THREE STEPS TO RECOVERY - One Man's Triumph Over Alcohol and Drugs - A Simple Approach Anyone Can Use to Overcome Addiction
These chapters are free to read and I hope you enjoy them. Please feel free to post your thoughts and feedback. Thanks!
The Innocent Years – The Problem Behind The Addiction
I was pretending to be Superman when my mother’s frantic cries for help brought a sudden halt to my game. I ran towards the kitchen faster than a speeding bullet. But a Superman t-shirt with a bath towel tucked into the collar didn’t give me superhuman strength. Peering just below the vinyl seat of our yellow kitchen chairs, my eyes widened as Dad pinned my mother to the cold linoleum floor. He was a large man, standing 6’1”, and Mum was 4’6”. The image seemed surreal, like a horror movie, and I stood frozen in fear. There was an odor of carnage as Dad hovered over her. Maybe it was the mixture of sweat and testosterone rising from his green work shirt. Pure, unfiltered terror flooded my body and my heart beat so fast it seemed to smash against my ribs. Dad was hurting Mum. Nothing can be more terrifying for a four year old. A young boy’s mother is his world. She was my life giver, my first love, my heart and soul. The thought of anyone harming her was truly horrifying and beyond my comprehension, especially when that someone was my father. Hearing my big sister crying hysterically and begging Dad to stop only added to the horror.
Believing I was Superman, leaping on Dad’s back seemed the right thing to do. I would save the day, just like on television. The bad guy would quickly surrender once he realized I meant business. I’d amaze him with my super strength, wrestle him away from Mum with a stern face and furrowed brow, adding a few appropriate words for good measure. He would plead for mercy, beg Mum for forgiveness, and all would be well again. She would call me her hero and we’d all live happily ever after. At least that was the plan. Grasping the thick collar of Dad’s shirt with both hands, I reeled back with all my might. The results weren’t quite as I’d anticipated. I kept tugging and pleading with him to release her. But there’s not much a small boy can do to extricate his mother from the underbelly of a raging 220 pound man. Surprised and annoyed, he flung me off effortlessly. I tried again. It was as if he’d discovered a spider had crawled down his neck. “Get the hell off me”, he growled. He flung me across the room and I shared a swirling view of the tobacco stained ceiling tiles with Mum. It was enough to divert his attention and he released her. He glared down at us and cursed to himself as he lumbered through the kitchen door and down the hall. In much the way an angry bear lumbers off into the woods after attacking a group of campers.
Dad always reminded me of a bear. He was a barrel-chested man with thick, hairy wrists. His fists were large and solid, like two sacks of ball bearings. His chest protruded when he walked, shoulders arched back, as if he was balancing something on each one. He was. It was a chip, a grudge, and he carried one on each shoulder. His face always challenged anyone passing by to knock it off, which was also one of his favorite expressions. Dad had the eyes of a grizzly, too, when someone aroused his anger; and it didn’t take much. It could be something as small as dinner not being on the table at five p.m. sharp or the newspaper arriving late. God help the paperboy who delivered Dad’s Boston Globe late.
I’ve never met anyone like my father. He worked as a railroad station janitor and pest control was amongst his duties. When a stray pigeon flew inside the building, as they sometimes would, Dad was the kind of man who would flatten it with a steel shovel. And he did. At least that’s what he told us over supper one day. When I was five, Mum talked him into taking me to a baseball game at Boston’s Fenway Park. He didn’t want to take me, but she pressured him and he finally agreed. When you’re five years old, walking into a stadium filled with wall to wall baseball fans is an overwhelming sensation. It was the most fantastic view I’d ever seen and I couldn’t resist staring at the sea of people surrounding us. Dad thought I should be focused on the game. I really did try, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the crowd or the vendors hawking hot dogs and peanuts up and down the aisles. I asked if we could have a hot dog. He lost his temper and, less than five minutes into the game, he grabbed my arm and dragged me to the parking lot. He shouted at me all the way home and swore he’d never take me to another baseball game. He never did. Months later, Mum asked him to play catch with me in the backyard. I can still hear the hissing sound as the ball approached me. He threw the ball hard, straight at my face, laughing as the blood ran from my nose. It hurt and I cried. He instantly turned angry, called me a momma’s boy, and stormed off to his living room chair. We never played catch again. Dad didn’t play ball with cry babies.
He believed everyone was out to get him. It was as if there was a conspiracy only he knew about, and everyone from the trash collector to the Kennedy clan was in on it. Especially those God Damned Kennedys. His contempt was spurned by the fact that the Kennedys were liberal minded Democrats in favor of raising taxes to help the poor. The only thing Dad loved more than dinner at 5 sharp was his money. Money represented security and control. Not that he had much of either. The only thing he held more contempt for than Irish Catholics and the Kennedys were Italian-Americans, or Eye-talians, as he called them. The three were in cahoots and part of the conspiracy. Everyone from the supermarket cashier to the President was involved, which left him in an almost permanent state of suspicion and anger.
When Dad lost his temper the pupils of his eyes narrowed to pinpoints and an expression which can only be described as half human, half animal would creep over his face. That’s when the man I knew and loved would vanish. Nothing strikes more fear into a young child’s heart than watching his father turn from hero to monster. Unless the monster’s gaze is directed towards him or someone he loves. Terrified and helpless seem such inadequate words to describe the experience. Long periods of thick, uneasy tension broken by violent outbursts were the norm in our home. Like the foreboding scent of an approaching thunderstorm, you always knew when something was going to set him off. That something was usually my mother or older sister. Both were the center of my universe. Witnessing my father’s knees planted hard into my mother’s shoulders or hearing my sister’s screams from behind a locked bedroom door were familiar occurrences. Not that his behavior was limited to the walls of our house. The violence mostly took place at home, but these shocking scenes were occasionally played out at the homes of friends and relatives. Watching adults standing by without lifting a finger was almost as shocking as the violence. Such was the fear Dad struck into the hearts of others. People stood with gaping jaws, feebly attempting to reason with him, yet did nothing. Not even when the crime was committed on their own kitchen floor. Nobody intervened or phoned the police because nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of my father when he was in one of those moods. I suppose they were flabbergasted, as Mum would say.
