Aug 03, 2015


Self-Help, Spanish Style: Growing Up in 12-Step Meetings, in English and en Español

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 I grew up in an Argentine-Italian family where liquor flowed and fighting was contagious. I thought drinking was “normal, part of our cultural tradition.” I never imagined we lived with a disease called alcoholism and that each of us – including the pets and the plants – were affected by the insanity. I wanted to hang a sign on our apartment door that read, “We’re not fighting. It’s how we talk.” Like me, our neighbors couldn’t escape the daily drama of Apt. 2H. Between broken English and King Kong-like rages, no matter how depressed they were, I’m sure they thought, “Wow. They really are worse off than I am.”

My father recently celebrated 26 years of sobriety, paying it forward by helping other struggling alcoholics stay sober. But just as important, mom and I also reached the recovery milestone – helping ourselves overcome the anger and bitter resentment we held against my father, a.k.a, “the bad guy.” Going to 12-step meetings as a family – in English and en Español – has changed our lives significantly. Once addicted to the alcoholic, mom and I now get a natural high from helping other spouses and children who feel the shame, guilt and hopelessness we once felt.

We can genuinely say we are happy – even on the worst days because today is nothing like our yesterday.

Taking the First Steps

I threatened to run away at 15 because I couldn’t stand my parent’s fighting over anything and everything, including the drinking. As a child, mom regularly screamed at the top of her lungs, “You’ve had too much to drink” while my father argued, “I only had two drinks. Stop nagging.” I watched the men in our circle of friends swig and the women count how many.

My mother spent her married life seeking professional help for my father’s “craziness.” The diagnosis by the psychiatrists, psychologists, sexologists – anyone whose title ended in “ist” as mom jokes – was that she was the problem.

It wasn’t until an appointment at St. Vincent’s Hospital that mom found a real solution. My parents met with a Spanish-speaking counselor who happened to be in AA. Within a minute of my mother’s “He drinks and I fight…” the counselor said, “Sounds like alcoholism, the disease of drinking. Take these pamphlets about 12-step self-help recovery groups.” It was fate. Mom was supposed to meet another counselor that day who called in sick.

When I heard the word “disease,” it didn’t sit right. My mom had an illness, diabetes. But dad? Wasn’t his drinking more of a vice, a bad habit? Even though deep down inside I thought he might have a drinking problem, it was hard for me to accept that dad was an alcoholic because he didn’t look like one. I figured his funny smell was from the chemicals of his blue-collar job when he picked me up from grammar school. And, in fairness, I only saw him drunk once and he was jolly, singing songs when usually, he was grumpy and cranky.

As a little girl, dad was my buddy because he would connect with my inner kid and create a believable imaginary world. His tales transported me. Among my favorite: The Three Kings who had magical powers that allowed them to fly through our big living room windows, camels and all, so they could eat the cookies, drink the milk, and leave behind presents on January 6. Of course, I later found out that mom placed the cookies and the gifts. Dad ate them at breakfast and to recreate the scene, left the crumbs.

Yet when his drinking progressed, he withdrew into his own world and the few, fun moments my inner kid shared with him were gone. Instead, a cranky man replaced my once imaginative father. I no longer connected to his crazy funny fairytales.

My father’s high alcohol tolerance made him verbally aggressive and a rage-aholic, but he never hit us. Still, I was always ready to dial 9-1-1 every time they fought, afraid that this time, dad would surely lose it, hitting mom or worse, killing her.

When my parents stepped foot into Latin self-help meetings on the Lower East Side 26 years ago, I understood why he went, but I was baffled by my mother’s family meetings. I told myself that turning 18 would cure me from the negative, low self-esteem aura that hovered over me. And I was convinced that falling in love would be the answer.

Nevertheless, my parents begged me to go to meetings – both to theirs and to mine, for teens. I didn’t want to go to either. He had the problem. Not moi. They reverted to desperate measures by bribing me with a treat to chocolate ice cream or to a Happy Meal. I bit. I reluctantly attended their individual meetings to understand them.

A Taste of Recovery

For 17 months, I went to my dad’s Spanish AA meetings and to my mom’s “families and friends of alcoholics meetings” in exchange for treats at McDonald’s and Häagen Daz. I still reneged on going to my age-appropriate meetings. I was afraid of it being like school where the kids teased me and poked fun. And I was afraid of opening up in front of other kids my age.

I took turns going with them and sat there, bored by the adults. I tuned out, but the shares stayed, subliminally. As I looked up, my eyes fell on a slogan: “Trae el cuerpo y la mente alcanzará,” meaning: “Bring the body and the mind will catch up.” As speakers spoke Spanish-style from the podium, emoting passionately and emphatically, I raised my Walkman volume on Michael Jackson. But one thing perked me up: the food. I wondered what delish dish would overflow my plate: Puerto Rican rice and beans? Dominican sancocho? Mexican tamales? We lived in an Italian community so eating Caribbean and Central American food was new. Mom was “da cook”, but rice and beans wasn’t our staple – it was meat and pasta.

In our family, food was a bridge. Dad devoured mom’s home cooking, no matter what.  Nightly, he’d stalk my plate, asking, “Are you done, yet? Can I take that piece?” It always bothered me and mom protected my right to eat peacefully, but it was true – eventually, I would be full and the servings would be “cold.” Eating my leftovers was his hungry man’s way of not wasting food with “all the starving people in the world.”

