Before I set down to write this article I googled Alcoholism and according to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia this was part of the definition.
"In a medical context alcoholism is said to exist when two or more of the following is present: a person drinks large amounts over a long time period, has difficulty cutting down, acquiring and drinking alcohol takes up a great deal of time, alcohol is strongly desired, usage results in not fulfilling responsibilities, usage results in social problems, usage results in health problem, usage results in risky situations, withdrawal occurs when stopping."
"Both environmental factors and genetics are involved in causing alcoholism with about half the risk attributed to each. A person with a parent or sibling with alcoholism are three to four times more likely to be alcoholic themselves".
This is a black and white definition of the condition but, if you have had a family member or loved one stricken with alcoholism you in a short period of time realize there is a lot in between the lines, a lot of gray areas, a lot of misery.
My father Jim was born in western Kansas and was raised on a farm raising cattle and wheat. His father was of German descent and I believe a strict disciplinarian. He married my Mom and tried to raise 3 kids on a small farm working for his dad, my Grandpa Ed. According to my grandpa who told me years later that the farm could not support all the kids and grandkids as the Reifschneider families began to grow larger and he felt my father had the where with all and gumption to make it on his own. So grandpa asked him to leave the farm.
My father and mother moved from western Kansas and the only life they had known to the Denver, Colorado area where in 1960, I was born the last of the Jim Reifschneider clan. My father got a job at Gates Rubber Company and held that job until he died at the age of 55 years old. I was 21 years old at the time and newly wed.
I am not sure when my father began his downward spiral into alcoholism, if the demons that plagued him were born in Kansas or after he moved to Colorado. I cannot remember a time I did not see my father drink. His drink of choice was Smirnoff vodka and straight from the bottle.
The story of my father and my relationship is nothing new. It can be told in various forms with different but all too familiar memories from countless sons and daughters that grew up in an alcoholic household.
I have began to write and record some of my memories here not in anger but in hope of understanding at the age of 55, the same age that my father died. Here are a few memoires of a sons life with an alcoholic father.
As I write I try to remember the good times I had with my father and sadly I cannot bring forth of one small happy memory of my father. Not one. I am even amazed at this. I had good memories growing up which mostly involving my cousins, grandparents and aunts and especially my Uncle Larry. I use to go spend my summers back on my Mom's folks farm in Kansas and these are by far my best memories. Not one happy, joyful memory springs forth about my father.
My father was not a loving man and not once do I remember him ever kissing, holding hands or even hugging my Mom nor do I remember him showing any type of affection to my older siblings or myself, I never heard the words "I Love You" from him. He was always angry and bitter and seemed as if the world was stacked against him. He was mentally and physically abusive to my mom and all of the kids. He was quick with his hands, even in a drunken stupor.
I never had a meaningful conversation with my father about life. I always believed that my father thought I was weak because out of his four kids, I think I am the most sensitive and even to this day I can sense others feelings without words being spoken. My mom use to call it a gift and called me an "Old Soul". But to my father it was a weakness, I think it embarrassed my father that I was that way. My father never encouraged me at school in my studies or even at my failed attempts in sports in my elementary years. I felt ashamed and useless about myself as I tried to gain my fathers affection to no avail. I think my father dreams had been shattered and broken way before I became part of his life.
And So It Begins, Memories
Countless nights even as young of five or six I can recall hearing my father belittle my mom as the words and the hurt seeped through my bedroom wall as he told her how worthless she was. After my father had passed out and gone to sleep. I lay there at night listening to my mom cry ever so quietly in fear of waking him. I too would cry on the other side of the wall trying to be brave and strong and failing at it.