On another occasion, while playing army in a wooded area just about three grown-up stone’s throws behind our home, I’d thought my older sister was calling me home for supper. From a distance there seemed to be an unusual sense of urgency in her voice as she shouted my name, one that I’d never heard before. I bolted through the woods and across a field bordering our back yard, and was stopped dead in my tracks by the scene that lay ahead. Even now the fear and panic of that day remain fresh in my memory. I looked up to see my sister’s outstretched body, both hands clasping the second story window sill of her bedroom. It looked like a video clip of someone clinging to the side of a tall building engulfed in flames as a crowd gathered below. But there was no crowd. There was only my sister, Dad, and me. A combination of terror, helplessness, and panic flooded my senses as she dangled from the window ledge. She hadn’t been calling my name at all. Her screams were for Daddy, not Danny. “Please, Daddy, please don’t!” she screamed, while frantically struggling to pull herself back up and into the house.
From his vantage point across the lawn, Dad just grinned. He casually bent down to collect fist sized stones, which he then hurled at her. Each landed with a sickening thud against the side of the house. He wasn’t really aiming at her, he later claimed, but only the clapboard siding surrounding her. Just to bring her to her senses and scare her back inside. Still, the stones landed dangerously close and nearly caused her to fall several times. His technique worked. Amazingly, my sister’s adrenalin must have kicked in and she somehow straddled the open window with one leg, hoisted her body through the opening, and fell back into her room. Throughout the incident my mother remained inside the house and pretended she’d heard nothing. She later defended Dad’s behavior and blamed my sister for provoking him. This would become a common theme throughout our childhood years. In fact, creating excuses for his insanity and choosing her husband over the welfare of her children became a pattern that continued until his death forty years later. Long after the three of us had grown and moved away.
Imagine skipping up your porch stairs one gorgeous spring day, bursting through the squeaky screen door, and racing into the kitchen to see what your mother’s doing. Full of smiles, joyful in the way only a four year old knows. Upon entering the kitchen you see your mother kneeling on the floor, sobbing, her head buried deep inside the oven. When asked what’s wrong, she replies she’s tired of living and wants to die. She had blown the pilot light out and turned the gas on high. This became known as taking the gas pipe and it would become a familiar expression around our house. Mum was always threatening to take the gas pipe. Her performance was quite theatrical, as any adult would instantly recognize. But the same scene played out before a child is far more convincing and traumatizing. It’s an experience that strips children of their innocence. As adults, we’re able to comprehend at least some of the problems created by abusive family situations. As children, we can only do our best to absorb the insanity. Young children simply aren’t equipped to understand why Mum sticks her head in an oven or why Dad throws stones at his sister. Most of us can’t fully understand it as adults. The nightmares and cold sweats would last for many years to come. I was well into my teens before realizing Mum’s many suicide threats were a ploy, a heart crying out for attention.
Perhaps even more disturbing than our parents’ behavior is the fact they weren’t drinkers. Neither was much of a social drinker, let alone an alcoholic, and they rarely ever touched the stuff. There are no tales of drunkenness or drug abuse to explain away the beatings or feigned suicide attempts. Although drinking is no excuse for poor behavior, it would have at least provided a reason for some of the madness in our lives. Our parents would have been seen as alcohol impaired, at least partially, and not entirely responsible for their actions. It would almost be preferable to the alternate conclusion, which is to say they were mentally and emotionally disturbed. In today’s politically correct world, the word used to describe families like ours is dysfunctional. In the 50’s and 60’s only wealthy neurotics or those teetering on the edge of insanity would dream of seeking professional help. Therapy was almost unheard of, and psychiatrists were seen as shrinks. Nor had anyone ever heard the word dysfunctional, at least in our neighborhood. Dysfunctional sounds more like a word used to describe an overheating refrigerator than it does a family. The term we used was screwed up and I’m giving you the polite version. It contains much less sugar coating and far more truth.
Every Christmas was ruined because of family arguments and Dad’s famous temper.
The ritual was always the same. We awoke on Christmas morning, tore into our gifts, gulped down a quick breakfast and piled into Dad’s second hand Ford Galaxy. He always drove a Ford. First stop was our paternal grandparents’ home across the street, which was the worst way to begin our journey through hell. Dad deeply resented his parents and four siblings, making little effort to disguise his feelings and so he rarely visited them, although they lived across the street. As we all gathered round the Christmas tree somebody would say the wrong thing or present him with the wrong gift. Someone managed to do both every year. An argument would start, followed by Dad leaping from his chair, storming out the door and shouting from Grandma’s front porch to get the hell in the car. We were going. This charming Christmas tradition never failed to set the mood for the rest of the day. Off we went, sitting in the back seat watching our parents fight from one relative’s home to the next. I can’t recall any of them ever actually inviting us. We didn’t visit relatives; we invaded their homes and ruined their day. Exchanging both unwanted gifts and heated words were an all day event every year. My sister and I sat silently in the back seat during the ride home, looking out at homes illuminated by snowflakes and electric reindeer, while listening to our parents ridicule everyone we’d visited. The experience was the same during Easter and other holidays, but Christmas Day remains especially memorable.
