Three months before my ninth sobriety birthday in AA, my uncle beat my grandmother to death. My family covered it up. For approximately a year following her death, I experienced a terrible emotional relapse. Filled with rage at my uncle and at AA, I could barely sit through an entire meeting.
My uncle and I “came home” within one month of each other in the summer of 1996. I moved home with my new husband to attend law school. My uncle had been in the Illinois state correctional system for fifteen years after beating a man to death in a bar fight. He was tried and sentenced. For fifteen years, my grandmother repeated to anyone who would listen that her son was “set up,” even though there were a dozen witnesses. After he earned his parole, my grandmother was overjoyed to see my uncle.
What followed was an alcoholic nightmare. My uncle began drinking as soon as he got home. In the first six years, he wrecked my grandmother’s car twice, got five different jobs and lost them all, and started getting arrested for beating his girlfriend. He received court-ordered treatment for alcoholism, but failed to complete it. My sober husband discussed AA with him and offered to take him to a local meeting. At my mother’s request, members of the local AA groups who had felony convictions talked to John. He never attended a single meeting.
In January 2001, he began vomiting and defecating blood. His stomach swelled up and his skin turned yellow. In April 2001, he passed out on my grandmother’s porch and split his head open. At the hospital, the doctors diagnosed him with severe cirrhosis and with bleeding esophageal varices. Because his damaged liver was unable to process blood at the normal rate, his blood was backing up and creating increased pressure in the esophagus. Occasionally, a small blood vessel in that area ruptured and bled into his stomach, causing him to vomit and defecate blood. The doctors told my uncle that either the cirrhosis or the bleeding esophageal varices would kill him within two years if nothing was done.
Frightened, my uncle agreed to be admitted to the hospital’s psychiatric ward to detox. During the first night of detox, he experienced horrible DTs. Hallucinating, he saw my sober husband spying on him from behind doors, through windows, and under the bed. He begged the nurses to make my husband leave him alone. My well-meaning grandmother brought him a forty-ounce beer to “get rid of the DTs”. My uncle drank it, immediately checked himself out of the hospital, and walked to the nearest bar to get drunk. He has never agreed to any treatment since.
After he became sick, John qualified for disability payments from the government. He used the check at the beginning of each month to buy booze. His money inevitably ran out before the end of the month and he demanded money from his girlfriend to buy more booze before the next check came. After his girlfriend left him in the summer of 2001, he began demanding money from my grandmother to buy booze at the end of each month. When my grandmother refused, John beat her up and took her jewelry to pawn or took money out of her purse.
After I realized what was happening, I called the Illinois Department of Aging Elder Abuse Hotline. The DOA sent visiting nurses to check on my grandmother several times. Each time, she denied that my uncle hurt her or that he was taking money from her. My grandmother was deeply hurt that I would “turn” on her by asking for help from a government social service agency. She was afraid that the visiting nurses would get the police involved and they would take John back to jail.
I was terribly sad and frustrated when all of this was going on. I despaired of finding help. John wouldn’t complete treatment. He wouldn’t go to AA meetings. My mother and my grandmother would continue to protect him from the police and the Department of Aging. “Helping” and protecting my uncle was more important to my mother and grandmother than helping themselves. We constantly received calls from jail to bail him out for another arrest or to pick him up at the bar because he had passed out on the floor or the street outside. He constantly needed money for booze. I refused to help, but talking with my mother or my grandmother always involved a long litany of what went wrong this week.
Finally, in late April 2002, my uncle went too far. My mother found my grandmother on the floor of her house one morning; John was passed out drunk on her couch. My grandmother could not get up. At the hospital, they found that she was suffering from a skull fracture and a lacerated kidney, along with other injuries. She was in excruciating pain. She cried constantly. She told my mother, her sister, and me that John had beaten her and “busted something loose inside.” She said “He’s killed me.”