I learned to fear my father and his roller coaster moods. When he became angry at the family he would line my siblings and myself up. He would start telling us why he was angry, most times it was we didn't take the trash out when he thought it should be taken out or our rooms were not clean or maybe the dishes set too long before being washed. He would parade in front of us as we stood in the line and he would take his forefinger and poke us in the chest whenever he felt he needed to make a point to which kid he thought was the offender. His poke was like none other he would back you clear across the room as his anger reached a boiling point and the pokes became harder. More times than not he would bruise our chests just by poking us. To this day if someone is trying to make a point with me and starts to poke their finger even if it does not make contact, I see black and it takes everything I have not to respond in kind.
My father to my knowledge hardly ever drank in bars, he was a lone wolf when it came to drinking and he would hide his bottles of vodka all over the house underneath the stairs, outside in the window wells, in the shed in the backyard. He always had a bottle in a brown paper sack underneath the driver seat in whatever car or truck he was driving.
When I was about 8 or so my older brother Dane who was 15 or 16 at the time was caught stealing a radiator or a battery from a car to sell so his buddies and he could obtain some beer. Back in those days the cops took you home so your father could beat you and that is exactly what happened. What I remember is waking up as my mom was screaming "Jim quit, quit you are killing him" the furniture was being tossed around as my father severely beat my brother and my mom was hysterical and continued to scream "Jim, Jim you are killing him". My father would yell something to the effect in his drunken stupor "No son of mine is going to be a thief" right before I could hear the sound of the punch or slap strike flesh. My father was also angry about my brother giving the cops an alias instead of his real name and some of the harsh words were centered about that "And to top it of you used a John Doe". My father seemed more upset by my brother using a "John Doe" instead of the actual theft. I remember this night just like it happened 10 minutes ago. I was so afraid and I was frozen and could not move. I cuddled with my dog Tom Tom and pulled the blanket over my head like I did most nights to travel in my head to someplace else. I would hold Tom Tom tight and he would lick my face and I could escape. I wrote a poem many years later about my dog. He was an angel sent to me to protect me.
To this day I am still friends with a girl that lived across the street from us Patty and she tells of stories about seeing the Reifschneider's boys being thrown out the door of our house into the front yard. I try to liven the mood and make jokes about it today, but it is a realistic telling of my childhood.
At a young age, I learned quickly how to stay out of my father's line of fire and I would make myself scarce when he was at home. If he was working days, then I would roam the streets with my buddies until often 1 or 2 in the morning until I knew he was sound asleep. If he was working graveyard, then I made it a point to never be home during the day. I kept myself safe by not being seen by my father. Out of sight, out of mind.
On the July 4th weekend in the summer between 5th and 6th grade my mom gathered enough courage to leave my father. All of my other sibling were out of the house. The oldest my sister Jody was on her own and both of my brothers had joined the military. My mom waited until I was supposed to be gone for that week of the 4th to Grand Lake, Colorado for the sons of the VFW parade and festivities of marching in a parade and riding horseback, etc. It rained almost the entire time and cancelled most of our trip and I was sent home early. Walking into the house I woke my father out of a drunken sleep and he informed me by sitting on the bed in his jockey shorts that "Your mother left you and me, and she won't be coming back" always fearful and now sadden by the only shining light in my life my mom had left, thoughts of taking my life kept me up the whole night. I just didn't have the courage to see it through. I felt ashamed and a failure. In my innocence of the time I did not realize my mom had not left me. She figured out I was home the next day and with tears in our eyes and fear in our hearts she snuck me out of the house while my father was passed out in his room with a empty vodka bottle laying on its side by his bed. We went into hiding at a co-worker of my mom's house for fear of what my father would do.
