National Recovery Month 2023 – Together We Are Stronger

I Will Never Be Like My Parents… Until I’m 30

Brenna Smith-Thomas

I woke up Christmas morning, 2021 feeling like death.  The night before, we’d left our kids asleep at home, going to the bar after drinking the day away at our annual Christmas Eve celebration.  We were just going to drop off my brother and sister-in-law, which turned into ‘we’ll pop in,’ which turned into ‘okay, just a few shots.’  

Watching the kids open presents the next morning should’ve been a magical experience but I was hungover and miserable.  Why couldn’t I just be normal?… Why have I never felt normal?

Growing up, my parents’ relationship was highly dysfunctional and abusive which my sisters and I felt the impact of. We were physically and emotionally abused by both parents, living in a perpetual state of fear, constantly walking on eggshells. As a child, I was aware that walking on eggshells and being afraid all the time wasn’t a typical experience; I recognized this even more so when I started going to friends’ houses, awestruck by the different family dynamics.  People treated each other with respect and love… my friends didn’t seem to have angry, abusive, alcoholic parents like I did.  

growing resentment

I was probably 9 or 10 when I truly started to resent how I was being raised.  At that point, I was picked on a lot at school; I saw myself as awkward and shy, having just one pair of jeans – they were turquoise.  Feeling comfortable in my clothes was the last thing on my mom’s mind and I tried not to shame her for it. Despite efforts to remain a “good kid,” at 13, my mom decided I was too much to handle; she didn’t want me anymore.  At this point, she and my dad had split so he was next in line to take me in.  He didn’t want me either, so I was sent to live with my aunt while my 12 and 8-year-old sisters – the easy one, and the favorite – stayed home with our mom, getting her full attention.  I was confused, abandoned, and ashamed – I felt I wasn’t worth loving anymore. 

Brenna's Family Photo

The following summer, out of nowhere, my dad decided he wanted custody of me and my sisters; it was an ugly process, resulting in the three of us moving to Las Vegas for my first year of high school. Honestly, I was optimistic; I wanted a fresh start.  What I was met with, however, was a new sort of torture. My dad’s then-wife let me know how much she resented me being there, grounding me for two weeks because I left scotch tape in my room; another two weeks when she found nail polish; add four weeks for getting books from the library.  I wasn’t allowed to eat with them while I was grounded either, exacerbating feelings of fear and isolation. I was strictly permitted to come out of my room to use the bathroom, shower, do my chores, or go to school. I was not allowed to go on family outings, and she made it very clear when my extended family and cousins came to visit that I was not allowed to hang out with them either, as I was being punished. I was grounded the entire six months that we lived there, each ‘reason’ being more obscure than the previous.  

At the end of that six months, my dad split from that hateful woman and we were sent back to Arizona to live with our mom.  I didn’t even care that her addiction was worsening; I’d take her ambivalence over hatred any day. My mom had another daughter while I was away, so I basically became the caretaker for all 3 of my siblings.  Seeing the reality of addiction up close showed me something I never wanted to be.  

“I will never be like my parents,” was a sentiment I repeated to myself often… perhaps I forgot to knock on wood.

At 18, I bailed – I was able to move out on my own and experience independence I didn’t know existed.  I was so excited to be on my own, and life became fun for the first time – it was a feeling of freedom that I will never forget. The stress and anxiety I carried while living with my mother started to fade, however, my anger and resentment towards my parents didn’t. Those are still feelings I’m learning to deal with today – 21 years later. At 29, when I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I was pissed – how on brand.  We’d been saving up to go to Hawaii and I definitely did not want to be pregnant in Hawaii. I thought about all the tropical island drinks I’d be missing out on and that familiar feeling of resentment began creeping back in.  I didn’t know how to cope with how selfish I felt.  I mean, who resents their unborn baby? 

That pregnancy was a blur, but the image of myself on the couch with a beer in one hand and my son in the other remains seared in my mind and body, as does the wine… and champagne.  He (my second) was born at home – so I was literally sitting on my couch with my newborn, drinking to ‘celebrate’. “It’s just a celebratory drink!” I would say, knowing no one would call me out on my bullshit.  

Until then, despite going through severe post-partum depression with my first, I had my drinking relatively under control, you know, only binging on weekends with friends… to unwind from the work week. It’s hard to explain how quickly it happened because at the time I felt like I was in slow motion.  I’d started taking shots, which soon progressed into half a bottle of vodka every day.  I was in complete denial, always having an excuse to drink.  

“Wine Wednesdays!” 
“Thirsty Thursdays!”
“It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” 

When COVID hit, it got really, really bad – I’ve never ugly-cried so much in my entire life.  I was drunk in almost every management meeting just to numb the pit in my stomach, never knowing what mood the executives would be in or who would be the punching bag that day.  I was in a toxic work environment, living with untreated post-partum depression while my kids relied on me for their education day after day.  I watched myself fray from every direction while thoughts of suicide developed into a full-blown plan.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  Any of it, and I was convinced my family, and the world, would be better off without me in it.  

Brenna Smith-Thompson

I didn’t have a solid support system; most of my relationships revolved around alcohol so the idea of “reaching out” just wasn’t a thing; plus I was so shy that AA meetings were absolutely out of the question.  I still have severe anxiety attacks just thinking about going to a meeting and standing up in front of a bunch of strangers to tell my story even though I know they’re not judging me. Even though I know that’s a safe space – that I would be accepted for the person I am. Mental health resources were readily available but I was so used to advocating for other people and suppressing my own needs that the thought of changing now seemed impossible. 

I recognize this as a direct result of my complete lack of self-love, self-worth, and past traumas. There wasn’t a lightbulb moment that made me want to keep fighting, I just started small, thinking about my family, deciding I would seek treatment for my anxiety, then depression, still drinking every day, while I wrote medical necessity appeal letters spelling out why John Doe’s claims shouldn’t have been denied.  Believe, me – I had many, many failed attempts at sobriety, taking around 3 years to become fully alcohol-free.  Now I can look back and see that each ‘failed’ attempt was another lesson learned and it really helped to contribute to the self-awareness I have now. I’ve always felt less than, and I’ve always struggled with self-confidence, not ever learning how to really love myself.  I realize now, that it’s going to take time and patience to deconstruct the 38 years of hateful, destructive patterns, and that’s okay because it has to be okay.  


I’m strong enough to persevere


I’m strong enough to persevere, and I’m finally realizing that I am worth it.

In addition to being on a med-management program to treat my depression and anxiety, I found tremendous solace in hearing other people’s stories, through countless books and podcasts. I watched every single Intervention episode, feeling less alone as I saw myself in each of these people struggling for freedom. Having been sober for 1 year, 7 months, and 9 days at the time of this writing, I’ve felt the weight of shame slowly dissipate, seeing the world accept addiction as a disease, which makes it much easier to talk about today.  And you know, it’s shocking how much support I’ve gotten in sharing my story; there’s no judgment, no hate, just people willing to listen with love and support, which is the best Christmas gift I could ever ask for, outside of a job where I don’t form stomach ulcers.  Thank you, Hansei – you are a gift in and of itself. And if I could leave you, oh gracious listener, with one final thought, it would be to stay open-minded, compassionate, and able to see the similarities we all share, rather than the differences.  Also, please seek help, however you can – the world needs you. 

With love,
Brenna Smith-Thomas

Podcast: Recovery Elevator
Book: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober  
Book: This Naked Mind (Control Alcohol)
Book: The Sober Diaries
Book: Let That Shi*t Go 

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