I reported the beating to the Department of Aging. The DOA called the police. When the social worker and the police questioned other family members, everyone lied and said that my grandmother said she accidentally fell. My grandmother was too sick to speak. When I asked my mother why she lied, she said that my grandmother would have wanted it that way. My grandmother would never want to see her son in jail, even for hurting her. A few days after the police spoke with our family, my grandmother died. My mother and my uncles refused to permit an autopsy.
Between my grandmother’s final hospital admission and the funeral, I began to fester emotionally. After I realized that John beat my grandmother and she was dying from the beating, I began to swell with rage. I was so agitated I couldn’t sleep. A tight band encircled my head. My stomach burned with acid. I started fantasizing about killing my uncle. I had a clear vision of shooting him at my grandmother’s funeral. My husband took all of our guns out of the house and stored them at a friend’s house.
A couple of days after the funeral, I attended one of my regular meetings. I spoke briefly when called on and then passed. I was clearly agitated. After the meeting, one of the older members of our group stopped to talk to me. During the conversation, he offered to twelfth-step my uncle. I had a sick, heavy feeling in my stomach. I said “Thank you” and told him that John had been twelfth-stepped twice before and had been to treatment, but it hadn’t worked. I also told him that it was too dangerous to pay a Twelfth-Step call on my uncle.
In the car on the way home from the meeting, the sick feeling I had turned to fury. How could a member of AA, a member of one of my meetings, offer to help my uncle? He doesn’t deserve help, I thought. I was the one who was suffering. How could an AA member take sides with my uncle and against me? My husband advised me that this AA member was offering to do a Twelfth-Step call because a Twelfth-Step call was the only thing he knew how to do to help the situation. My husband pointed out that regardless of whether my uncle deserves help, the other people in my family are innocent in this mess and they do deserve help. By helping an alcoholic, AA members help the alcoholic’s family. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, AA had betrayed me. If AA members would help anyone, including my uncle, I didn’t want to be an AA member anymore. For that matter, I didn’t want to be an alcoholic. My uncle was an alcoholic and if he was an alcoholic, it was the last thing on earth that I wanted to be. I could barely say the words “I’m an alcoholic” at the beginning of the meeting. I could barely sit through meetings. I refused to announce or celebrate my ninth sobriety birthday. I was furious with my uncle, furious with AA, furious with my family, and furious with myself.
A few weeks after the funeral, my uncle began to threaten my mother and their brother to get more money for booze. He beat my mother with a walking cane when she wouldn’t give him money. He was arrested for battery, but was quickly bailed out by a friend and back at the bar.
My brother and I began providing my uncle with daily bottles of pure grain alcohol. Our goal was two-fold: 1) keep him quiet, and 2) kill him. If he had enough to drink, he would stop threatening female family members to get money for booze. If he had enough to drink, his alcoholic cirrhosis would worsen and he would die quicker. The prospect of his death gave me a great deal of grim satisfaction. “Operation Keep John Quiet” lasted for about three months. It finally ended when my uncle accused my brother of trying to poison him. My uncle refused to drink anything we provided and went back to demanding money from other family members. After several weeks of this, the remainder of the family refused to speak with him and called the police if he showed up at their houses. My uncle moved in with one of his drinking buddies and slept on the guy’s couch, so that he would have more money to drink. If the local bartender called to report a problem with my uncle, we told him to call the police.
Throughout all of this, I kept going to meetings, though, because I was stuck. I had no interest in drinking again. My grandmother’s death and my uncle’s physical health and the effects of his drinking infuriated and frightened me. I was disguised by the idea of drinking, so I continued to go to meetings. It was the only thing I knew that I could do. In some meetings, I was so agitated that I physically held the edge of the seat to remind myself not to get up and leave. I talked and talked and talked with my husband. I tried talking with friends and with other members of AA, but they never knew what to say. The horribleness of the situation overwhelmed them. One or two AA members advised me to pray for John. I said “Thank you,” and ignored their advice.
