• Sherri McCarthy

Before We Begin...

Updated: Jan 14

I have wanted to write about my experience as a survivor of alcoholic parents for years. Decades, even. But the biggest roadblock for me was the loyalty I felt (and still feel) to my parents. After all, they are the ones who raised me, however imperfectly.


The hesitation to shine a light on something so private was so strong that it stopped me altogether. How could I share the ugly upbringing and still profess and love and loyalty towards my mom and dad? I have wrestled with the answer for as long as I can remember and only recently did I discover a way of thinking that allowed me to understand a little more, to come to an understanding about where I stood in this whole arena.


I listened to William Cope Moyer’s book, Broken, and had some revelations through his story. He is the son of former White House press secretary, Bill Moyers, and he became an alcoholic and addict (crack cocaine). At first, his story frustrated me. He grew up in privilege with literally no “reason” to become an addict. No history of abuse, no story of tremendous struggle like my parents went through as kids. His parents were not alcoholics or addicts—there was nothing in his background to point to and say, “ah-HA! That’s it. That’s the reason for his addiction.” And that leads me to my first point:


Addiction is Amoral. I know. I know. We like to assign a whole host of moral claims to addiction vs sobriety. But here’s the thing: even good people get addicted. And you generally don’t see it coming. Moyers recounted something in his book he was told that changed him entirely and it certainly resonated with me: you’re a good man with a bad problem. Up until that point he could not see himself as a good man. He considered his addiction a moral failing. And he could not stay sober after the first 3 times he went through rehab, because he saw himself as “bad.”


It struck me deeply because it is the one thing I want people to understand about my parents: they were good people with a bad problem. My dad was especially amazing. Did he do awful things as a drunk? Yes. No question. But my dad invested in his kids and despite his alcoholism, he gave everything to us to try to help us have a good life. Does that fact excuse his behavior as a drunk? Absolutely not. And he would never say it did. He got and stayed sober for the final 27 years of his life and he remains my hero for that brave, resilient, and difficult journey.

Addiction is Progressive. It starts somewhere, without a thought. It’s innocent at first, a satisfaction of curiosity, I imagine. Not one person I have ever met who is in recovery said that they started out to become an addict. But it snuck up on them through all of the fun times, the college partying, the after work drinks with colleagues…and when it bites, it bites so hard you are held so tight there doesn’t seem to be any escape hatch. Addiction never stays stagnant. It. Gets. Worse.


Addiction is Incurable. When Moyers stated this, I turned off the book and took some deep breaths. It is a fact I had never considered. Alcoholism and addiction are incurable, and chronic. Once a person becomes mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually addicted, the truth dawns: this doesn’t go away. Ever. But the GREAT news is that it IS treatable.


What struck me then was how my dad fought every single day for 27 years to stay in recovery. I’m sure he had times that were more difficult than others to stay sober, but for me to finally understand that the monster he slayed was so much bigger than I imagined was humbling. It deepened my appreciation for and awe of my dad.


Recovery Happens. William Cope Moyers needed four times through rehab before he finally stayed sober. He was lucky he had the resources to privately finance the process back before insurance carriers would pay for treatment. But about his sobriety he said something stuck with me: sobriety is the most important thing in his life. It has to be. Or there is no other life. Unless he puts his sobriety first, nothing else falls into place, nothing else gives him a life. Allowing other things to rise to the top of the list for him is dangerous. A person in kidney failure wouldn’t skip dialysis regardless of the happenings in his life—he knows that treating his kidney issue is primary to his survival. The same is true for addicts. Sobriety has to be more important than a spouse, children, a job. That’s just the way it is.


I saw this with my dad. I felt shameful when I heard the truth of how sobriety must reign supreme because of what I remember telling my dad when he first got sober: “Dad, it’s like you’re now addicted to AA meetings.” Instead of beating myself up for that kind of comment, I understand that teenage girl and I forgive her, just as I know as well as I’m sitting here that my dad forgave me for saying something so ignorant.


My outlook on my parents might be the most important thing I will ever write. The most important thing I can share with you—to help you either understand your own parents a little better, or to understand the complexity of loving an alcoholic, and to understand why we survivors of alcoholic parents seem so contradictory, so complex. It’s because we are. And there is nothing wrong with that.


I wish you peace.

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