America, we’ve got a problem.
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
When we were teens my siblings and I shared a hand signal for when our mother had been drinking. It was a mimed gesture of a beer can going quickly to the mouth. We used it as a heads-up for when we went to check in with her after coming home. Other kids of alcoholics probably share something like this—a way to deal with their parents erratic behaviors; quick workarounds to avoid conflict and maintain denial about “the problem.”
My father was sober by then and probably should’ve known better. He got into AA when I was 8 or 9. But even he had his own denial to work through. When directly asked about my mother’s drinking once he told my sister, “We don’t talk about that.”
It was common to find her beer cans stashed under her bed, or in laundry piles or drawers. Her bedroom had a walk-through closet so she literally was a closet drinker. Whenever she had a few we knew to keep it short. In her cups she was lonely and chatty. To have a conversation was a kind of pure torture that went beyond teenage separation issues. There was no accountability for anything that was said, no way to reference it at any point in the future as much of the time she was in a black out and would've no memory of events. The elephant was in the room and she was smashed.
It was implicit and explicit that we weren’t to speak to anyone about “family matters.” When I finally did write a memoir about what occurred the family circled up the wagons to protect my mother’s privacy. I was ostracized until I agreed to not publish.
So it is with this perspective that I approach recent events in the Trump White House. To me, that anonymous letter published in the NY Times is an S.O.S. from inside the west wing. Contrary to the author’s opinion about there being “adults in the room,” I see this as evidence of a child’s cry for help with a rageaholic parent.
There are other traits members of the current administration may share with children of alcoholics. We are loyal, hyper-responsible, confuse love with pity, feel guilty when we stand up for themselves, keep secrets, put others first, become addicted to excitement, fear authority, become approval seekers, view our experience through the lens of a victim, are terrified of abandonment, personal criticism and conflict. This is by no mean an exhaustive list or exclusive to kids of alcoholics.
According to the NY Times review of the Bob Woodward’s book—Fear here are some of the highlights of the staff, in my opinion, acting like children of alcoholics:
1) Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, calls the presidential bedroom, where Trump goes to tweet, “the devil’s workshop,” and early mornings and Sunday nights, when Trump is at loose ends, “the witching hour.” Later he says about the White House decision-making process: “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody. That’s what happens.”
2) Trump rarely realizes when things go missing, Woodward suggests. Though he does quote him shouting, like a boy king, “Bring me my tariffs!”
3) John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, is quoted as saying about the president, in a meeting, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown.”
4) There are terrifying scenes in which Gary Cohn and Rob Porter conspire to keep certain documents out of Trump’s reach.
5) Mike Pence, the vice president, comes off as a glorified golf caddy who doesn’t want to rock the boat lest Trump tweet something mean about him.
It’s funny, and sad, but this last instance is the role I most identify with. I was one of my parents biggest admirer and fans until I got some perspective and distance. Only as an adult I did I begin to see their flawed thinking and actions (and my own). When I started to write about my parents as characters in a book I began to understand their motivations and intentions. Eventually it increased my compassion. Writing about them along with years of psychotherapy helped to free me (to a degree) from my family’s alcoholic pathology. Personally, the stakes were quite a bit smaller than our current situation as a country but the dynamic resonates.
The Times op-ed writers’ motivation may also be a way to lay the ground work for some integrity in the future. When Bob Mueller and the cops knock on the door it isn’t going to be just Trump that’s taken away in cuffs - the whole administration is going to be tainted. So this effort by “the senior administration official” may be a way to insure the judicial process differs for the whistle blowers from the co-conspirators and enablers.
The truth eventually leaks out. It’s good for the soul of the country when it does.