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Smile, At All Costs

July 12, 2015 | by Brenda, as told to Shoshana Schwartz

Alcohol was my refuge from my father’s incessant demands for perfection.

My dad is a photographer. An entire wall of my parents’ suburban ranch house is covered with a display of leather-bound photo albums chronicling my first tooth, my high school graduation, me with my dog Trish. In every picture, I wore the same wide smile. Even Trish wagged her tail as if on cue. Looking at those pictures, you’d think my life was perfect. And it was – on the outside.

But the real picture, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t have graced the pages of Family Circle.

It’s not that I was such a great actress. It’s just the way I grew up – the outside Brenda and the inside Brenda. The outside Brenda was sweet, obedient, mature, and got good grades. The inside Brenda was a quivering puppy. I never had much respect for the inside Brenda. She was worthless, a message my dad constantly hammered home. It never occurred to me to disagree with anything Dad said, because I knew I deserved it. I knew I was ungrateful. I knew I was a brat. I knew I was demanding and unreasonable. I knew my braces cost a pretty penny.

The outside Brenda was sweet, mature, and got good grades. The inside Brenda was a worthless, quivering puppy.

I also knew that no matter what, I needed to keep smiling. Not just for the camera. I needed to smile because if I complained, or showed my true feelings, Dad would turn the anger on Mom instead. He’d put her down, even worse than he did to me. He’d tell her how stupid she was, how clumsy, how thoughtless. And somehow, he was always right. My Mom thought so, anyway. She’d always apologize and promise to do better. I never got that, how she could do any more than she was doing. She ironed Dad’s shirts into smooth, stiff little walls. She made lemon meringue pie from scratch. And she always made sure I looked perfect. Perfect for him, perfect for the camera.

But Dad never saw perfection. He’d find the lone wrinkle in the shirt, and complain about the store-bought crust for the pie. And she had, so who could argue?

Mom never complained. She just tried harder.

It killed me to see her sad. So I tried to live up to Dad’s expectations. I would do anything to please him. I was the kid who never spoke back, the kid who got perfect grades, the kid who never gave their parents a day’s worry. Ever.

Drinking through College

I made it through school okay. I was very tense all the time, but that was that was a small price to pay. And I got into MIT, because Dad wanted me to. I wasn’t interested in engineering, and I certainly wasn’t interested in leaving Mom alone with Dad! She needed me, and I wanted to be there for her. But Dad insisted.

Someone passed around some punch, and I grew tipsy. I felt light. I felt good. I felt… free.

So I left, crying my eyes out from homesickness every night. One evening, my roommate had enough of my bawling, so she grabbed my hand and dragged me to a frat party. Someone passed around some punch, and I grew tipsy. I didn’t even realize what was happening. All I knew was that I felt light. I felt good. I felt… free.

So I kept drinking. That night, and the night after, and the night after that.

It didn’t matter that I started popping Advils with my morning coffee to dull the hangover headaches. It didn’t matter that I started skipping class. It didn’t matter that I’d betrayed my parents, who made me promise to be a “good girl.” All that mattered was, for the first time in my life, I didn’t wish I had never been born.

I had found a solution to all my problems. And I was finally having fun.

I drank my way through freshman year. Ever fearful of Dad, I learned to cover my tracks. I began to lie. I became an expert at manipulation, finding creative ways to ask him for more money without him knowing I was spending it on alcohol.

By the time sophomore year drew to a close, I wasn’t having fun anymore. I couldn’t concentrate without a beer in my hand, and I was asked not to come back in the fall. I was devastated over Mom’s inevitable disappointment, terrified of Dad’s reaction. So I just drank more to escape my feelings.

The whole summer, I pretended to be preparing for junior year. I shopped, I packed, I continued to lie. Only when Dad began loading the car with luggage, I knew the game was up. I told them.

I’d spent a lifetime watching Dad get mad. But this! He was screaming and yelling, spit flying out of his mouth. I started to run away. Then I spied Mom, cowering in the corner, and I turned back toward her. After two steps, I turned around again.

Dad screaming, Mom crying, alcohol swirling through my veins… That’s when I collapsed. They took me to the hospital, and that’s how my parents found out about the drinking. They asked my rabbi for advice, and he suggested a place in Israel – a Jewish place, where I would feel more comfortable.

Dad didn’t ask my opinion. He packed my bags and shipped me off to Israel for rehab, to a place called Retorno. I didn’t want to go. I promised to change, Mom begged him to let me try AA first, but there’s no arguing with Dad.

Rehab in Israel

The first thing I noticed at Retorno was the stillness. It was just too quiet up there on that hilltop. I missed the drama of Mom’s soap operas, the incessant jabbering on the car radio, the hum of the nearby highway. Instead, I had birds chirping in my ears, horses whinnying… It was making me crazy.

The quiet was so unbearable because it made it impossible for me to ignore the noise inside me.

And then I realized why the quiet was so unbearable – because it made it impossible for me to ignore the noise inside me, the noise that never stopped. It was a maelstrom of screaming and criticism and tears. After so many years of suffering, I had managed to muffle that noise with alcohol. Without alcohol, I couldn’t shut out the noise anymore. Instead, I listened to it for the first time. Slowly, I learned how to dissect the chaos, and hear each sound individually. I heard the put-downs and the sarcasm, and I let myself feel, perhaps for the first time, how sad I was inside. How angry and disappointed and hurt.

It wasn’t easy to feel all those things. But really, these feelings had been there all along, I had just been repressing them. And for the first time, I was learning to accept these emotions – to work with them, not against them. During my stay in Retorno, I stopped blaming myself for everything – for not being perfect, for disappointing Dad, for not protecting Mom. I stopped letting other people blame me, too. I learned to accept both the inside Brenda and the outside Brenda.

I’m still no actress. But today, there’s no need. Now the wide smile on my face is real.

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