My mom had told me as soon as she could figure out how to get a place for her and I together then we would be able to bring my much loved dog Tom Tom. For several weeks after we went into hiding I would go back to my old home when I knew my father was at work and I would see and play with Tom Tom. About 3 weeks after my mom and I went into hiding I went by to see Tom Tom and he was not in the yard so I crawled into the basement window and starting calling his name to no avail. As I got closer to the upper landing I could smell the coppery tinge of blood in the air. I found Tom Tom laying in his own blood not far from the front door dead. There was a 22 rifle leaning against the dining room table which was out of place because as far as I knew my father did not own any guns. My father had shot my dog, my protector, my Tom Tom. As I stood there and later set there I didn't even cry, I was horrified but no tears that day. All I could think about was revenge about killing my father, make him pay for taking the only thing besides my mom that loved me unconditionally. I was familiar with shooting a 22 rifle from hunting rabbits in Kansas so I grabbed the rifle and made sure it was loaded and clicked off the safety and pulled up a chair so I could fire through the door when my father came home. I knew I could not face him or look him in the eye. I sat there for about an hour in ambush the whole time with Tom Tom laying a few feet away lifeless. I began to realize that the weapon I had the 22 rifle probably would not be able to penetrate the door to be able to any damage in my quest for vengeance against my father. In time I set the rifle right back where I found it, then petted and said my goodbyes to my friend. I left the house just as I had entered it through the basement window. To this day I have never been back inside the house on Grove Street. Years later I would read a book called "Poison Tree : a True Story of Family Violence and Revenge" which was about a brother and sister that ambushed their abusive father with a shotgun blast through a closed garage door as their father attempted to open the door. That book in a lot of ways spoke to me and told my story, one I never told anyone about up until that time. I understood those kids, they were like me. I didn't like me on that day when I held that 22 rifle, but I understood.
Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Violence and Revenge
Ode to Tom Tom
I wrote this several years ago....
Under the blankets hiding and staying out of sight
Moments of fear that crept out of the night
Too young, too innocent to fully understand
How my Dad, his drinking took over and took command
Trying to shut out the anger, hurt and the yelling
When madness would stop there was no telling
Huddle down in my protective blanket fort
Holding tight to my green army men for support
Tom Tom my dachshund laid with me keeping me warm
Helping me try and outlast the newest insane storm
Always worried I may never see my Mom tomorrow
As she tried to help my Dad understand all his sorrow
Drinking and violence walked hand in hand
As my Dad danced to the Smirnoff vodka band
My real tiny world and childhood start to unravel
Never too soon for a safe place for my mind to travel
Held tight as Tom Tom sniffed and licked my face
Only Tom Tom knew how to get me to my safe place
Thinking back then to those young ugly years
On how Tom Tom saved me from all my fears
By Kurt Reifschneider
My mom and fathers divorce was granted and my father was ordered by the court to pay $25.00 a week in child support. To my knowledge my father never paid one penny and my mom was so afraid of him she never pushed the issue, My mom finally found low rent housing in what nowadays we would call the projects. We would live there until my mom remarried when I was a freshman in high school.
In the summer between my 7th and 8th grade I agreed to go back to Dighton, Kansas with my father to visit relatives. We left late in the afternoon after my father got off work and by the time we had reached the eastern plains of Colorado my father was too drunk to drive and I took over and drove. I was 13 or 14 years old without a driver's license. The second day in Kansas my father and I were making the 60 mile trip between Dighton and Garden City, Kansas to visit my Grandpa Ed. About 30 miles into the trip my father already by 11 o'clock in the morning was hammered and started accusing me of stealing money out of his wallet the night before while he was sleeping. I was so afraid I didn't want to say anything at all so I didn't which in turn infuriated my father and while he was driving he hit me with a closed fist in the side of my head. My head hit the closed window so hard it cracked the glass. He then slammed on the brakes and I believe I saw remorse in his face, he didn't say anything and put his pickup in park, climbed out and stood with his hands on his hips starring southward into the distance on the lonely Kansas highway and he just started to walk southward and on down the road distancing himself from his pickup and me. I sat there waiting for the stars to stop that were spinning in front of my eyes and I watched him walk away. I was scared, lonely, hurting and with not a clue of what to say or do. I just watched him walk further south. Not one car or truck passed us on the road that day, it was just me and my father's pickup and the wind and the dust on a hot Kansas August day. I continued to watch him walk away for what seemed a long time and he was getting smaller and smaller until he was barely an inch tall in my vision on the horizon. His pickup was still running as I sat there too scared and confused to do anything but watch him walk, after a long time he began to grow in size on the horizon and it dawned on me that he had started walking back and before long he was no longer an inch tall in the distance but had grown to three and now 4 inch's tall as he made his way back. By this time I was not only scared but angry at him, at me and at the world and I am not sure what came over me, but I calmly scooted over into the driver seat and closed the driver door and put it in drive and turned the pickup around and headed back to Dighton and drove straight to my father's sister's house and told my Aunt Doris and Uncle Dean what had happened and Uncle Dean took me to my Grandpa Dale, my mom's dad. Grandpa Dale without even stopping to get my cloths drove me to Garden City to put me on a bus back home to my mom in Denver. As we traveled down the road I had stranded my father a foot on not more than a hour before toward Garden City I was afraid of passing and seeing my father walking. We did not see him, and to this day I have no idea how or when he made it back to Dighton. I would not see or speak to my father again until I was a senior in high school.