If our parents were of Chinese descent, I suspect their names would have been Yin and Yang. Not in the traditional “two halves make a perfect whole” way, but in a needy, co-dependent, “two halves make a perfect nightmare” way. Although my mother feared Dad’s wrath as much as the rest of us, she seemed unable to resist provoking him. She knew just which buttons to push, too, although she pretended to be unaware of it. It was effortless and she could score a perfect bull’s eye while blindfolded. Comparing him with his father was one sure way to fire him up. “Why don’t you go sit with that miserable son of a bitch across the street? Because you’re exactly like him!” She was referring to Grandpa, of course. If you wanted to drive my father over the edge there was no better way to do it than by comparing him with his father. Nobody knew that better than Mum. She and Dad had been neighbors and schoolmates since early childhood and she knew all the family dirt. Grandpa abused my father as a child and we heard stories of him beating Dad’s head against the house for putting down the wrong chicken feed and smothering him into unconsciousness with a pillow on another occasion.
There were less personal ways to annoy him, as well. One of those was volunteering her services (and adding to Dad’s grocery bill) for the church bake sale. This would mean more time spent socializing with the local church ladies and less time spent catering to him. She once offered to bake a four tiered wedding cake for a friend’s daughter. Mum had problems with the cake rising properly, splitting, and getting the layers to stand straight. She was somewhat stressed, which drew Dad’s interest like a moth to a light bulb. He decided the timing was perfect to remind her just how much that cake was costing him, adding a few well placed jabs about neglecting her family. Dad also knew how to push a button or two. He distracted her and the entire cake smashed onto the kitchen floor. Words flew faster than a burnt croissant in a French restaurant. One thing led to another, and cake pans and mixing bowls became missiles. Dad was covered in cake batter from his head to his knees. Stunned and bewildered, he stood frozen for a moment, unsure what to make of this sudden turn of events. Until Mum thumbed her nose at him and suggested he go visit his father, just to add a little icing to the cake. She soon found herself pinned to the floor.
Apart from her thirst for gossip and choosing to defend her husband over her children, Mum was a decent person. She cooked wonderful meals, spoiled us with gourmet desserts she baked herself, and always sang us a bedtime song. “Goodnight, Irene” was my favorite, even if it was written for a girl. She meant well and that was all that mattered. After singing a song or two she would often plead with me to never be like Dad when I grew up. She didn’t need to make me promise. I would have done anything for my mother. I’m convinced her decision to support Dad’s abusive behavior over our welfare had everything to do with money and nearly as much to do with her fear of him. It was a matter of survival, as is the story for many battered women. Half a century ago few women possessed even part time jobs, let alone the funds to support three kids on their own. Her education ended with high school and Dad’s wallet was always welded shut. Mum stood up against him in the early years and it wasn’t until she’d been thoroughly battered into submission that she chose the path of least resistance.
Although her gossip could be venomous at times, many of those poisoned darts were aimed to defend Dad’s behavior. Because of his intimidating nature, we were often excluded from family gatherings, such as a cousin’s birthday or lunch with the other women in the family at Grandma’s house. Mum retaliated by spending entire days on the phone gossiping about one relative to one relative. She demanded to know why we hadn’t been included, accused them of conspiring against her, counter attacking with accusations of persecution and self serving behavior. Much like Dad viewed the paperboy and the Kennedy clan. Family’s a small circle, of course, and word travels fast. Her gossip would inevitably come back to bite her just above the seat of her favorite telephone chair. The suspected informant would be exposed and revenge plotted. Mum could hardly wait for Dad to arrive home from work so she could give the pot a good stir. It didn’t take much, as Dad was rarely in a good mood, especially after spending the day chasing disrespectful pigeons with a shovel. The other weapon in Mum’s arsenal was in knowing how he would react to hearing that the parents he resented had insulted his wife. Mum was pushing those buttons again. Sometimes he would storm across the street and deliver his parents a verbal thrashing. More often, though, the brunt of his anger was directed towards us. If it wasn’t us, it was the paperboy or the dog. But it was usually all three.
Life wasn’t all gloom and doom. There were good times, too. When things got crazy at home there was always Grandma’s house across the street. Although Mum and Dad avoided his parents, we were allowed to visit them. Grandma always greeted us with a warm smile and we spent many happy hours together. She loved her garden and my younger sister and I helped her pick tomatoes. Grandma always grew plump, juicy tomatoes, and she always kept a bottle of coffee flavored syrup on her kitchen table. I hated sliced tomatoes, but she sprinkled ours with sugar. Grandma knew what kids like. We talked for hours, sharing candy tomatoes and tall glasses of coffee milk. When Mum and Dad’s names came up, she frowned a little and shook her head. She didn’t know what was wrong with those two, but she told us that Dad always had to come first in everything, even as a boy. If she did something for one of his younger brothers, he became angry and beat them. My little sister and I didn’t know what to say. We just drank our coffee milk and ate tomatoes.
Grandpa looked older than his years. At age 70, he was nearly deaf and blind. He walked with a cane, his eyes squinting to see where he was going. Mum and Dad said he was a mean old man, but my sisters and I never saw it. He spent most of his time in his living room chair, chain smoking Pall Mall cigarettes with shaky hands. He spoke little and grunted more than anything. He always smiled at us, though, and I never heard him raise his voice. He made his own apple cider, which he shared with us. He would tell us it was hard cider, containing alcohol, and we would pretend we were getting drunk together. I never felt anything. I guess it was his way of joking. I felt warm and safe at their house.
There was also Uncle Eddie. He was Mum’s brother and my favorite uncle. He was short and thin, like Mum, but he was a giant to me. Eddie owned a gas station, an auto repair garage, and the house we lived in. All three were located on one lot, and the garage was part of our back yard. Uncle Eddie was everything Dad was not. He was quick witted, had an easy laugh, and was liked by everyone, except Dad. He ate lunch at our house while Dad was working and he always shared a sandwich or a smile with my little sister and me. Our home was surrounded by other businesses and there were no other kids for us to play with. Eddie noticed and let me hang around in his garage office. He bought us Cokes and paid me to sweep the garage floor. He knew how to make a kid feel special and he knew how to keep Dad in line. It was a skill that came in handy when Dad was badgering mum or beating my sister. Uncle Eddie was a good man.
