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An Intimate Look at Alcoholism
Author: Shawn M. Levering
Instructor: Rebecca Safa
Class: English 1100
In the essay "Under the Influence", written by Scott Russell Sanders, the author gives his account of his childhood growing up with an alcoholic father. Throughout his text, Sanders shows how drinking, and the need to do so, had an extremely negative impact on his father by altering his personality. Alcohol made his father extremely emotional and volatile, changing him into a scary and unpredictable figure. Sanders also talks of his struggle to understand the addiction afflicting his father. He states often that, as a child, he placed the blame on himself. If he could do more to make his father proud, he could somehow fix the problem. His entire family went through emotional burdens due to the addiction. They felt ashamed, scared, and angry with their father. These emotional struggles effected them throughout their lives. Sanders himself worries every time he has a drink that he may become addicted; therefore, he is always leery around alcohol. I will try to add some of my own experiences growing up with an alcoholic parent. I want to help give examples of the personality shifts alcohol can cause, as Sanders talks about in his text. I will discuss how the different ways that dealing with my own father's addiction affected the lives of my sister and me forever. The last thing I will touch on is letting you know that there is hope. In Sanders' essay, his father loses his battle with alcoholism. This doesn't need to be the case, as some people can overcome this burden.
Alcoholism is an addiction. Addiction means that our loved ones who are afflicted with alcoholism do not necessarily want to have a drink: they need to have it. In the opening paragraph of Sanders' paper he gives us a very descriptive interpretation of this fact. Sanders writes, "My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food—compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling" (100). In this single statement he sums up this need to drink quite thoroughly. When I read this quote for the first time, the word that I found that showed the need so strongly was "secretly". The addition of this single word touched the heart of addiction. It implies that his father knew that what he was doing was wrong. That he felt shame for his actions, and that he would proceed to take another drink, secretly, none the less. I decided to use the word "proceed" in the last sentence instead of "chose", because taking that drink is not a choice that someone who wasn't sick would make. Would any of us willingly choose to do something that we would feel ashamed for doing? That is the strength of the addiction: to change you. It will alter your decisions, your health, and your personality.
The author sheds light on the personality changes as we read through his writing a little further. Sanders says, "In a matter of minutes, the contents of a bottle could transform a brave man into a coward, a buddy into a bully, a gifted athlete and skilled carpenter and shrewd business man into a bumbler" (102). The first part of this sentence is exactly what I experienced when growing up with my stepfather. My dad (that's what I have always called my stepfather) could be one of the best parents I have ever seen. When sober, he was the exact fit that a child would want in a replacement parent. He was hardworking, helpful, and affectionate. My dad, when drunk, was a monster. The smell of alcohol in the house was a warning. That smell was the equivalent of the smell of a burning fuse attached to a powder keg. I knew that the explosion was eminent, I just didn't know exactly when it would come. I walked on egg shells when I smelled it. I was terrified. Terrified of the same man who had taught me to throw a football, hugged me when I cried, and gathered the family together for movie night. I believe Sanders said it perfectly when he compares this alcoholic transformation to that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (105). One drink can turn a loving man into a complete monster. Then just like the story of Dr. Jekyll, my dad would awaken without memory of the beast that had visited us the night before.
My sister and I, however, live with those memories. We have shaped our lives around them. To this day my sister won't touch alcohol. She lives in fear of it ever coming into her life. She has trouble in every relationship she has, because in our society having a few drinks is the norm, but for her it's a terror. How can she ever go out for dinner and allow her date to have a drink with his meal? For most people this may seem extreme, but for my sister the fear of what may come after is as real as her memories of our father's drunken rage.
In my life I have problems at social events. Anxiety grabs hold of me as soon as I smell the fuse to the powder keg. Even in a group of close friends, my guard is up when the smell of alcohol is on their breath. When will they go off? Who is going to start an argument? These are the thoughts that someone who grew up with an alcoholic deals with for the rest of their life.
The strongest point of Sanders' essay is that his father dies from his addiction. His father fought with alcoholism, going back and forth with sobriety, until he finally quit fighting and let it consume him. This is a rough truth of the addiction; it can take your life. The fight against drinking is a lifelong battle that never ends. One lapse in judgment can break a man. One drink can end the fight.
The battle against alcoholism is never-ending, but that doesn't mean it can't be won. My dad quit drinking 15 years ago. He saved his own life. My father is once again a good man. He's my friend. He decided, after my mother left him, that his life needed to change. He chose his family over his addiction. Dad decided to go to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings a minimum of twice a week, sometimes more often depending on his level of urge to grab a bottle. He still goes occasionally, showing that this fight never ends. He also began to go to church. I had never known the man to set foot in one before he quit. I can only assume he was looking for more strength, that maybe with the help of a higher power he could overcome his addiction. He has made it. My father has found himself again. In return, we as a family are whole.
In Sanders' essay, his father never finds the strength to overcome his addiction. Though his fight ended, his entire family still has to fight with the memories of his addiction. Alcoholism is a disease that will consume a man from the inside out. It tears families apart. It damages every healthy relationship we have. You can save your family from torment. You can overcome the addiction. When someone finally decides to make the change, and finds the strength that alcohol hides from them, they can begin to fight. They will need support throughout. They can find help through AA meetings or religion, but they need the support of their family most. I know that giving support can be a daunting task, especially after our love for them has been tainted by the monster that consumes them. If we can remember them before the addiction, between the drinks, and in times of sobriety, we can find a spot in our hearts large enough to support them again. They will stumble; they will fall. Families will pick them up, and they can overcome.
Sanders, Scott. "Under the Influence." The Norton Reader.13th ed. Eds. Linda Peterson, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, Anne Fernald, & Melissa Goldthwaite. New York: W.W Norton & Company. 2012. 100-110. Print.