A Chip Off the Old Block

By Kim Alden Mallin

Everyone has heard, or even said, variations on this theme. Those disparaging remarks such as, “you’re just like your mother,” or frustrated comments like, “I hate when Dad does that, I will never be like him.”

Yet frequently we grow up to be just like those people we swore we would never become.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Although you could never have convinced me of that while I was growing up.

Being the oldest child in a dysfunctional family gave me a specific role, the hero child, the peacemaker. Learning early on how to read the mood of the house, I could tell you within seconds of walking in the door from school whether it was going to be a good or bad night. As a young child, I would try desperately to change a potentially bad night into a good one, usually without much success. As a young adult, I just hid in my room and read novel after novel, tuning out the shouting voices and slamming doors.

I didn’t move away from home until I left to go to medical school. I lived at home during college for several reasons. Consciously, it was cheaper, and my boyfriend was planning to stay in the area. Subconsciously, I was afraid to leave my family. That hero role left me afraid that everything would fall apart if I left. But my survival instincts, manifested by my desire to become a doctor, were so strong (I was so certain that becoming a doctor would “save” me) that ultimately I was able to leave, only to find myself right back in the same situation.

Within a year of leaving home, I had met and moved in with the man of my dreams. A perfect match. Before I knew it, I was playing my mom’s role, and Joe had become my father. He drank too much, and I was certain that if only I were thin enough, smart enough, witty enough, athletic enough, kept the house clean enough, cooked well enough, was sexy enough, he would love me and not drink too much.

But, of course, nothing I could do would change him. I tried everything I could think of, including drinking alcoholically with him and acting out in outrageous behaviors just to try to get his attention. I would have done anything to get him to love me. Well, almost anything. When he began to get physically abusive, my survival instincts once again empowered me to take care of myself and I was able to leave.

I swore I would never get myself in that situation again. I would not be my mother.

No. I became my father.

There never really is any escape, is there?

Genetics. I inherited many things from my dad. Put the two of us side by side and some of them are obvious. We have the same facial shape, similar eyes, the same mouth. We even grin the same way. And though I didn’t get his high cholesterol, I did get his alcoholism.

I never even saw it coming. I graduated from college magna cum laude, went on to medical school and residency. There might have been some hints when my drinking escalated during that relationship with Joe, but for the most part, I was able to keep things under control until sometime during my residency, when I began to cross the line from social drinking to alcoholic drinking. Afraid to drink too much, with my access to prescriptions, it wasn’t too long before pain pills became my favorite brand of alcohol.

I was married, twice, during my drinking years. Both times to good, intelligent, caring men. The failure of our marriages was not their faults. I was too self-centered and in love with my addictions to give much to anyone else, including a spouse. In that sense, I was again acting out my parent’s marriage. Only this time, I was in my dad’s role.

I fought getting sober. I had to lose a lot: my marriages, my medical license, my self-worth, my integrity. I spent several years in and out of treatment centers. I just couldn’t accept that I was an alcoholic. I could not be just like my dad.

I never asked him for help, even though he had long since stopped drinking. Both he and my mom had become active in 12-step programs and were no longer the people who raised me. If anything, I blamed him for passing on this disease – this affliction – this embarrassment – to me.

April, 1996: I had called my parents to tell them that I’d been kicked out of yet another treatment center for sneaking out and drinking. I was telling my dad once again that I was sorry, that I didn’t mean to keep getting drunk or causing them pain. As I told him that I loved him, he made some smart comment like, “Yeah, right. If you love us so much, why do you keep doing this?” I vaguely remember hanging up in tears.

A few days later, I received a letter from him. Something about the honesty, compassion, and understanding he showed in it touched me to my core, helping to thaw some long-forgotten part of myself. I still have it, tucked in my jewelry box, with all my valuables. It reads:

Just a note to say hi, I love you, and I’m sorry. Sometime ago I made the remark ‘and 50 cents will get me a cup of coffee’ about your words ‘I love you,’ implying words are cheap, it must be proven, etc. I have regretted it ever since and, in thinking about it in terms of my own behavior, I realize how wrong I was to say it.

In my alcoholism I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have, even though I loved, or thought I loved, my family. The truth is I did love, but I did what my disease (or addiction) drove me to. If I can accept my behavior as the best I could do, or what I had to do, which I have, then the same must be true for any of us (alcoholics). So, I had no right to say that to you.

I am sorry!

I know you love me (us); I know you do not mean to hurt us.

I’m going to leave it at that and close with, I hope you find your Higher Power and enter recovery.

I love you!

Dad

As I read my father’s letter, something seemed to break open inside of me. Some crack appeared in the armor that I had spent years fortifying, one drink or drug at a time, and I was somehow able to want to be sober. To want to get better. That was over eleven years ago, and I haven’t had a drink (or pill) since.

Recovery for me entailed working on not only my alcoholism, but also my “child of an alcoholic” issues, learning how my behavior was driven by the voices of the past and how to keep those negative voices in the past and to replace them with healthy, empowering voices.

On a hot July morning in 2002, I was lucky enough to marry a man who reminds me of my dad, the way he is today. Not the chronically tired, selfish, emotionally unavailable drunk of my childhood, but the caring, perceptive man who wrote the above letter. A man who can be real about his feelings, who can own up to being wrong, who can love unconditionally, who is confident enough to allow me to just be me.

My life is complete today, and it all came as a direct result of the very thing my dad gave me that I never wanted. I have turned out to be just like my dad. What a gift.

About this writer

  • Kim Alden Mallin Taking a break from her life as a family doc in Charleston S.C, Kim Alden Mallin is currently living in Antigua with her husband, teaching at the American University of Antigua School of Medicine. Her days off are spent scuba diving, writing and improving her road race times by running up the hills of Antigua.

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