Growing up on the Navajo reservation, alcoholism and alcohol abuse were always taboo subjects in my family. When it came to the subject of alcohol, conversations were always ‘hush hush’ and I never understood why. It was not until I began to face my own alcoholism in my 20’s that I started to understand the elusiveness of alcohol and its effect on my people and reservation life. Why was alcoholism in Native families so pervasive?
For a long time, I have known about and have been affected by the stereotype that Natives are more likely to be alcoholics. Indeed, there have been past studies that show alcohol use among Native Americans is higher than any other ethnic group. (Source)
In this article, I don’t intend to go into the causes of alcoholism in Native families. There are many theories out there, including factors like socioeconomic disadvantages, deep-rooted historical traumas, and lack of experience with alcohol as a people.
My intent is to share my personal, firsthand experience of alcoholism in Native families, including its effects on my family, the struggles, the stories, and finally my hopes and wishes for familial healing. This is a story that involves trauma and silent suffering. It’s not a happy story, but it is part of my life’s story and where I come from.
Ultimately, my hope is to help others and myself, through sharing, learning, experiencing, and growing together.
Familial secrets rooted in alcoholism
In taking a look at my family tree, there are so many family members that I barely knew or didn’t get the chance to know. As a young child, I would attend funerals of family members, not knowing how they passed away and not knowing how to process any of the family’s grief.
As a child, I wondered why my mom and her sisters were raised by their grandparents, who were my great-grandparents. When I asked about my maternal grandmother and her passing, I was told that she was in a car accident on her way home from work.
Many years later, I found out that my maternal grandfather, an alcoholic, was drinking and driving his young bride, my grandmother, home from work. They were in a head-on collision. My grandmother, who was in her late 20’s at the time, passed away. My grandfather survived, left his three young girls in New Mexico with my great-grandparents, and moved to Arizona to start another family.
This event, rooted in alcoholism, is so significant for my maternal family tree. My mother and her sisters faced tremendous trauma, pain, and abandonment from this life experience, which has continued to trickle down and affect later generations.
Many years later, broken ties were mended with my maternal grandfather and I started to get to know him as a teenager. In high school, I remember writing to him in prison as he served a sentence for multiple DWI offenses.
Unfortunately, my grandfather never got sober. He drank until his body could no longer process alcohol. I was in my first year of college when he passed away from cirrhosis of the liver, which is common on the reservation due to alcoholism in Native families. Right before he passed, I remember going to the hospital and seeing his unrecognizable body, the result of a body torn apart by alcohol.
Sadly, this is only one story of one death related to alcohol in my family. There are many more.
Childhood memories and trauma
Trauma leaves such an impact on a young child’s brain that those memories are never forgotten.
One of my very first memories as a toddler involved my parents physically fighting each other. My dad was drunk and throwing my mom against a building wall in public. I recall my great-grandmother yelling at my dad to stop. Following suit, I started yelling at my dad to stop. I must have been two or three years old at the time.
When it was finally over, my mom was sobbing as my great-grandmother and I tried to console her. Although I didn’t understand what was going on or what had happened, I hated my father. Decades later, I remembered the incident clearly.
Unfortunately, this type of alcohol-induced behavior was becoming more and more commonplace within my family. Symptoms of alcoholism in Native families include child abuse, domestic violence, anger, neglect, and so much more.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I started to pick apart some of these childhood memories and events with a therapist. Even though I was a young child at the time, I blamed myself for everything that happened between my parents and carried that blame and guilt for a very long time.
I also realized that I had been harboring lifelong anger against my father, who had passed away in my childhood from alcoholism.
Growing into my own alcoholism
As my generation aged into the teenage years and grew into young adults, I started to see myself and my cousins drinking and abusing alcohol. Despite knowing the stories of alcoholic losses and the tragedies of past generations, we drank to experience the toxic effects of alcohol.
In my mind, as long as alcohol was fun and it wasn’t hurting anyone, I could keep drinking without inhibition. Due to alcoholic tendencies on both sides of my family, it wasn’t long before I started to experience the negative consequences of continued alcohol abuse.
In my mid-twenties, I was like a tornado roaring through my own life, not caring about consequences, the people I was hurting, or the fact that I was starting to hit rock bottom. It was devastating for myself and everyone around me.
The first time someone told me I was an alcoholic.
I was 27 years old, sitting in a therapist’s office, on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. A few days earlier, I had tried to quit drinking cold turkey. My body, not knowing how to handle the absence of alcohol, went into full-blown withdrawal delirium. I ended up in the emergency room with extremely high blood pressure and hallucinations that would not stop.
The therapist at the hospital was quite frank with me. He told me that I was a full-blown alcoholic and that the withdrawal symptoms I experienced were very serious. He told me I needed to stop drinking. At the time, I had never felt more alone in my life.