The Last Years Of An Alcoholic
My alcoholic father would go on to marry two more times. Both marriages would be filled with more misery and pain for not only my fathers new brides but also himself.
My senior year in high school, I was a starter on a very good football time and we actually won the Metro Championship that year with a 9-1 record. In one of the games in mid season I got my bell rattled and was down on the ground for some time. I soon recovered and was able to finish the game. Later, as I was leaving the locker room and walking down the hallway to see my girlfriend, I happened to see my father standing off to the side. I was a little stunned to see him, he looked small and frail and I could tell from his stance he was also very drunk. He approached me and told me he had been coming to my games and thought he should stop to see if I had been seriously injured. I was young and foolish and full of piss and vinegar and had a confrontation with my father right there in the hallway in front of some of my team mates and girlfriends. Looking back, I think it was his way of offering the olive branch in a peace offering and at the time I was not ready for that. Later on I would learn that he had gotten lost on his way home and spotted a Highway Patrolman sitting on the side of the road doing paperwork and my father stopped and asked for directions home. He would spend the next three days in detox. I am sure a therapist would have a lot to say about that episode.
When I was twenty one I had gotten engaged to be married and did not want to invite my father to the wedding. I also had learned that my father and contracted cancer and was going through treatment. My bride to be convinced me I would regret not having my father at our wedding. I relented and invited him. In the photos from the wedding you can see, my father was not a well man. He was sick and frail and had dark circles under his eyes and looked as if death was not far away. It was this day on my wedding day a weight had been lifted off my shoulder and for reasons that still baffle me I lost my black hatred for the man who was my father. I felt sorry for him that he had been robbed of a life with me as a loving son. It was the right thing to do, invite him to the wedding.
My father would succumb to the cancer a couple of months later and he passed as I was in the room with him. I didn't cry one tear. He died and I felt that he was a stranger that I hardly knew. He was 55 and I was 21.
As I stood there in the hospital a quote I had read by Rumi years before came to mind as I looked upon the death of an alcoholic.
"You have escaped the cage. Your wings are stretched out. Now fly."
Just moments before, I have been in your room.
As darkness and death began to loom
Oh' Dad, you have just passed away,
Now a grown man, many things I didn’t say
A bottle had you, and I never understood
Learned early on, out of the bottle, nothing good
As a young child, learned things one never should
All because you thought you were misunderstood
Wish, your anger and drinking would have ended
For our Father/Son relationship to be mended
Now in your early death my sadness is near
Not knowing my father the man, is my souvenir
Hard feelings all around, but never wanted you to die
Many nights hidden in the darkness, asking God Why?
By Kurt Reifschneider
If you have read this article to this point it probably means that you too have suffered through the effects of alcoholism be it though a parent or sibling or even a child. You are not alone in this in todays society there are plenty of places to seek help.... You just need to reach out and let someone grab your hand and give you the steady voice and reason to an insane problem.