First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
I won’t gain too many friends by writing my thoughts today, but this topic has been on my mind for years.
I grew up in Casper, Wyoming. Wyoming folks, when I lived there, used to measure distances by how many six packs it took to drive from point A to point B. Drinking alcohol was that casual and that socially acceptable.
Alcoholism engulfed my family and me as I grew up. Alcoholism pervades every aspect of my life today.
Almost all my friends’ parents were alcoholics, or at best, really heavy drinkers. I didn’t know any family that didn’t have a well-stocked wet bar in their home; the majority of my school friend’s parents had a drinking problem. There was a lot of shame associated with our families’ alcoholism; nobody talked about alcoholism openly with their friends.
I thought alcoholism was about drinking alcohol; I didn’t understand that alcoholism was a symptom of a deep and powerful substance addiction. Alcoholism was a family affliction to almost every family I grew up with in the fifties and sixties.
I was a thirty-something before I even knew that it was possible to communicate effectively about the disease and communicate with an alcoholic; I’d given up trying to talk with my alcoholic mother; I shunned her for years.
In my thirties, I discovered a communication skill set to communicate with my alcoholic mother when I discovered a metaphor for alcoholism while watching the 1986 movie The Fly with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.
I discovered a metaphor for alcoholism and I found the tool to understand and defeat the alcoholism agenda. I used that understanding to learn to accept and love and reconnect with my alcoholic mother.
In the movie, The Fly, Jeff Goldblum is a scientist trying to invent teleportation. In the movie, he steps into teleportation booth A and flips a switch to travel to teleportation booth B. What he doesn’t know at the time he flips the switch, is that a housefly has surreptitiously entered booth A just before the teleportation commences. The machine transports the fly and Goldblum at the dismantled molecular level in booth A and reassembles them in booth B, confusing their genes in the process. Goldblum acquires some of the fly’s genes. His body starts to grow at the genetic level of the fly, changing his body in a most grotesque manner. Fast forward a bit to Goldblum’s hospital room as he tries to explain his perception of his body’s morphing into a fly to Geena Davis, his main squeeze. He sees the metamorphosis as a disease. Goldblum’s character states: “I know what the disease wants: It wants control.”
I had never thought of disease as a sentient entity before, but it made perfect sense to me.
Somewhere in my reading, I learned that the objective of alcoholism is to degrade, demean, isolate, and humiliate the alcoholic and the people who are known, and loved by the alcoholic. Alcoholism has its own agenda.
The lingo of alcoholism defines the alcoholic as the afflicted and everyone else in the alcoholic’s life as the affected.
Everyone in the alcoholic’s life is affected by the disease until the key to extricate themselves from alcoholism becomes available to them. No one ever extricates themselves completely from alcoholism.
My mother choose alcohol addiction; and the alcoholism enthusiastically embraced her.
She lived the first forty years of her life as a brilliant, powerful, and attractive non-drinking woman who mistakenly thought that life owed her a living. My father inadvertently supported her delusion, not realizing his inadvertent role in my mother’s addictive descent.
Mother was so intelligent, so self-possessed, she could have run a small country. Columbia would not have been too big for her energy. Being a homemaker didn’t challenge her talents and abilities. She wasn’t up to avoiding an alcoholic lifestyle, however.
Alcoholism is not about intelligence, or lack thereof; rather, it is a powerfully negative life force that defeats one’s mind and soul.
On her fortieth birthday, my mother didn’t get out of bed. She had an epiphany:
The rest of her life became a slow slide into a slough of mental and physical decadence. She believed that she would never be as beautiful, or as popular, or as powerful as she had been in her first forty years. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.
When she chose to drink heavily every day; her fate was sealed for the next forty-one years.
Whatever the cause, the effect was that she became a world-class alcoholic. The power of the disease, and the power of her brain, produced a synergy that outpaced the abilities of everyone in her life to understand, or respond to her disease.
In my thirties, I came to realize my mother not as a broken-down alcoholic, but rather as the wonderful person she was and always had been. She required what we all require: love, affection, respect, connection to her family, and friends, and the nurturing of her soul with their presence.
Alcoholism is a bell jar that completely encapsulates the alcoholic and thwarts any positive, or nurturing relationships with her family and friends.
A bell jar is a bell-shaped cover made of glass used for covering delicate objects, or a clear container used in a laboratory, or an environment in which someone is protected, or cut off from the outside world.
My dear, kind mother was a hungry ghost: she was desperate; she was starved for affection; she could never fulfill her needs: she was completely in the thrall of a disease whose agenda was to degrade, demean, isolate, and humiliate her and to degrade, demean, and humiliate everyone that she loved, cherished, or cared about.
Her alcoholism was a bell jar isolating her from her world: the disease was invisible to everyone including to her; like the wind that cannot be seen except by its affects on the environment, we could only see the affects of the disease, not the disease itself, or its agenda.
My family couldn’t separate the disease from our mother: she was a disease to us.
We slipped into the role of being complicit, and being participant in her degradation.
She contributed to her abasement by drinking, or so it seemed to everyone outside of the jar: we didn’t perceive an agenda in her drinking, we just saw the effects of her drinking.
Belatedly, I imagined the disease process for what it was, I seized the responsibility to respond to my mother as a person rather than to respond to her disease.
I fought for her instead of against her.
I said kind words to her.
I expressed affection for her verbally, and by simple acts of kindness.
I ignored her anger.
I deflected her rage.
I refused to respond angrily to her syrupy voice when she called me on the phone.
I no longer upbraided her for drinking.
I refused to take her phone calls when she was drunk; rather, I made a point of calling her almost daily, and visiting her in person frequently, when I knew she would most likely be sober and rational.
