Content warning: alcoholism, domestic abuse
I come from an empty bottle. Not like a genie; more like a thick stench – the residual, acrid tang that lingers even after a bottle is dry. I pulled myself together with ethereal wisps of this bitterness and other hollow vapours that escaped the constriction of the bottleneck.
Building myself from an empty bottle was hard work. The body is large; the neck is narrow. The glass is fragile and sharp. It’s hard enough when the bottle is full. But when the liquid is all gone, it is nearly impossible – I had only fumes to work with.
My father drank every night and I huddled alone in my room. I was so small. Loneliness threatened to consume me. I listened: the relaxed laughter of neighbourhood children playing hide ‘n seek in the dark and the casual comings-and-goings of my elder siblings: car ignitions and the hum of engines as they all drove away. The sounds of freedom echoed in and around my solitude. Couldn’t someone take me with them, wherever it was they went?
Evenings were the worst. I ached for the faint cheer of daylight and the bliss of sleep was not yet upon me. Mother was away at work. The sun disappeared and long hours of the gloaming gaped before me. I knew they could swallow me. Don’t count on anything when anything can happen. Every night, I held my breath, sidestepping my panic and trying to plan, trying to see things coming before they blindsided me. But every night was different; nothing was predictable. Would he rant and rave? Seek me out and explode all over me, reeling and screaming: little brat, ungrateful bitch? Or – the deadliest of all – would it be a silent night, the dread and anticipation of a possible eruption lighting my skin on fire?
I tried to hide. I took my books and hunkered down in the closet, reading in the faint light, escaping to imaginary lands with fantasy friends. It was cold, but each night, the dog found me and I collapsed desperately in his company. He was my hero, my salvation. I buried my face in his fur and he soothed me as I cradled his warm, soft body. Rhythmically, I stroked his velvet ears like a baby blanket. I talked to him, confided in him, pleaded with him to help me stay strong.
Mostly, I tried to remain accounted for but out of the way, at the same time. Stay on high alert but do not draw attention to yourself. Act natural. Don’t be sassy. Don’t be chatty. Be present but invisible, like that putrid smell in a glass down to its last few drops of liquor.
I stumbled around my childish understanding of addiction, but eventually I let go of any sober hope. I learnt to pretend that everything was all right.
The most agonising moments of those dark nights came as I lay waiting for Mother to come home. Sleep tempted me and I knew I would be tired the next day after waiting up, but I didn’t dare let down my guard. I stayed tightly coiled. Finally, the sound of the front door opening and closing softly signalled permission to exhale. Mother tried to be quiet; I knew she didn’t want to awaken the giant either. Most nights, though, the hissy whispers of my parents’ angry exchanges floated in under my bedroom door and got right into bed with me. I tried to seal myself off from their voices by nestling further beneath the sheets. The weight of my large comforter pressed down like a cold embrace until the bed took on the warmth of my body heat. Gradually, the house grew quiet and I allowed myself to unfold.
Finally, carefully, shrouded in a familiar feeling of emptiness, I gave myself over to sleep.