The last time I saw my Dad he was drunkenly backing out of the driveway to bring himself to the hospital for treatment. I watched my sister try and convince him to let one of us drive him there, and stood by helplessly as he knocked over a recycling bin and careened down the street. I thought that was the last time I would ever see my Dad, and I felt my stomach drop, not because I was worried for his safety, but because I was worried for the safety of others. I began to have a panic attack as I realized that I’d be personally responsible for anything that could happen while he was out on the road. I immediately called my mom, but of course her phone went straight to voicemail, and I began to have a meltdown. I couldn’t believe that someone had left the car keys in plain sight, just like I couldn’t fathom why there was any alcohol in our house to begin with, and instead of being angry or worried about him, I became angry at everyone who let this situation happen.
This is what it’s like to have an alcoholic as a parent. You spend all your time taking care of a sick person, who you can never tell people about because of social stigma, and instead of addressing any feelings of guilt or resentment you have, you’re conditioned to tear down the other people who are struggling alongside you. The only way a child of an alcoholic can have a childhood is if they are able to live in blissful ignorance and be protected from the truth. If you’re one of those kids who don’t have that luxury, however, you’re forced to grow up quickly and accept that things aren’t fair and that your parent isn’t a superhero like other kids’ parents.
From a very young age, I accepted that I only had 1.5 parents. I had my overworked mother and I had my sober father, who was only present half the time. Sober Dad was a great guy when he was around; he was intelligent, extremely creative and he could charm the pants off any woman or man higher up on the Kinsey Scale. My other dad, however, wasn’t as much fun to be around. Instead of reading you stories, or playing catch with you, he would pin you against a wall for looking at him the wrong way.He was the type to drive you home from school while drunk, the type to get arrested for public intoxication, the type to drive away all of your friends and turn your family into social pariahs. And sadly, there was no telling which of the two men would walk through the door at the end of the day.
I hated my Dad for most of my childhood. I hated him for the way he treated my mother, I hated him for putting his hands on me and my siblings, and I hated how cut off he made us from the rest of the world. What I hated most was how he would come back from rehab and expect that I’d welcome him with open arms. I couldn’t believe my Dad had the audacity to try and connect with me during his moments of sobriety because I couldn’t forgive him for the things he did to me while drunk. I couldn’t pretend to be happy to receive theatre tickets from him because I felt that by showing him kindness or my own happiness that I was unintentionally reinforcing his drunken behavior. I didn’t want my Dad to think I was giving him a free pass, and I didn’t want him to think that him buying me things or complimenting me made up for all of the times he made me feel scared and angry. I felt that just because my Dad wanted to be a father did not mean that I was required to be his son, and instead of ever giving him a chance during his sobriety, I just hated him more and more.
I hated him so much that I secretly wished that he’d just die.I thought things would be so much easier if he wasn’t around. I’d be able to have friends over again, my mom could meet someone new, and I could finally let go off all the anger I had been bottling up. But he didn’t die, and instead of addressing my issues with him, I took out all of my anger and frustration on my mother. I beat her up emotionally because I thought she was a spineless coward; I thought she stayed with my father throughout all this because she loved him more than she loved her own children, and I HATED her for that. I ended up using anger as a way of coping with my sadness and feelings of mistreatment and betrayal in the same way my Dad used alcohol as a way of coping with his problems. And I became a miserable person. I told myself that there was nothing wrong with me, I thought that my wrath was justified, and I decided I wouldn’t let up until I broke my mother in the way that my father broke me.
One day I realized that I was letting my anger control my life and I realized that I was giving up the reins just like my Dad. I discovered that hurting my mother didn’t make me feel better, in fact, it made me feel worse, and I realized that I lost sight of who I was as a person. I decided that I wouldn’t let my father dictate my adulthood like he did my childhood. I wouldn’t let how I felt about him ruin any chance I had at making my own happiness, and I realized I had the power to choose how to look at my life. I could sit and complain about everything that was wrong, or I could be grateful and optimistic about the future, so instead of investing all of my energy into hating my Dad, I focused on making myself the best person I could be. I did my best to surround myself with great people, with the hopes that I could build a support network that would keep me from ending up like my Dad, and I think that I’ve found success and peace in my life because I’ve been able to convince myself that everything I have now is a result of the trials and tribulations I faced growing up. I believe that I turned the heartache in my life into humor, I believe that I’ve matured in a way that makes me capable of handling what life will throw at me, and I take comfort in knowing that if and when I have children I will be able to provide them with the support I felt I missed as a child.
I decided to write this article now because my Dad was recently diagnosed with cancer. I know that he is currently in a facility and unable to read this piece, but I hope that when he is able to he can better know how I’ve felt all of these years. I don’t hate my father; I feel bad for him. I know that if he had the strength he’d choose family over alcohol; I know if he had that support and self-love that he wouldn’t constantly put himself in bad situations, and I know that if he could properly address his mental health issues and depression that he would have a fighting chance at beating this other disease. Despite any of his shortcomings, I know that my Dad is a good person with something to offer. I know that before he was sick he was a creative person and an avid reader and poet, and it’s nice to know that I inherited some of those traits from him. I sincerely hope I am able to use those gifts and put them to better use than he has been able to, and while I do occasionally feel guilty for not supporting him as much as I could, I know that he is proud of me and understands the decisions I have to make for myself. I hope that my Dad is able to beat this disease; I can’t say that I think it will happen, but I know that if he did I would be as proud of him as he is of me.
I wish I could tell you what I wanted you to get out of reading this. I wish I had some sort of moral, but I don’t. My dad’s alcoholism isn’t some past event that I can truly talk about retrospectively; it’s something my family deals with on a daily basis. What I want to say though is that there are so many people out there, with stories like mine, who keep quiet because of taboos and social stigmas. We need to remember that alcoholism is a disease not a life choice, and that it is painful and ugly. Too often we make light of alcoholism or make insensitive jokes about the subject, which only further alienates the people who struggle with it on a daily basis. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people struggling with alcoholism need a support system. We need people who are willing to listen to us and support us, even if those people don’t fully relate or understand what we are going through. We want you to acknowledge the alcoholism so we will no longer feel compelled to conceal it, like it’s some shameful secret we need to harbor. The battle with alcoholism can be lonely and ugly, but it can be a bit easier if there are people who are supporting us along the way.
Check out this Ted talk I think the speaker has some good insite.
I really respect you for writing this article.
It really made me think how I don’t want to be as my grandparents were alcoholics when they were younger and it really took a tole on my father and his siblings.
-Tom (went to high school with Erin your sister)
This is long overdue, but I wanted to take a moment to say I admire your courage and thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your words have made a difference. I have every client of mine who has children read this and every time they are affected deeply. It has been my experience that alcoholics/addicts have an understanding how how their addiction has impacted his/her own life, but have a true blindspot, or lack of understanding/perspective regarding how their addiction has impacted those closest to them.
Your words make an impact and have helped some fathers make positive changes in their behavior and in the way they communicate with their children.
Thank you sincerely,
The Kelly House