He was also an alcoholic. He managed to keep his drinking secret for years, but cracks began to show. He started taking lunch breaks elsewhere and would disappear until closing time. When he did return his speech was slurred. His cheerful smile gradually disappeared and he became distant and sullen. His wife phoned our house late one night to say he hadn’t returned home from work and asked my parents to check the garage. They spotted him through his office window, crouched under his desk with a bottle of vodka. Dad became angry. He smashed the glass door with a brick and wrestled Eddie into our car. My uncle resisted, repeatedly hanging one foot out the car door, preventing my father from shutting it. Dad became enraged. He grabbed the car door with both hands and threw his full weight behind it. It had no effect, and the door bounced back into Dad’s face. Rage turned to insanity. He slammed the door on Eddie’s leg a dozen more times. Eddie just smiled. Dad punched his face and the door finally closed. Eddie remained my hero.
Apart from Uncle Eddie and Grandma, there was one person I could always turn to, and that was my big sister. I loved and admired her in so many ways. Ten years my senior, she was as much a second mother as a sister, and we were very close. She was my best friend and my shelter from the storm. We were inseparable from the day mum brought me home as an infant. She fed me, changed my diapers, and toted me around like a favorite doll. There are so many wonderful memories of her; the buttery aroma of the tinfoil popcorn we’d heat on the kitchen stove just before watching a movie. Or bursting through the school doors at the end of the day to discover her waiting for me in her maroon and gold cheerleader’s jacket. She had come to walk me to my favorite park or buy us an ice cream cone. My love affair with French toast began one Saturday morning between episodes of Bugs Bunny and The Three Stooges. There was my big sister, smiling and handing me my first taste of that golden breakfast delight. It was instant love and she cooked me so many slices I could barely walk. She waited on customers at a hamburger restaurant so she could buy me my first two wheeled bicycle. It was a red Schwinn and it was the coolest birthday gift ever. When I finally began riding solo, I peeked up from those wobbly handlebars for just a second. There she was, smiling and cheering me on. I knew then she was the coolest sister any kid could have. She would later buy me my first puppy and my first Easter suit. I sure loved that puppy - but not half as much as I loved my sister.
She taught my younger sister and me how to build the best dressed snowman in town. Not only did she make our Halloween costumes herself, she rang so many doorbells for us our pillow cases overflowed with candy. We raked leaves and spent carefree afternoons crashing head first into the giant leafy pillows we’d built. I was allowed to hang out in her room, which was a great privilege for a little brother. I can still hear the local deejay, “Woo Woo Ginsburg”, shouting out names of the latest hit songs over the old RCA radio she kept on her night stand. She shared her deepest teenager secrets with me. I remember watching her plant big kisses on Elvis Presley’s album cover because he was “mushy”. She took my little sister and me to Bob’s Drive-In restaurant and filled us with cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes. We were in heaven. We sat in a red booth with one of those little mini-jukeboxes on the wall and she let us choose songs. Hit The Road, Jack, by Ray Charles, had just hit the airwaves, and it was my favorite. I can still smell the French fries and taste those shakes every time I hear that song.
She also did some things Dad wouldn’t like one bit. She smuggled midnight snacks into her room for us, which was forbidden. She puffed Winston cigarettes and blew the smoke out her bedroom window. Dad would’ve blown a head gasket if he ever knew she’d taught me how to blow smoke rings at age six. He never did find out, because I never betrayed my sister. But mum made sure he knew my sister smoked and she knew how he would react. Dad took no prisoners and my sister took no crap. There was endless banging and screaming behind her bedroom door the day my mother spilled the beans. Mum remained downstairs in the kitchen, quietly cooking dinner. When Dad finally emerged from her room, a red handled metal broom flew out after him. The handle was bent in half. I later learned my sister had bent it over his back. That only angered him more and she had the bruises to prove it. Still, she refused to back down from him and paid the price.
The blood battle continued for the next two years. Mum learned not to talk back, while my sister learned the opposite. She openly defied Dad and added some colorful new language. Her words had the desired effect and the beatings increased. Beaten, but not broken, she smoked openly and announced she was quitting school. They slowly accepted the smoking, but told her in no uncertain terms that dropping out of school was forbidden. She quit school and began working full time. She was gaining her independence and winning the war, which didn’t settle well. One day she took me into her room and confided she was moving out on her eighteenth birthday. She was seventeen and I was seven. I pretended she was pretending, too, and hoped it would never happen. How could I live without my big sister? I tried to forget about her plans and spent most days playing army in the woods.
Mum wouldn’t tolerate my sister’s defiance. She was going back to school and that was that. My sister was equally determined she was not. She refused to get out of bed one morning and Mum decided that throwing a bucket of cold water over her head might help. It didn’t. My sister shoved Mum out of her room and slammed the door shut. She flipped the mattress, changed the sheets, and went back to bed. Mum could hardly wait for Dad to get home. She told him my sister had physically and verbally abused her. She forgot to mention the bucket of water. Dad’s eyes narrowed to pinpoints again and he charged upstairs to settle things for once and all. It was the worst beating yet. My sister went to the police station and showed two detectives the bruises he’d inflicted on her. That was the day Dad got the scare of his life. He was interrogated detective style and broke down. Because he went to school with one of the detectives he was let off with a stern warning. They assured him the next time would be different. He returned home visibly shaken, like a bully who’d just gotten his ass kicked by the short, quiet kid at school. He felt sorry for himself, but not for the bitch daughter who’d turned him in. Mum agreed. He never hit us again after that day, but he had a new plan. His future tactics would change from physical to mental abuse. He excelled in the new role.
