The random times my father called me throughout my life, I could always tell when he had been drinking. He would breathe heavily during the awkward moments of silence, his speech often slurred and slow. It made me both angry and heartbroken, and I harbored these feelings inside for years. It was only on the day in 2016 when I was holding his hand and watching cancer take the last breath from his body, that I truly forgave him.
Today, I’m reflecting on all the moments when I was talking to my now 8-year-old daughter, holding a glass of beer in my hand, unable to focus on her beautiful blue eyes or say clear-headedly how much she meant to me. I now see I was silently hurting her the same way my father hurt me. It was a heartbreaking, painful cycle that needed to end. And it finally has, thanks to a bad decision that became a blessing in disguise.
I can’t help but think my family genes made it inevitable for me to become an alcoholic. My father’s own father was one. I never met him because he died in an alcohol-related car accident in Oklahoma when my father was a teenager. Although we never talked about it, I think that’s why my father started drinking in the first place. He wanted to feel numb to the pain of his loss.
Then there’s my mother, who was never a drinker, but who grew up in South Korea (one of the world’s heaviest drinking nations). South Koreans consume twice as much liquor as hard-drinking Russians and four times as much as Americans. It’s a culture deep-rooted in the belief that drinking is a way to celebrate and show respect, and it allows otherwise “shy” Koreans to open up and build stronger relationships.
Combine that with the fact that Korean Americans have the highest rate of heavy drinking than any other Asian American group, and they are less likely to seek treatment because it’s considered taboo and a sign of weakness, and that’s a surefire recipe for creating childhood pain and trauma. Childhood demons, to be exact.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I started coping with these childhood demons in college. It was the first time I had moved away from home and away from my single Korean mother. My parents divorced when I was 12 years old, and as any ignorant, naive teenager would do, I blamed the one person who unconditionally loved me. I blamed my mother for not keeping the marriage together. For not pushing my father harder to stop drinking. For not being emotionally available to talk to. Weekend drinking games in the dorms and nearby frat house keg parties became a regular weekly occurrence. I don’t even remember the night of my college graduation because I blacked out from drinking too much.
I considered myself a casual drinker, only doing it socially on the weekends, but after college, it started becoming a part of my everyday existence. Failed relationships, overwhelming stress from jobs, and an ongoing struggle with self-worth led me to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I took my prescribed medication, but alcohol was the medicine that worked best for me. I drank to cope. I drank to be alive when in reality I was slowly dying inside.
I thought reconciling with my father and having him be at my 2012 Hawaiian beach wedding would somehow end my reliance on alcohol. I thought having his first grandchild in 2015 would make me focus more on happiness than pain. And it did . . . until he called me out of the blue in July 2016 and told me he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was supposed to have six months to a year to live, but he ended up passing away a few weeks later. There are no words to describe the heartache I felt and still feel today.
After my father’s death, life became a whirlwind of uncontrolled emotions and a new demon: insomnia. The birth of my daughter was the best thing that ever happened to me, but I felt like I could only be a good mother by drinking and not being the real “messed up” me.
I started drinking every day when I got home from work, sometimes just one beer and at other times, up to four or five. My tolerance became incredibly high. I thought I was cool because I could throw down several IPAs in one sitting like it was my job. Plus, my husband and I never went out to drink. We drank in the comfort of our home, where I was physically there with my daughter (unlike my absentee father). I thought that made me better than him. But I wasn’t.
Then came the day I decided to grab some drinks with my friend. I had decided that for once, I would crawl out of my antisocial hole and meet him at a local brewery. They were having a Valentine’s Day special featuring several of their strongest brews. It was less than five miles from my house. I would eat there and be fine.
But I didn’t eat anything, and I didn’t stop and wait in my car before I drove home. I got pulled over by a county sheriff for not coming to a complete stop. I didn’t 100 percent pass the field sobriety test. They cuffed me and took me to the police barracks, and I blew a 0.16, which is double the legal (BAC) blood alcohol concentration limit in Maryland.
They originally told me my husband would have to pick me up, but because I was so compliant the whole time, they drove me home. I was embarrassed, but that was nothing compared to the feeling of sadness that began to overwhelm me. I was sad for my daughter, who I knew didn’t fully understand what I had just done, but I knew. I knew it all too well.
That all happened about three months ago. Since then, I’ve gone to court and got probation before judgment, so I don’t have to do any jail time. I had to get a restricted license. I have a car breathalyzer installed on my car for a year that has to be downloaded every four weeks to check for alcohol. I have to complete online substance abuse recovery assignments for 12 weeks. I have to meet virtually with a probation officer for the next year (for six months if I’m good). I just attended a victim impact statement where two parents shared the devastating story of the loss of their children to a drunk driver. Every single one of these things has cost a lot of money, but what this experience has done for my mental, emotional, and physical health is priceless.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy alcohol use for women is defined as “consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week” and binge drinking for women is “4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.” That was me. Out of shame, I would have never admitted I was a heavy drinker or alcoholic. That would mean I am truly my father’s daughter. But now, out of accountability and the belief that everything happens for a reason, I do.
I’m proud to say I haven’t had a drink since March 1, 2023. I have started focusing more on the present than clinging to the past. I have more energy and optimism, my mindset is clear, and I relieve stress not by drinking, but by going to the gym or writing (which has always been therapeutic for me). I understand that childhood demons come from deep emotional wounds and a lack of closure, and to not be haunted by them, we must face them head-on. Most importantly, I am wholeheartedly present for my daughter, and that is reason enough to never invite the demons back into my life again.