Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Guest Post: Addictions and Development

Today's guest post is by Emma Haylett. She decribes growing up with an alcoholic father who literally tried to recruit her as his drinking buddy, and in the process put her smack dab in the middle (triangulation) of her parents' relationship. This may be a telling example of someone in the role of go-between.

A Revelation

My father bought me my first 6-pack of beer. I was only 14 at the time and drank it behind closed doors, away from him and the rest of my family. It was a late summer night and I remember my mother was already hidden away in her room, lights off, TV on such a low volume like she was whispering with ghosts. Dad sat in a broken recliner watching western violence, occasionally calling my name to come drink with him. Instead, I wrote. I started writing before I popped the first cap and continued to do so after all of them were empty and stagnant around me.

I knew the other kids at my school drank. I knew my dad drank. I watched him every day, but what I didn’t realize was the problem he held. Within the next two hours, I was dizzy and tired. The spoken words of my father were surrounded in quotation marks intermittently written down the page, phonetically spelled out: “Em-uhh,” “ehmm,” and “c’mon to the livin’ room, now.” 

As my state of clarity became more and more unclear, my dad’s stayed exactly the same. I didn’t know he was permanently inebriated until pouring over my notes the next morning. This revelation became something of an alcohol abuse study for years.

My mother never noticed the extra beer my father bought. I think she always assumed Dad was going to drink them, and it was a fair enough assumption. As he pressured me to drink them, I would sip slowly and watch him become more intolerable by the bottle. It didn’t taste good and I don’t remember it feeling good either. 

His speech slurred to the point of intelligibility and his breath was something similar to a laboratory experiment gone wrong. His actions embarrassed me – he would yell at the television if a star delivered a line poorly, and wrap his arm around my shoulder to tell me how to buy liquor underage. Whenever my mother entered the room, his face became tired and uninterested.

One evening, after Dad was snoring deeply in the chair, my mother sat me down and asked me if I drank with him. Of course I didn’t lie – I told her he would give me a few bottles and we would watch TV together. She told me Dad wasn’t healthy and that what he was drinking wasn’t, either. She told me he was always cracking cans since he was about my age, partying much too hard with his friends and family. I wasn’t old enough, she very sternly told me, “and your dad’s decisions reflect poorly upon this family.” I stopped drinking with him after that night.

Family Treatment

Dad was kinder in the early hours of the day and progressively became more incoherent and rude towards the time he usually passed out in the recliner. I come to realize, from lengthy trial-and-error experiments, that the trick to getting lunch money, permission to go out on school nights, or even a small favor was asking him in the mornings after his first coffee with a whiskey cream substitute. 

My mother took the opposite route and, when she thought I wasn’t around, suggested rehab programs later in the evenings, or else, she threatened, she would leave…again and again. But she never did. Their relationship became empty threats with the two of them screaming about whose turn it was to buy essential toiletries with the little money we had, and who was going to raise their daughter standing behind them unnoticed.

There was more hidden behind my father’s alcohol addiction than what was obvious: the empty bottles clacking together as he put another one down was always accompanied by false affection when we had father-daughter talks around the dining room table late at night about being a responsible adult, trust, and his image of love. I learned that being responsible was saving a bit of grocery money for a tall bottle of cheap alcohol. Trust was believing him when he said, “Just one more,” and love was “don’t tell your mother” followed by a bribe.  

Promises to attend my school-sponsored activities came to a screeching halt as the more dangerous drugs became the better part of him. I once found him asleep in the truck idling in the driveway with the windows down and a burnt cigarette between his still fingers. The long stem of ash flaked away as I shook him to remind him that he was supposed to take me to school.

Emotional Detox

I lied to my friends. I lied to my teachers, and I lied to myself - for years. It goes without saying that I don’t trust long or often. I had a hard time believing my ex-fiancé Jake was going for a quick run to the gas station without bringing home a brown paper sack around a bottle or plastic baggie of some substance. I am reminded of being alone when my new neighbor’s empty beer cans crash and echo against each other as she pushes her trash bins to the curb every Thursday morning. I am still angry at my mother who should have tried harder to get my father some help.