My husband kept telling me that I needed to learn to accept this problem. I could not change my uncle’s alcoholism and I could not change my grandmother’s death. I had done everything I could before her death to get help for my grandmother and to get help for my uncle. My grandmother chose to protect her alcoholic son rather than seek help from the state. John chose not to complete treatment and not to go to AA. Nothing I could do could change that. While acceptance seemed like a good idea, I had a hard time arriving at it. I repeated over and over “Acceptance is the key to all of my problems today.” Through clenched teeth. I kept to my routine of work and home and meetings, though.
I faked my way through my day. I did my best to act as if I was emotionally sober. I worked to be calm at work and polite to strangers and kind to my husband. I did not yell at anyone in meetings, including the overlay perky newcomer who kept telling me to “Keep coming back. It works if you work it.” I tried very hard to keep from targeting strangers and innocent bystanders with my anger.
Slowly, the anger began to fade. Finally, one day I realized that I had accepted my grandmother’s death, my uncle’s alcoholism, and my own helplessness. Three or four months before my tenth sobriety anniversary, a little less than a year after my grandmother’s death, I realized that I had gradually accepted again that my life is unmanageable. I also realized that I learned some important lessons about my alcoholism. I learned that alcoholism is a terminal disease. I always knew that in theory, but I didn’t know it in my gut. In theory, my death from alcoholism would be a romantic death, with me crashing my car into a tree at a young age and people standing around saying “What a tragedy! She was so young and so talented! How terrible!” In reality, alcoholics are more likely to die from cirrhosis or bleeding esophageal varices or from seizures related to the DTs. The physical effects of terminal alcoholism include vomiting and defecating and blood and drool and swelling in weird parts of the body. None of these conditions is romantic. In reality, more people are likely to greet the alcoholic’s death with relief: “Thank God that’s over. At least she won’t be around to trouble her family anymore.” In reality, sometimes other people die with the alcoholic. In reality, sometimes other people die because of the alcoholic’s behavior, and the alcoholic lives. I learned that I didn’t earn my sobriety. I was very angry at AA because an AA member offered to do a Twelfth-Step call with my uncle after my grandmother’s death. I felt that my uncle didn’t deserve help from AA. I thought that my uncle was a bad person who didn’t deserve help. Of course, I didn’t deserve help when I came to AA either. I was a failed suicide and a deadbeat on the run from her bills and a woman who used boyfriends to momentarily fill her gaping emotional void and then threw them away when it stopped working. The help I received from AA members wasn’t something I earned. It was grace. It was a gift. It was given out of sheer mercy and pity for a still-suffering alcoholic. The AA members who helped me did so out of gratitude that someone had done the same for them.
I learned that my alcoholism is only different from my uncle’s alcoholism in degree. I never killed anyone or beat up a family member. (“Yet,” as an old sponsor would say.) But all of his behavior was fueled by selfishness, self-centeredness, and roaring self-pity. As a practicing alcoholic (and occasionally as a sober alcoholic), I am guilty of all of those things.
I never killed anyone while drinking. However, given the amount of times I drove home in a blackout, I am lucky that I did not. The fact that I didn’t commit homicide was just luck. My uncle is an alcoholic. I am an alcoholic. We are alike in many ways. I learned that I am not like my uncle in many other ways. I am a sober alcoholic. For whatever reason, I managed to drag myself into AA and managed to learn how to live by practicing the Twelve Steps. This has alleviated my selfishness, self-centeredness, and roaring self-pity enough to allow me to have a family, hold a job, and live my life. For whatever reason, my uncle has not completed treatment or gone to AA. He does not have a job, a family, or a life. AA has made all the difference between us.
I have not learned to love my uncle. I don’t hate him anymore, though. I don’t want to kill him. I have not yet managed to pray for his health and happiness. I have managed to pray that his Higher Power takes care of him and does whatever is best. I have let go of my uncle. I can’t help him, but I have stopped trying to hurt him. For now that may be as much progress as I am able to make.