By Sharon Dvora
Illustration by Maggie Hill
He was a pirate. I like to think of him in these dramatic terms, as I recall his life as sensational, brilliant, larger than life. He wore his bathing suit for days on end, packing smokes at the back of his boat on the river dock. He’d laugh and tell dirty jokes to the well-coiffed waitresses at the coffee shop. He wore tailored suits with velvet collars and polka-dot silk lining. He drove a salmon-pink Cadillac, and had his shoes polished and lined up on the washing machine. He led two lives. No—more.
My father was an alcoholic. But we always spoke of him as a recovered alcoholic. I grew up on AA meetings, the serenity prayer and the sharp contrast of my mother’s obsession with perfection.
We were to be the perfect family—well dressed, well behaved and well under control. This intense need for family order was her calling from an early age, as she grew up with addiction, too. A crazy version of it, as her mother—my grandmother—had a long history of psychological instability, and a percussive series of institutionalization and treatment with prescription medication. The eruptive nature of her chemical addiction and predisposition towards the erratic was a secret that was hard to keep.
She was a beautiful hysteric—colorful, flamboyant and very unlike the mother I grew up with. She was my very own Zsa Zsa Gabor, a Hungarian drama queen. The drugs contributed to the theatrics of the scene. The bottles were everywhere, along with collections of lipstick tubes and the putrid smell of expired powders and foundation. Her asthma machine, a marked fixture on the make-up counter, was caked in a palette of oranges and reds.
They say that everyone in the family is affected—by addiction, by mental illness. My mom insisted that alcoholism was a disease. And as if it were contagious, she was married to the task of keeping it under wraps. And so I grew up with a secret. My father was an addict. And he was sick.
Well, that was her version. For me, he was real and genuine and she wasn’t. He was out there, full throttle, alive, and she was repressed.
Maybe I’m the twisted one. I mean, addiction’s had its way with me as well. I’ve tweaked the story into a feel-good narrative. Contorted myself to meet family distortion on equalizing terms.
Family scripts are epic. We cast the heroes and call out the villains. Dad played the dashing swashbuckler in my version of the story. Mom—the antagonist.
Maybe it deserves a rewrite. I’d keep in the glamorous, eccentric details—jeweled cuff links, paisley silk moo-moos. Rather than cast myself with a bit part, I’ll step honestly into the role I’ve been playing all along. I keep digging for buried treasure. Like a kid with a Cracker Jack box, I’m jamming my fingers down to reach the prize. I know there are gems in there. So I’m diving for pearls—in my family’s treasure trove of addiction.