As a newly sober father, he tried hard to be my friend by asking me about school and  what was going on in my life. That was Pretty Woman “big, huge.” But the more he took the initiative, the less I acknowledged his offering. My hurt didn’t let me budge.

It was at a Spanish AA anniversary meeting that things changed. I was handed a plate of white chicken meat while my father had my faves: the leg and the wing. Tempted to ask for a trade, my pride was a side dish that needed warming up. He glanced over and put the dark pieces on my paper plate and took my reject. I said, “Gracias, pa.” He shrugged with “Yup. Mangia!”

As I ate my wing and scooped up the rice and beans, I realized our relationship was on the mend. The confusion between loving and hating him was exhausting. I held back tears thinking I really love my father. I was 16 ¾ when the chicken made me say, “Alright, already. I’ll go to my own teen family meetings – but in English, por favor.”

A range of emotions rattled my mind from side to side, not knowing when to stop. I lost myself in my meal, thinking, yes, my father is trying. Yes, I am giving him a hard time for merging back into our family lane, and no, I don’t really hate him. After all, I’m the first one to defend the old man.

I tippy-toed into my first teen meeting afraid of the unknown. Yet those kids, some younger, some older, some white, some black, welcomed me, making me feel safe. I was in the right place. They understood my pain because they had been there themselves. Those teens gave me back my lost childhood and renewed my spirit for fun.

They also taught me how to tap into my inner kid, letting her out to play. Through shares and hard personal work, I shed the thunderous angry clouds and replaced them with an authentic, heartfelt smiley face. I pushed myself to speak in full sentences with dad instead of the old “Yes, No, Uh-huh.” Finally, I was in a good place – free of resentment. I had arrived at the end of the tunnel, on the other side of the rainbow, and life was good. I was in light, not in darkness; and I tasted happiness rather than sour grapes. At 19, I transitioned to the adult family meetings. I kept going because I got to start over – not only with mom and dad, but more importantly, with myself.

Addicted to Recovery

In the process, I became as addicted to recovery and to the food as my parents did to their meetings and dad to his cookies. Now 41, I think back to the suicidal thoughts mom and I once had. It continues to fuel our need to help other families realize they too can regain what has been lost. For over two decades, the three of us have shared our self-help story in English and Spanish, in the U.S. and abroad.

The common denominator remains the food – and the excitement of trying another’s recipe, appreciating their creation. Food is still our personal bridge to happiness. We relish in mom’s gourmet preparations and dad still stalks my leftovers, just more courteously. Anticipating a full stomach, I go ahead and set what I may not finish on his plate and he smiles child-like. Sometimes, I jest by putting tiny portions, one at a time. Channeling his inner canine, he scoops them up one after the other. I stop and laugh at him and with him.

While the food we ate at Spanish meetings differed from our meat and pasta dishes, it not only inspired me to learn more about our Argentine culture, it allowed me to embrace other Latin communities and traditions, comparing what was similar and what differed. I once felt shame for speaking in Spanish publicly; now, I am proud to utter our melodic accent.  Spanish self-help meetings allowed me to accept unconditionally my father’s embarrassing antics taking him as the quirky dad he is, knowing many more are just like him.

Alcoholism nearly killed my family. Yet, alcoholism also brought us together through self-help, Spanish style. We are living miracles because our Latin friends didn’t give up on us; they didn’t discriminate because we are Argentine, stereotyped for being arrogant and nose-in-the-air. Instead, they accepted us, helped us find the way, fed us, and celebrated us for finding a solution to our problem as individuals and as a family unit.

Ultimately, that chicken dish brought me closer to my father, allowing me to flap my wings, applauding him after he shared at the mike, expressing how happy he was that his “Lizunga” was with him today and not a runaway teen, lost somewhere. It also made me open my mind and process that I truly was affected by the family disease of alcoholism and that I desperately wanted the joy I saw my mom and dad experience – something I had never witnessed them feel. And, I was willing to break a leg by taking a major risk and delving into self-help recovery for me.

It makes sense that a chicken – un pollo – gave my dad and I a second chance at nurturing our once lost father-daughter relationship. In its day, that chick must have been a Golden Egg.

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Anonymous Contributor

Anonymous Contributor

The writer is a Latina woman who wants to share her story and journey with bipolar disorder, to bring aware and provide information on this condition.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this story Elizabeth. I had a similar childhood, but instead of alcoholism, it was mental illness. My father is bipolar and his moods went up and down dramatically. I can definitely relate to your story and I’m glad you shared it, because it is something that is difficult for many of us to speak about with others. My husband also went through a similar situation and he is still seeking healing from it.

    I’m glad that you were able to find a place where you felt loved and understood. That is so important, and I know how hard it is to find those places. I’m so glad there was somewhere for your family to turn and that you are paying it forward for other families too. Congrats to your family on your recovery and I wish you all the best!

    • Chantilly, it was great connecting with you on Facebook yesterday. Just wanted to acknowledge and thank you for your post here yesterday. Our stories are very similar and the pain and the hope is what connect us. Believe it or not, self-help is still a big part of my daily life. It keeps me in balance and sane. Otherwise, fuggetaboutit! It’s never too late to start fresh with our loved ones and the beauty of self-help is that we better ourselves whether or not those around us change. As long as we change for the better, then we jump up for joy like Fred Flinstone and yell “Yabba Dadda do.” You can tell I channel my inner fun kid…Luvya, liz P.S. You have such a beautiful name and in our Argentinian accent, you know how it sounds, Chantishi!

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