You would think that someone who experienced an event and hospitalization like that would stop drinking, right? After I was stabilized and released, I stayed sober for a total of two weeks before I was drinking again.
Alcoholism is a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease. I spent the next two years in a tormented hell struggling to quit, only to pick up again a few days later, and not knowing why I could not stop. Alcohol was my best friend, but also my very worst enemy.
When my kidneys started to ache every time I drank, I feared the worst for my health and went to an A.A. meeting. It changed my life. Although it was very hard in the beginning and I did go through relapse, I finally got and stayed sober at the age of 29.
- Additional reading: Life lessons after seven years of sobriety
Alcoholism in Native families is still pervasive
Today, I consider myself a recovering alcoholic, which is a title I will hold until the day I die. I still have the disease of alcoholism but it is arrested by continued sobriety and maintenance of a strong spiritual program. I’m involved with a network of recovering alcoholics and we help each other to stay sober.
Although I have hoped and prayed that witnessing the joys and miracles of my continued sobriety would influence some of my family members, very few of us live a life of sobriety today.
A few years ago, my younger brother was hospitalized and diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in his twenties. Miraculously, he stopped drinking on his own after that diagnosis and is still sober today. Our relationship improved drastically once we were both sober. Today, we have the joyous experience of watching each other raise children.
Unfortunately, not every story has a positive ending. In 2020, amid the pandemic and the holidays, we got the unexpected and devastating news that my cousin was found dead in his hotel room while working in another state. He was 35 years old.
None of us were prepared for that news and it sent shock waves throughout my being. My cousin and I were 16 months apart, the children of teenage parents, and grew up in the same household. As children, we had our great-grandparents and each other. That type of bond just never goes away.
The most devastating aspect of his passing was that he tried to get sober months before he died. He asked me for help and I attempted to talk to him, be there for him, take him to a meeting, and buy him recovery literature, but it wasn’t enough.
My cousin’s passing was a very cold and cruel lesson of the effects of alcoholism in Native families. In our own way, we all find the strength and courage to move on from tragedy.
Steps toward familial healing
When you’re part of an alcoholic family, taking steps toward familial healing might seem and feel impossible. So, here are some actionable steps to aid in the process of familial healing.
Take time to talk
For my family specifically, the worst thing about suffering through alcoholism was the secrets that shrouded it. I wish my family had been more open and honest about the consequences and effects of alcohol. By the time I became an adult, it was very obvious but still no one talked about it.
There’s a popular adage in recovery that “our secrets keep us sick.” So, when we expose those secrets and share them with others, that action alone takes away its power and the associated shame, guilt, and anger.
Also, taking time to talk about some of the issues related to alcoholism may remove some of the stigma associated with it.
Educate one another
Looking back, I wish I had more education on the disease of alcoholism. Realistically, it probably would not have changed my actions or drinking behaviors but I would have at least had some knowledge of the path I was going down.
As a parent, I want to be honest and truthful with my daughters when it comes to alcoholism in Native families. For me, that involves sharing that I’m a recovering alcoholic and what that means for me. I don’t intend to control their decision to drink, but I do want to arm them with the knowledge of alcoholism and its history within our family.
Lead by example
I choose to live a sober life for myself and not for anyone else. It’s true that you cannot get sober for other people, not even for your children, loved ones, or the Court system.
That being said, I do believe that my family members see and are influenced by my sobriety. I mean, how could they not be? Instead of showing up wasted on a holiday or not showing up at all, I now show up sober with my husband and toddler. I am fully present, aware, and a contributing member of my family.
When I first got sober and started my recovery journey, I felt that anyone and everyone could stop drinking and be saved from an alcoholic life. After a couple of failed attempts at shoving recovery at family members, I had to let it go.
Acceptance does not mean that I agree with or condone a situation or behavior. It just means that I have accepted it for what it is. For my own sanity, I had to realize and understand that I cannot control anyone’s behavior or actions, including the decision to drink.
Now, I give help and advice to family members when they ask for it or when they want to talk. If that’s the most that I can do, then so be it. I’m always there when someone reaches out for help.
- Additional reading: 100 things to be grateful for in life today
Ending remarks on alcoholism in Native families
Writing this article opened up a new perspective for me on alcoholism in Native families. There was a time when I didn’t want to talk about any of these issues because of the shame attached to my own alcoholism. I also didn’t want to relive any of the painful events in my family’s history.
Opening up and writing about these issues has allowed me to process some of my own unresolved feelings of trauma, abandonment, and pain caused by my family’s alcoholism. I can now clearly focus on my longterm sobriety, raising children who are aware of their family’s alcoholic history, and continuing to take steps toward familial healing.