How Family History Shaped My Attitudes About Alcohol Consumption
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
I have decided that sipping out of cocktail straws plunged into clear drinks with twists of lime or swigging their frothy spiked caribbean themed cousins while sitting poolside, is something I no longer have a taste for. In fact drinking alcohol is not really for me these days. A clarifying, shift in values can do that to you. So can an increased awareness and the realization of the impact that alcohol can have on our existence, beyond just taking the edge off by numbing parts of your brain.
As a child in the eighties and nineties alcohol was definitely a part of my life. Not that I personally consumed it, but it was so ingrained in the culture, between advertisements, music videos, and commercials, it was odd not to partake, even if it was just every now and then. So my memories of growing up often have liquor references. There were the clearly red labeled bottles of vodka. Pints of ‘who knows what’ wrapped in paper bags being passed between grownups. And the ambered colored bottles of beer with the blue bull on them. Large bottles of gin and tonic water with the yellow label, were staples in my granny’s kitchen.
Similar to saltine crackers and a jar of peanut butter, they were always there. In those formative years, alcohol, in its many forms, was as much a part of my life as cartoons. I didn’t fear it or the dangers that may result as a byproduct of its consumption. Beer cans, empty handles and wine jugs lived right alongside Now and Laters, Lemonheads, and Kool Aid. For me, it wasn’t rare. They were markers of happiness and good times.
Until they weren’t.
Alcoholism is woven throughout every root, branch, and leaf of my family tree. Sometimes hidden, most often overt, we just never called it that, because like many families, we were too busy masking the scars to acknowledge them. Drinking has always been an accepted and welcomed way to celebrate and mourn alike, with alcohol being the guest of honor. Only I didn’t notice the chaos that it left behind until I was older.
The horrible decisions. The anger-filled fights. The depression. The manic behavior. The passing out. The dismissive and mean undertones that infected light-hearted conversation, started to evolve into even uglier manifestations of illness and disease. Cancer and strokes became close relatives and their hideous stepsister dementia started to creep in. The latter being the scariest, most sad of them all, because it took my last, genetically connected grandparent’s memory of me away.
My granny didn’t die of dementia.
A stroke is what ultimately separated her spirit from her body, but before that, I witnessed her brain become an altered version of itself. I imagined the wrinkles of this magnificent muscle disappearing, becoming smooth spots, erasing memories of me. She just didn’t seem to know me at all. She called my mother my aunt on good days, an enemy of the family on others. She called my niece my sister and my sister my cousin. She asked for my great-grandmother Big Mama, a lot. And she had been gone for decades. But me, I was blank, like a nameless apparition to her. She would look my way, but never call me anything. For a while I thought it good, because our interactions were awkward at best when she was lucid, with me deflecting attacks on my weight or my quietness being misjudged as arrogance. But truly, I wished she had called me someone, anyone-so that I didn’t just feel dismissed and unimportant to her.
Her life ended far from what I could have foreseen, hooked up to life-preserving machines. The irony that my grandmother was kept breathing by technology, which she adamantly avoided, was heartbreaking. But it was on that journey in the last phase of her life that I learned about the link to our unwelcome house guest and her illness. That long term, excessive alcohol intake, is as linked to an increased risk of the development of dementia, as brain injuries because they both cause damage to the brain.
It's not to say that I will never toast at a wedding or go wine tasting with my girlfriends again, but it really is hard to find joy in those moments, when I see my grandmother’s blank stare in my mind, as I turn up my glass. I pride myself on being able to remember very old and small details about people and experiences I love. So the fear of losing my memory is terrifying. And honestly, before 2018, dementia seemed like a very distant reality from my life. I never entertained it being a realistic element of aging for me. But having lived it, I realize that the fleeting joy of indulging isn’t worth the lasting damage that alcohol can leave behind.
Tuesday, March 2, 2021 11:40am
© 2021 Evangeline Lawson