At approximately 10 a.m. on July 22nd, 1963, a blue Corvette Stingray pulled up in our driveway and the horn tooted. The date is easy to recall because it was my sister’s eighteenth birthday. I recognized the man behind the wheel. He was my sister’s boyfriend. My younger sister and I waved to him through the screen door, but he just stared through us. It seemed odd, because he’d always waved back before. Not today, though. My sister ran past a minute later, juggling two suitcases. She never looked back until she reached the car. She tossed the suitcases in the back, smiled and waved goodbye. We watched as the car disappeared from sight. All that remained were two black lines left by the Corvette’s smoking tires. My mother came running from the kitchen, but it was too late. My sister had been one step ahead of her. She never lived with us again.
A piece of my childhood died that day. It was as if someone reached inside my soul and dimmed the lights. Even the house seemed to know it. My sister’s empty room lost its warmth and stared back in silence. Memories of a sister’s love lined its walls. A young child’s spirit is fragile. Like broken china, the pieces can be glued together, but it’s never the same. Gone were the warm hugs and laughter we once shared. French toast lost its flavor and the kitchen felt as barren as her room. Love had packed a suitcase, checked out at 10 a.m., and life changed forever. A deep sense of longing and emptiness filled my days. My younger sister and I still played together, still went through the motions of a happy childhood, but something was wrong. The joy that only a child truly knows had disappeared.
Through it all, our parents never faltered. Dad still hated the world and arrived home angry most days. His defiant daughter and her punk boyfriend could both go to hell. He had washed his hands of her. Mum was flabbergasted. She phoned everyone she knew, claiming my sister ran off because she was pregnant and couldn’t “face the music”. She knew all along it would happen and expected to hear she’d be a grandmother any day. My sister wasn’t pregnant and the announcement never came. Her gossip had more to do with saving face than saving her relationship with her daughter. It was business as usual. My birthday puppy was killed by a car several weeks later. Carefree days spent playing in the woods became long hours spent alone in my room, thinking about things far too heavy for a young boy. The following year we moved to a new neighborhood and a brand new set of problems.
Adolescence – From the Frying Pan to the Fire
Uncle Eddie’s drinking finally caught up with him. He was broke. He lost his auto repair business and our house along with it. Eddie phoned mum and told her the news. He’d declared bankruptcy. The land and buildings were being sold, and we would have to move out. The news went over like a sirloin dinner at a Hindu celebration. Mum cried for days. Dad fumed. He declared Eddie to be a God-damned fool and a no good bum. Eddie wasn’t there to hear it, but dad would have told him the same and probably a great deal louder.
Several days later, Mum dried her eyes and picked up the telephone. She appeared far more flabbergasted than usual. Judging by her phone calls to anyone who would listen, she seemed to hover somewhere between indignant and outraged. After weeks of hand wringing and finger pointing, my parents decided to purchase their first home. It was Mum’s idea. Dad protested, saying we couldn’t afford a house, but she stood firm for once and contacted a real estate agent. After considerable bickering and several knock down brawls, they announced we were moving. The new house was located in a hidden part of town called Idlewood. The name suited the place. It wasn’t the nicest neighborhood, but Dad swore he would buy the cheapest house in town and that’s where it was located. A month later, he loaded up a rental truck and we moved. Our old house became part of the ghost town that had once been Uncle Eddie’s successful business.
Idlewood was cut off from the rest of town. Separated from the main town by railroad tracks and surrounded on three sides by water, the only access was over a tiny bridge. Idlewood was a different world, far quieter than the bustling area we’d previously called home. There were no sidewalks, but a kid could ride a bike or walk down the street without being mowed down by a car. Consisting of blue collar, working class families, most homes were little more than abandoned summer cottages with an addition slapped on. We lived in that kind of house. A neighbor told Dad our narrow bungalow had been floated across the harbor by barge. He joked about shoddy construction and the previous owner’s lack of carpentry skills. That might explain the cheap price. The neighbor teased Dad, suggesting he’d bought himself a lemon. Dad’s smile disappeared faster than the last donut at a weight watcher’s convention. Heated words were exchanged in the middle of the street. Shortly after arriving in Idlewood, Dad’s first friend became his newest enemy. Dad called him a no good son of a bitch. Although they lived across the street from one another for the next thirty years, they never spoke again. When Dad was finished with someone he meant it.
Idlewood held one advantage over the old neighborhood, and that was kids. There were hundreds, and a small group of us soon bonded. New friends meant no more days playing army alone or hanging around Grandma’s house when my parents fought. We spent every day together after school and entire weekends doing what nine year old boys do. We played football, raced one another on bikes, and swam away steamy summer days at Idlewood beach. For a while life was good. My new friends rang our doorbell every Saturday and we spent mornings playing in the park. Dad soon noticed our little routine, but said nothing. It wasn’t until the third or fourth Saturday that he did speak. Dad didn’t like my friends. He didn’t like kids in general, and if one knocked too loudly or stepped on his lawn, he charged out the door screaming orders to get the hell off his property. I once offered an apple to my two best friends. Dad got so angry he shook. He burst through the screen door and bellowed that he wasn’t feeding the whole God damned neighborhood. My friends quickly handed back the apples and made a bee line home, scared witless. They avoided Dad and our house for weeks. They weren’t alone. Other new friends rang the doorbell, but he ran them off, too.
