YA A to Z: Alcoholism, In Real Life and in Real Fiction, by by L.B. Schulman
It’s January, which means we’re discussing the Letter A in YA A to Z. Today we are talking about alcoholism with author L. B. Schulman. You can find out more about YA A to Z here.
When I was 13, my stepfather came home with a dim diagnosis from his doctor. If he kept drinking, he would die within months. That wasn’t hard to believe, honestly. After all, my stepfather was drinking daily. He was bloated, and his face was a map of busted capillaries. When he passed out on the couch, his chest rose and fell in jerks and then went still until he gasped for air as if he’d just shot to the surface of the ocean.
The day after that diagnosis, he came home drunk. I was sure he would be dead by the next morning. Who gets told something like that and goes on to down another drink? But it turns out that this was a calculated move on my stepdad’s part. It involved buying several six packs of beer and drinking one less each day until he reached the last one. This was his final binging hurrah before he stopped cold turkey. From that day forward, he never touched another drop of alcohol.
My stepfather didn’t die. In fact, he lived another twenty years before Alzheimer’s took his life. The day after that last beer, he signed himself up for rehab. Not long after, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and became the poster child for sobriety. After much reflection, and a systematic climb up AA’s Twelve Steps, he became a sponsor to help others who struggled with the destructive disease. For the next few years until I went to college, I remember him bringing a motley crew of “guests” home for dinner. One actually moved into our house temporarily. I remember seeing all the bottles of booze tucked in our trashcan during her stay.
When I created my protagonist’s mother, Gretchen, I knew that she would share this same disease. Because of the specific story I gave her, I figured she would have a harder time becoming sober. After all, her invented childhood was marred by a dysfunction of epic proportions. The only way out of the rabbit hole was to identify the true cause of her burdened childhood.
In the meantime, any random stressor might cause Gretchen to drink again. I knew from firsthand experience that it would be hard for her daughter, Livvy, to trust that sobriety would last. She would always live with one eye open to the possibility that her mother might slip up.
Gretchen is an example of someone who achieves sobriety, then fails, and has the courage to try again. This is a tough addiction to beat, and not everyone is successful the first time. Livvy, like many teens dealing with this situation, grapple with an immense resentment at her own blemished childhood, as well as sympathy for her mother’s unexplained demons.
This is where my own experience stops and fiction takes over. Although alcoholism can begin for many reasons, it didn’t seem too far-fetched that it might be an aftereffect of family trauma. It was a common theme that concentration camp victims, for example, didn’t want to rehash what had happened to them, not even with family. Could repression result in dysfunction that’s handed down to subsequent generations? Seemed viable to me, and I wanted to explore it in this novel.
After I wrote Stolen Secrets, I discovered that my instinct was spot on. According to the book, “Familial Responses to Alcohol Problem,” the rate of alcoholism in Jewish families went from very low prior to World War I to average after World War II. Something about the experience of war, whether one if fighting or suffering through it, leads to an increase in escapist activities.
Livvy, my protagonist, finds out that her grandmother has a previously unknown connection to Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. The key to her family’s healing appears to be in the revelation of a carefully-guarded truth. (Not trying to be vague here, but no one likes spoilers, right?)
In Stolen Secrets, acknowledging the effects of trauma is the non-existent “Thirteenth Step” that Gretchen must go through in order to be healed. The discovery of what truly happened in Bergen Belsen will offer Livvy, her mother, and grandmother a release from the confines of an inauthentic life.
Living with honesty, whether that be from the understanding of why someone drinks on a simpler level to the exploration of a deeper psychological motivation, is always the most healing path. This is one of the major themes of my book, and I truly believe it.
Writing about Gretchen has helped me to acknowledge the truth of how alcoholism affected my own childhood. Teens that are going through this with a parent may well identify with the emotions I shared with Livvy, ranging from anger to resentment to understanding to, hopefully, the ability to one day forgive.
I hope that teen readers in a similar circumstance will read Stolen Secrets and realize that determination and honesty can save anyone from anything. After all, hope exists as long as a person doesn’t quash it. Alcoholism may be a lifelong disease, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
Meet Author L. B. Schulman
STOLEN SECRETS is L.B. Schulman’s second young adult novel. Her debut, LEAGUE OF STRAYS, was published in 2012. She grew up in Maryland and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a pair of loveable mutts. When she isn’t writing, she’s visiting genealogy sites, trying to find famous people she’s related to. You can visit her online at LBSchulman.com.
Filed under: #YAAtoZ
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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