One of my goals of this blog is to also tell some of the stories from the hidden victims of alcoholism and addiction. Particularly from the families effected by a loved ones drinking.
I met Ryder Ziebarth online and asked if she would guest post about her experiences as a mentor in the Alateen program. Ryder is also a 13 year alumni of the Al-anon program. As a freelance non-fiction writer she regularly contributes to the N magazine in Nantucket, the Nantucket Chronicle and has recently been published in The New York Time Metro Diary.
This is an incredibly moving piece and I’m honoured to share it with you…
One cold and black winter night, in a granite alcove of St. Elizabeth’s church, one of the youngest kids I mentor in an Alateen group seated around our big, round table said, “ I will never, ever, drink. Not one drop. It’s really, really bad for you. That’s what my dad and I know.”
This little girl’s mother, a graduate of six rehab centers, is still addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and her father is in an AA recovery program, just steps away from our door. Her new stepmother attends the Alanon program upstairs, and all three groups, the one I mentor being Alateen, meet at this church in north central New Jersey, every Sunday night, fifty two weeks of the year, even if Sunday falls on Christmas day, New Year’s Eve or Memorial Day weekend. Entire families attend separate meetings, and the majority of kids in my group have one or both parents or a sibling with them on most Sunday nights.
When I first met Rita, the little girl with the big proclamation that cold Sunday night three winters ago, she looked like she weighed no more than a breath of frosty air, with a head full of Shirley Temple, ginger colored curls drawn up with an unruly cockade of pink and purple ribbons. The heels of her pink sneakers lite up with blinking red lights as she walked, and her purple jeans had sprays of flowers across each pocket. That night, I think there were about twelve kids at the meeting– I remember squeezing around our big, 72”round table scattered with Alanon literature and program approved books.
“This is my stepdaughter,” a woman said, pushing Rita gently into the room, just before our meeting began.
“It’s her first time here. Her father and I thought this meeting might help her cope when she has to be with her mother—her alcoholic. She’s not too young is she?” she asked, scanning the tables of other, older kids.
“ No, she’s fine,” I said. But at barely age seven, she was the youngest child I’d ever had in the group. The stepmother said she’d be right upstairs if I needed her, and her father would be downstairs in AA.
“Sit next to me,” I said to this wisp of a child.
She replied that she would rather sit between two of the other kids, so I pushed the chair back in and started the meeting. We pass out our Alateen books and turned to page four. As we went around the table taking turns reading the twelve steps, sharing our first names, where we are from, and our age. Then we share stories about our previous week. We talk about school and upcoming tests, football scores and once in a while, a really bad situation currently happening in their alcoholic household.
It was Rita’s turn, and she introduced herself without hesitation.
“ I am new. My name is Rita. I was just seven, two weeks ago. My mother is an alcoholic- druggie and she snorts coke up her nose and I used to see her every other weekend with a social worker, but now I am not allowed to stay there again,’ and she flopped back into her chair, sighing dramatically while rolling her eyes. A few of the other kids nodded in solidarity.
“My mother’s boyfriend? I hate him. He is so gross and disgusting and mean? Last week? I was so mad at him, that I dropped the F-Bomb to get him away from me and my Mom’s dog,” she said pounding the table with both of her fists. All of us started, then laughed, and Rita laughed too. Feeling a sense power, she jumped out of her seat and laid both hands flat in front of her, leaning in toward the group. The back of her sneakers began to blink.
“I did!” she continued, “ I really did! He was beating my dog that was on the end of my bed with me and my yelling made him stop hitting her. But she was hurt bad and I ran out of my room and called 911 and the police came over and took her to the vet,” she said. “I was so glad I ratted him out, but boy was he mad. But my mother was madder for once, so he shut up,” she said, sitting down again into her chair.
“The dog’s O.K. now,” she added as a kind of happy ending.
Some of the kids looked a little stunned. Some of them laughed. Most of them could relate.
In addition to stints in rehab, Rita’s mother had been in and out of jail for drug possession. The divorce from Rita’s father had been contentious. The mother, in a coke fueled haze, fought for custody of Rita, which a wise judge denied her, instead granting once a month Saturday sleepovers with a social worker in tow for most of the visit. The mother’s current boyfriend had beaten Rita’s mother’s dog almost to death at the end of Rita’s bed on that visit, after the social worker went home. Rita’s mother, passed out on the sofa downstairs, hadn’t even heard him enter the house. The mother’s privileges of Saturday night sleepovers were promptly revoked.
“Are you staying with your Dad and stepmom now?” I asked her.
She shook her head empathically and her curls bobbed around her face.
“A social worker and me go see my mom every other Saturday. But I’m not talkin’ to her right now. I will, though next time. Now? I just sit there and watch her cry and yell at me, and then we leave. She needs a lesson taught to her.”
“ I hate my father, plain and simple. I haven’t talked to him in a month,” Savanna, a teen who travels an hour each way to make it to this meeting, says to Rita.
“ I don’t care if I ever speak to him again. He hates me, I hate him. It’s easy. And after the divorce is final, I never have to talk to him again because I am 16.”
“Oh I’ll talk to my mother again,” said Rita.
“ But when I do, she’ll be listening, or else.”
“Or else what?” Savanna asked her.
“Or else, she’ll lose me. I will never go back, and I know she would hate that.”
The Alateen kids bring an endless supply of anger and sadness, but also a remarkable abundance of acceptance of their situations, week after week. They feel safe in this room, a place where they can share the story of their lives with others who struggle with like issues. At every age, they reach out to each other with understanding and it never ceases to amaze me just how incredibly resilient and insightful they are.
“Who can share a slogan or step with Rita that might help her to understand what her mother might be going through right now? Or how to help herself get through the rough times?” I asked.
All twelve hands shot into the air.
Rita has been in our Alateen group, most Sunday evenings. She comes, clutching her book Courage to be me — Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home, the pages dog -eared, and paper clipped for reference.
“ I’m working the program, Mrs. Z.,” she said proudly one night, showing me the new book mark she made inscribed with the closing refrain we recite at the end of each meeting: Keep coming back, ‘cause it works when you work it. You’re worth it, so work it.
She laughs more often now then she cries; she volunteers and loves to lead meetings, and her strength and tenacity has been a source of awe and inspiration for those in the program, least of all me. Although her mother’s recovery is still on -going, Rita’s recovery is right on track. As she said in one of the meetings not long ago, this time on a bright and warm summer night,
“ I matter, too.”