Things eventually cooled down and my friends returned. The next time they arrived for our Saturday game Dad asked where I thought I was going. His tone assured me the correct answer was nowhere, but I mumbled something about playing ball at the park. Confirming my worst fears, he growled that I wasn’t going anyplace and ordered my friends off his property. I had a bedroom to clean. Not just that Saturday morning, but every one after it. Saturday morning ball games were finished. When Dad ordered you to clean your room you could plan on spending most of the day inside it. It was part of the new strategy. The detectives had warned him about hitting us, and so physical violence was replaced with mental abuse. You can’t be arrested for mental cruelty. Assigning household chores teaches kids responsibility and isn’t a punishment in itself, except when Dad did it. Humiliating my younger sister and me in front of friends and isolating us from others was the point of the exercise. He enjoyed it and often reminded us that he hadn’t touched us, adding there was nothing we could do about it. “Your older sister tried to have me arrested by telling the police I hit her, but you won’t be able to tell them the same, damn it. When you’re 18 you can move out. Until then, you’ll do things my way.” He always flashed a tight, sadistic grin when he spoke those words.
All the furniture was removed from the room, wiped down and polished. The bed was stripped, pulled into the middle of the floor, and the mattress removed. The ceiling and walls were dusted from top to bottom. Closets were emptied, inspected, and restocked. It was more of a boot camp training routine than a household chore. Everything was returned to its proper place and we awaited final inspection. We usually failed the first time, which shaved another hour off our Saturday. By the time I was allowed out, the park was deserted and friends were long gone. I spent hours searching for them. When I finally tracked them down they stared oddly and asked what was wrong with my father. We were beginning to stand out for the wrong reasons. We were becoming outsiders in our new neighborhood.
Friends stopped knocking on our door altogether, which pleased Dad. But it didn’t stop him from starting trouble with other kids and neighbors. If he saw a teenager riding a mini-bike, he became enraged. He jumped into his Ford and raced after them. He resembled Hitler as he waved his arms and ranted at them for breaking the law. He paid taxes on those roads and he wasn’t going to share it with those God damned kids and their mini-bikes. He demanded to know where they lived and followed them if they tried to flee. Then he drove home and phoned the police. Everyone knew Dad had reported them. If a group of kids engaged in a snowball fight or didn’t move out of his way fast enough as he drove past, he slammed on the brakes, leaped out of his car and performed his Third Reich impression. His threats and intimidation tactics weren’t restricted to the neighborhood kids. There were adults, as well. He demanded neighbors keep their little bastards away from his property. Those little bastards were my friends and classmates. People distanced themselves from us. Older teenagers I barely knew taunted me and called Dad names I won’t repeat here. I was judged guilty by association. Angry youths bombarded our house with rotten eggs and our phone rang in the middle of the night - every night. Dad connected a crude toggle switch to bypass the ringer and switched it off at bed time. My closest friends told me they hated my father. We became the neighborhood freaks and other kids saw me as damaged goods.
My appearance didn’t help. While other boys wore army surplus jackets and jeans to school, I wore polyester trousers and a black businessman’s raincoat. The type of raincoat an old man wears to church. My shoes were brown oxfords. Dad bought black rubber shoe protectors to wear over them on rainy days. He checked my shoes when I came home from school. If they were wet, I was in trouble. Mine were often wet. Still, it was better than being seen wearing rubbers to school. Nothing screams loser to a teenage boy’s peer group louder than rubber shoe protectors. The only thing missing was a kick me sign on my back. Coupled with their hatred for Dad, it was a recipe for ridicule and beatings. Although it might sound like my clothing came from an upscale men’s clothing store, the opposite was true. We shopped at a run down warehouse store and my clothes came from the basement clearance section. Dad loved a bargain. The basement walls were stacked high with smoke and water damaged cardboard boxes. Bins overflowed with hideous items that normal retailers couldn’t sell. But they were cheap. Not cheap enough for Dad, though. If a pair of shoes cost five dollars, he peeled the sticker off a two dollar item and pressed it over the original price. I witnessed it many times. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford the five dollars. It was because he guarded his money like a Pit Bull guards a bone. It was okay for him to break the law, but not for some kid riding a mini-bike. When cashiers became suspicious and requested a price check, Dad became enraged and accused them of false advertising. He shouted across the store that they could keep their cheap crap and where to shove it. He screamed at us to get in the car. It was just like Christmas morning at Grandma’s. People stared. Mum, my sister, and I avoided eye contact with other shoppers as we slinked out the door.
By age twelve, I began to feel deeply ashamed of my family and of myself. When kids wanted revenge against my father, they punished me. At first it was a dirty look or a snide comment about him or my clothes. One kid called them faggot clothes and the name stuck. My new nickname was Faggot. Things got worse and push came to shove - literally. I had promised my mother I’d never behave like Dad when I got older. Because of him, I detested violence and went to great lengths to avoid it. I refused to fight, even to defend myself. We lived in a tough neighborhood in a tough Boston suburb. Adolescent boys tend to test one another’s physical strength. I was an easy target and word spread faster than a cold germ at a daycare center. Every adolescent wanting to show off in front of his friends took a turn. There were dozens of them and one of me. I never started a fight, but was involved in plenty. I walked home with split lips and black eyes. My parents demanded to know what happened. I said nothing, but my younger sister finally told them. As usual, Dad yelled at me and called the police. The police needed names. I refused to press charges. Infuriated, Dad said the others had been right when they called me a faggot. “You are a faggot.” Those four words left a deeper scar on my soul than anything he’d ever said or done.
Word traveled beyond our neighborhood and throughout the entire school. Students I didn’t even know would call my father names and threaten to kick my teeth in. My school locker was broken into and the word faggot scrawled on the door. While walking to school one morning, nine thugs surrounded me outside our school gates. Dad forced me to wear my rubbers and businessman’s raincoat that day. They formed a circle and took turns punching and kicking me. As I lay in the street, they spat on me. Ashamed, depressed, and withdrawn, I told no one. I arrived home after school with torn clothes, beaten and bruised.
