a tremendous struggle, but it was worth it.

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