The first time I remember really thinking about alcoholism — or at least its effects — I was in kindergarten.
My dad was supposed to pick me up after school, which was exciting because usually I walked the two blocks to a nearby daycare after class.
I remember the bell ringing, heading to the spot where we were supposed to meet, under the flagpole, and waiting.
Soon, the school buses started pulling out of the parking lot. Then, the buzz of the other children who had been running around me — happily reuniting with their parents — faded.
Until, finally, I was all alone. The schoolyard was quiet, except for the sound of the flag clanging against its pole in the wind.
At some point, it hit me: My dad wasn’t coming.
In a time before parents and teachers hovered over kids, I was left standing there, at 6 years old, not sure what to do. After some consideration, I decided I’d better start walking toward daycare. By the time I was halfway there, I was sobbing.
I felt abandoned, hurt, and — most of all — confused.
How could my dad forget to pick me up? Even in kindergarten, I knew that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Luckily, daycare was close. They took me in and called my mom, who left work early to get me. I remember how apologetic and embarrassed she was when she arrived.
When we got home, dad’s car was in the driveway.
When we opened the door, dad was asleep on the couch.
Up until then, that’s how I viewed it — asleep. Dad slept a lot.
But my understanding changed that day thanks to a frank discussion with my mom. Dad wasn’t asleep, he was drunk, passed out.
My dad was an alcoholic. Throughout my childhood, he lost jobs, he lost his temper, he wrecked cars and, eventually, he wrecked his marriage with my mother.
He would battle it until the day he died. Even after being diagnosed with cancer, he continued to drink, defiantly exacerbating the effects of chemotherapy with cases of ice beer and fifths of cheap vodka. It was a terrible, brutal, lifelong struggle.
If I’m being completely honest, there was a part of me that was relieved when it was all over.
I’m not writing to elicit sympathy or suggest mine is a unique experience. In fact, my dad isn’t even the only person in our family who has wrestled with alcoholism — as is so often the case.
In truth, I’m far from alone. According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, in 2013 16.6 million adults ages 18 and older had an alcohol-use disorder — defined as a drinking problem that becomes severe enough to warrant a medical diagnosis. That total includes 10.8 million men and 5.8 million women.
The federal Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality found that in 2012, more than 10 percent of U.S. children had a parent with an alcohol problem.
Alcoholism is a ubiquitous societal plight. In all likelihood, you have a friend, family member or co-worker currently living with the disease — privately or publicly.
Which brings us to this week in Tacoma.
On Monday, news broke of a Larchmont Elementary School teacher fired for “an alcohol-related offense.” The details of the story — including alleged drinking on the job and a reported blood alcohol level five times the legal limit — are troubling and, yes, very ugly. When a grade-school teacher gets fired for disturbing transgressions like these — transgressions that put young children in danger — it’s certainly news, and worth talking about.
Still, the way many have reacted to it, and the way the story has often been discussed and passed around the Internet — like some sort of comical personal failing — is troubling, and symptomatic of our dysfunctional relationship with recreational alcohol use and the difference between that and alcoholism.
Today, we’re pointing and laughing at a 32-year-old woman obviously fighting for her life, joking about her lack of judgment and willpower in the face of a terrible disease. Five months ago, we were doing the same to former University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian.
This isn’t a new story, it’s just the latest version of it. And every time our response is unfortunately similar.
“That Tacoma kindergarten teacher was really really drunk. At 10,” read one of the many tweets from a local media outlet to come across my phone last night, hyping their continued coverage of the situation as details emerged of just how bad it was.
Like it has been for The News Tribune, I’m sure the story has been great for their page views and ratings.
The trouble is, “that Tacoma kindergarten teacher” is us, or someone we know.
And as long as alcoholism continues to be viewed as the punchline to a joke or something to gawk at, we’ll be stuck on repeat.