Dad forbade associating with my old friends. Life seemed empty and lonesome. I felt worthless. There was something wrong with me. Mum asked why those boys were after me all the time. I told her I didn’t know. With suspicion in her eyes, she said there must be a reason for it. It seemed even my own mother was on their side. My appetite vanished and a knot filled my stomach. It lasted for years. Weekends were spent alone, hiding from the bullies waiting outside and trying to avoid the bully inside. I spent the next two years running. I arrived at school early to avoid others and bolted through the exit door when the final school bell rang. I escaped, most of the time. Other times they skipped school and laid in ambush. My older sister heard the news and enrolled me for karate lessons. Dad and the neighborhood bullies thought karate was a joke. Both wanted to test my skills. Dad resented my sister for signing me up. Eight weeks into classes, he demanded a demonstration. You don’t earn a black belt in eight weeks. I didn’t want to spar with him, but he insisted. He grabbed me in his enormous bear hug and tackled me to the floor. He taunted me, asking why I wasn’t using my karate skills to defend myself. Although he was twice my size, I fought hard. Pinned beneath him on the living room floor, I got a leg up and accidentally kicked him in the face with a bare foot. Dad leapt off me, holding his nose and calling me a dirty fighter. The biggest bully in my life whined like a wounded child. Karate would no longer be something to joke about. His future comments were designed to ridicule and belittle me. It worked. He sarcastically told a group of kids they better watch out because I knew karate and would beat them up. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh, including him. My father had just sided with the same thugs that made my life a living hell. I felt sick and quit attending karate lessons.
The name calling and beatings continued for the rest of the school year. I hated Idlewood and my life. School break finally arrived and my sister invited me to spend two weeks with her and her husband. They lived several towns away and I jumped at the chance to escape Idlewood and Dad. It was the first opportunity to spent time with her since she’d left home six years earlier. I was ecstatic. Nothing could be better than spending time with my big sister again. She married the same man who had picked her up in the blue Corvette on her eighteenth birthday. These days he was driving a big red Pontiac Bonneville convertible with white leather seats and chrome wheels. He was a cool guy with a cool car. During the ride to their place, my sister called Dad a bastard and offered me a cigarette. My brother-in-law said there was lots of beer in their fridge and I could drink all I wanted. This trip was going to be special.
They lived in a gorgeous house with huge picture windows overlooking the pines. I had my own bedroom and there was a pool table and a bar in the basement. On the first night they threw a party and introduced me to their friends. Although everyone was much older than me, they treated me as an equal. Some of the guys even offered to drive down and beat up the neighborhood bullies, and Dad, too. They seemed quite serious. I just smiled awkwardly and said nothing, but secretly wished they would. For the first time in years… no, for the first time ever, I was learning how normal people behaved. They were my parents’ opposites. They were warm, friendly, funny, and outgoing. They drank beer and cracked jokes. They were cool. I felt accepted and knew at that moment my life had changed. I decided to be like these people, so fun and carefree. The first beer tasted horrible, but it made me feel fabulous. I felt grown up. Drinking made me forget all about Dad and Idlewood. We drank every day, shot pool, and practiced blowing smoke rings. It was the time of my life. I returned home with a fresh perspective and a puppy named Spike. My sister had come through once again.
As usual, Dad resented everything my sister did and Spike was no exception. Because he was mostly black, Dad referred to him as a black bastard and a nigger dog. He played with Spike every night. His idea of playing was balling up a bloated fist and punching Spike hard in the nose. He decided he was allergic to dogs and banned Spike from the house, except at bed time. Nights were to be spent tied to an 18 inch steel chain, padlocked to my bed post. Dad punched the dog once too often and Spike sunk a canine tooth deep into his wrist. He felt sorry for himself when it became infected and developed into blood poisoning. He never punched Spike again.
A couple of my so-called Idlewood friends knocked on the door after I returned home from my sister’s place. They were curious to know where I’d been. Not concerned, just curious. We talked about my trip, the new puppy, and about beer and cigarettes. I knew they might tell my parents just to stir up trouble, but I didn’t care. Something had changed inside me and my only thoughts were growing up and moving far away from Idlewood and Dad. The bullies seemed smaller and less threatening, somehow. They were still bullies, still capable of beatings and harassment, but they resembled losers more than tough guys. Dad was the biggest loser of all, and his scowling face and brutish comments were losing their effect.
The bullies hadn’t yet noticed the new me and the threats and name calling continued. I was still a social leper. The situation called for a daring plan. My parents would attend a wedding the following Saturday and weren’t expected home until late. It was the perfect opportunity to raid Dad’s liquor cabinet. He kept a half gallon bottle of Bacardi rum in the cupboard above the refrigerator. He’d opened it once before while entertaining friends, so the seal was broken. Once they left, I poured a tall glass from the jug, replacing it with water. The next three hours were spent alone, mixing rum and Cokes. I felt relaxed, confident, and absolutely fearless. It was the exact opposite of my usual feelings. Finding courage in a bottle might be a false courage, but it is courage, nonetheless. God knows I needed all the confidence I could gather and it didn’t matter whether it came from Jesus or a bottle of rum.
I felt loose and easy. Not falling down drunk, but relaxed enough not to worry about Dad, bullies, or anything else. It was time to carry out my plan. I threw on a jacket and headed to Phil’s house. Phil was the ring leader of the neighborhood gang. He was King of the Bullies, Alpha Male, and Leader of the Pack. With just a word he decided the fate of any kid in the neighborhood. I wasn’t his only victim, just his favorite. Windows were smashed in other neighborhood homes and families moved away because of him. When Phil decided it was your turn, he snapped his fingers and the others jumped. The plan was simple enough. I’d simply knock on his door and try to win him over, once and for all. When he opened the door, his eyes seethed with hatred. That would normally have been enough to cause fear, but not this time. I met his gaze and challenged him to a fight. Phil laughed and told me I smelled like a brewery. He invited me inside, warning me to be careful of my father. He knew what the consequences would be if Dad found out. Phil and Dad knew one another well, and he’d made the mistake of matching Dad’s spiteful glare with one of his own. That placed him on the top of my father’s banned-for-life list. When he learned I’d raided Dad’s liquor cabinet he thought it was very cool. The Top Dog had just accepted me and my status was about to change. He told the others to back off and the chasing, beatings and name calling came to a screeching halt. Alcohol had cured my problems, instantly and permanently. I’d just discovered my miracle drug.