Initially, I accepted all of her ridiculous demands as a matter of course; eventually, her demands became reasonable requests as her needs for affection and positive attention were met.
I addressed her desires and her needs promptly and without comment. (To her, her wants and needs were the same thing; there was no need for me to quibble over the distinction.)
I became hyper-conscientious around her: I addressed her authentic personal needs, not her alcoholic confusion of those needs. Sometimes, they were the same; I didn’t differentiate, I just worked to meet her needs as she expressed them.
The disease hated my conscientious efforts to love my mother and support her growth away from helplessness.
The disease slowly lost its powerful grip on me:
I no longer allowed the disease to drive my life.
I gained power over my life as the disease lost its power over me.
I felt great.
I developed a positive relationship with my mother for the first time in my life.
Slowly, the bell jar lost its implacable grip on my mother and its firm grip on me; it released our family to function as a family.
The disease is never entirely absent from our lives: it is always in the background. Mother died an alcoholic struggling every day for the rest of her life with the affects of living half a century in the clutches of alcoholism.
I celebrate my creative resolution to an alcoholic relationship with my mother. It seemed a success to me.
I know and respect alcoholism for its power over me and for its power over many of my friends.
Alcoholism still has a unmistakable hold on me.
I ruined a friendship one December when I tried to explain my understanding of the disease process to an alcoholic. She (and the disease) did not take the discussion well.
My friend’s alcoholism (bell jar) understood my discussion of her alcoholism as criticism. (It was.)
No criticism is ever welcome, especially when it is understood by the disease as a threat to the status quo.
When I encounter alcoholic friends and alcoholic acquaintances, I invariably choose the wrong approaching their alcoholism. I still cherish the idea that I can challenge and defeat their alcoholism. I should leave well enough alone. I’ve never vanquished alcoholism completely in my lifetime and I’ve had lots of opportunities to do so.
My alcoholic bell jar shouts out to an alcoholic’s bell jar:
“Watch out for this guy! He really has an ‘ass-holic attitude’ about alcoholism! Avoid him! Straight-arm him! He’s no fun! Ghost him! Don’t let him play in our sandbox!”
As soon as I mention my thoughts about alcoholism and the metaphor of the Bell Jar to an alcoholic, that is pretty much the end of any meaningful relationship with that person… forever.
This is how I explain to myself why I don’t have 999 friends lined up to socialize with me: There’s a good chance my dormant alcoholism works to isolate me from many potential non-drinking friends and alcoholic friends.
I isolated myself from an alcoholic/psychopath person recently. I cared deeply about that person, a former student. I became addicted to the hope of saving her and the need show my love for her by sacrificing everything important to me to save her from her shitstorm life.
I realize now that I fueled a codependent relationship trying to rescue her from her alcoholic life; I became a controlling, crazy-person who was addicted to the hope of rescuing, and loving her as a means of saving her; she didn’t want to be saved.
I became the very addict that I was trying to rescue and reform.
I’ve moved on now; I have great respect for the addiction process. I escaped from that addictive event; I will always have the scars of addiction on my soul, however.
7 thoughts on “Alcoholism and the Bell Jar”
Wow, I did not know you had a blog – there goes the rest of my Tuesday.
This post resonated with me because of two reasons: 1. I just read “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath for the first time a few weeks ago and I loved it. 2. I was just diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder which is an overwhelming “disease” that I sometimes find myself crippled by. But I love your take on the Bell Jar. I am not the Bell Jar; I am inside the Bell Jar. The Bell Jar is the disease, and the people who love me have to see through it to find me. How liberating. And what a tender way to look at alcoholism, which also runs in my family. Thank you for this perfectly timed post. 🙂
If ever you wish to chat with your old teacher, who is now your new friend named “Jeff,” call me, or message me through FB, and we will just chat. I always admired your intellect and independence! I would like to hear your take on life now that there are no “teacher-student” filters possibly interfering with our conversation.
I have not read “The Bell Jar;” I am afraid it might be a little too dark for me. But if you insist that I read it, I will put it at the top of my list of books to read!
Thanks for your comment; follow this blog: my commitment is to write every day. I should write about you; you could fill several posts!
I possibly have an idea to alleviate, but not ameliorate your BPD.
Hello, Jeff 🙂 It doesn’t feel right to call you that.
I’m only using this blog temporarily as a way to get my Art credit in for college. We have to write about favorite art pieces every week. But after that, I’ll use it to write more independent ideas from my head.
Yes, I love The Bell Jar. It is very dark, but sometimes that can be comforting. “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
You were and still are my favorite teacher – I’m going through college right now to be a high school English Teacher. I’m so excited to see that you have a blog! I have enjoyed reading so far.
Stephanie, you will get used to calling me Jeff. Students usually get used to calling me Jeff after they have lunch with me. Let’s lunch together sometime and become friends while talking about your future as an English teacher! In the meantime, go to Amazon and find a cheap, used copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Peace is Every Step.” I think you will love the book and like the part where he talks about Christ sharing the eucharist. Stay in touch!
I will look for that. Thank you for the recommendation.
I have so much to say and I feel like saying it would be some kind of betrayal to him.
I think your spot on about the bell jar and I’m sorry that you had to learn this by watching your beautiful Mother.
Tami! I would be happy to chat with you about this article. I am so happy that I found a metaphor to help me understand my mother. She led a life of hell under that bell jar. The upside is that she could be rescued from under that jar. Recently, I have encountered two alcoholics who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. I am not qualified to make that diagnosis; however, I have a pretty good idea that these individuals will never change their drinking habits, and that their drinking is the least of the problems that they face on a daily basis. They never had a chance at a normal life because their mothers drank while they were pregnant. How sad is that?