I always wished he would have even considered alcohol rehab. I firmly believe our family life could have been different, saved even, with detox and therapy. As an adult, I hesitate to show affection and honesty. I have daylight visions of my father wrecking the truck. I lose hours of sleep over the conversations I should have had with Jake about trust and what it means to be loved without stipulations.

Looking back, it’s hard to know what it is I was feeling. From adulthood, it is easy to know that my father was using me as a crutch, as a tool with which to hurt my mother. And I dutifully played the part of loyal daughter to both of them. I was a substitute, in many ways, for their relationship—an embodiment of the good in my father as my mother saw him, a (albeit young) drinker still capable of offering love - and so she ignored it. For my father, I was a female who served as his caretaker and confidant, a secret-keeper who acted without judgment, an enabler. While my father was dependent upon alcohol, I was simply (or not so simply) using it—more on that here. This was my first experience as an enabler too.

I do remember feeling trapped in between them and, because they were my parents equally, wanting to please both. If I could do it simultaneously, even in secret, it felt like a win. I didn’t like the taste or feel of alcohol, but I also didn’t like the way my father breathed my name until I came out. For me, this drinking was easier, especially since I never outright lied to my mother. Like my father, I had my justifications.


I’ve learned that addiction is better treated as a disease. With a non 12-step program, doctors treat addicts with proper medical treatment as you would any other chronic medical illness. Working with addicts in this program has taught me that sometimes you can’t rely on having faith or attending self-help meetings. Sometimes real help (however you find useful to define it) is necessary. 

Addicts can come to an understanding of trust and commitment, as well as formulating a self-betterment plan that is supported by people like me. I provide the guidance and encouragement as well as sensitivity to the issue.

My father would always get upset if the word “addiction” was even quietly muttered.

I realize what it is like to be an addict. I watched and recorded one my entire life. To approach the issue with proper intelligence and caution is critical – to provide them with real courage and motivation rather than standing idly by will push the addict towards getting the appropriate help and the chance of staying healthy will greaten. It’s a very rewarding opportunity to be there for somebody and to see them succeed.

I help myself by helping people overcome these dangerous addictions. I help them make that sensitive reconnection to their family and children. There is always hope that they can raise their kids to live without being exposed to the fear and emotional emptiness that that I hold inside and that is so overwhelming. Getting help can change more than one life. That first step is always the hardest, but I know in my heart of hearts it can make a difference.

Author Bio: Emma Haylett finds comfort in writing. When she’s not helping coordinate non 12 step recovery programs for addicts and their families, you can find her watching terrible made-for-TV movies.


  1. Emma's story has been such a help for me to read at this time. I dutifully played the part of loyal daughter for over 30 years; even after the deaths of my parents - the loyalty went on. I am currently sifting through my own puzzlement that I wasn't a juvenile delinquent. I feel like I have let myself down in some way. I don't even have a tattoo!

    I find comfort in writing too. I write stand-up comedy for dead comedians. Allan Sherman is my current favourite. I'm getting in touch with my nuttiness.

  2. I know parents that treat their children more like friends than children. You can't be a friend and a parent at the same time. Give your children love and discipline and they will appreciate it as the grow older.

  3. Thank you for sharing so honestly; it takes a courage and a maturity to do so.

    The line your wrote---"I lied to my friends. I lied to my teachers, and I lied to myself - for years"---caught me. I am reminded of a phrase heard in meetings for adult children of alcoholics, that children of alcoholics grow up without an idea of what "normal" is.

    I am so happy to hear that you have spent your career helping people overcome their addictions. I am currently finishing a graduate program in counseling, and I am very curious about the number of us in the helping professions who enter field and use their own experiences to assist others.

    All the best to you---thank you for writing!