Within a year, we started smoking marijuana and soon progressed to harder drugs like amphetamines, angel dust, and LSD. Phil and the others were nervous about getting busted, so I volunteered to meet the local drug dealer alone. The former faggot suddenly made the rough, tough bullies resemble school girls. We inhaled paint solvents in the woods. We drank cheap wine, warm beer and swallowed any pill we thought might get us high. I distanced myself from my parents and spoke to them only when necessary. We smoked marijuana day and night. When Mum asked me about the strange odor on my clothes, I told her we’d burned some old rope. She knew it was a lie, but said nothing. School became little more than an inconvenience. I’d always been a good student, but studying for exams competed with party time. Well concealed cheat sheets ensured passing grades - whatever it took to get through the week and out of Idlewood. Popping pills and smoking dope were okay during school nights, but weekends were reserved for something truly special; alcohol, and lots of it.
Years later, Phil would seduce his best friend’s fiancé, beat his wife until she divorced him, and overdose on a combination of pills and alcohol. The overdose caused him to stop breathing for several minutes and he was left with permanent brain damage.
At 16, I found a part time job. A small crew of us worked in the warehouse of a ladies’ shoe store. I met some like minded friends there and the party started when the work shift ended. My new friends lived across town and knew nothing about Idlewood. They were wild party boys and not afraid to fight, but they weren’t bullies. We rolled huge joints and drove around in endless circles, listening to equally endless (and rackety) 8 track renditions of Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. I always drove and we got so high we once stopped at a green light and sat through the same traffic light twice. Herman also worked with us. Herman was weird and he smelled bad, but at eighteen he was old enough to buy alcohol. After much persuasion and a little bribery, he agreed to purchase beer for us. Herman became my new friend, smelly or not. We agreed on a location off a dirt road in the Idlewood woods. Herman dropped the beer off at night, under the cover of darkness, and made his escape. We secured our beer stash and waited for Friday night to arrive. We snuck out of our houses around midnight, swilling beer and smoking cigarettes until dawn. Dad slept until 8 a.m. on Saturdays. As long as I made it back inside without waking Mum, he wouldn’t know a thing. He never found out.
A year later, Massachusetts lowered the drinking age to eighteen. Thrilled by the news, I set out to learn how to obtain a fake identification card. It didn’t take long. All you needed was $5.00, a birth certificate, and two photos of yourself. I borrowed an older friend’s birth certificate and headed for town hall. Fifteen minutes later, I emerged with a shiny new i.d. card. I couldn’t believe my good luck and celebrated by drinking alone at a bar across town. Stumbling to my Dodge Coronet three hours later, I turned the key and drove away, wrapping it around a tree on the way home. My cheekbone punched a hole through the windshield. The police followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited while the doctor sewed 23 stitches across my face. When the doctor finished, an officer approached and asked if I’d been drinking. They’d phoned Dad and he was waiting outside. I assured him my father would kill me if he found out. Realizing I was more afraid of my father than being arrested, the officer let me off with a warning. He even told Dad to go easy on me. My phony i.d. card remained tucked away in my sock, safe for future use.
I spent the last year of high school as a silent loner in the classroom. I was too wasted to talk to anyone. Smoking pot before, during, and after school became a daily routine. Graduation and getting high were top priorities, with no thoughts of a future. I spent as much time away from Idlewood and my parents as possible. Although the bullying had stopped, the memories left a bad taste in my mouth. Dad’s intimidation attempts lost most of their punch and I viewed him more as a fool than a father. Mum’s suicide attempts reminded me of a television soap opera. I’d arrived home twice that year to find her lying on her bed wearing a dry cleaning bag over her head. She left her door open to make sure I saw, and the plastic bag was fogged up just enough to coincide with my arrival home from school. Her performances were perfectly timed. More annoyed than alarmed, I told her to quit acting pathetic and left the house to get high. I’d had my fill of them both. My younger sister and I didn’t have much in common by that time. She was two years younger and ran with a different crowd. Her friends didn’t drink or get high, so there wasn’t much to discuss.
Ricky was one of my new friends from the shoe warehouse. He lived in a tiny 3 bedroom house with his widowed mother and eight siblings. His Irish mother drank more than most and their house became my second home. She’d heard a little about my family and took a special interest in me. Ricky’s brothers and sisters accepted me as one of their own and a bond was formed. My new family drank, laughed, and got high. Mum never met Ricky’s family, yet she despised them. It didn’t help that Dad’s cousin and his busybody wife lived directly across the street. Her favorite hobbies included peering out her window, snooping on the neighbors and spreading gossip. It wasn’t long before she included me in her telephone tirades to Mum, spinning horrid tales of beer swilling teenagers, screeching tires, and blaring music coming from Ricky’s house. Mum told Dad, of course. He ordered me to stay away, but I just laughed. Their angry words and disapproving faces were losing importance and they knew it. The more they badmouthed Ricky’s family, the closer we became. I dreaded returning to my own house at night.
It’s common for teenagers to rebel against their parents. It’s part of breaking away from childhood and establishing one’s independence. But it went deeper than that with my parents. Breaking away from them felt like being released from prison after serving a life sentence for a crime you never committed. There was a sweet sense of freedom combined with a deep feeling of justified outrage. After seventeen years of physical and mental abuse, a change was in the air. My parents lost control of my older sister years earlier. Now they were watching it happen all over again and there was nothing they could do about it. In fact, things would get worse for them the second time around.