“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man, true nobility is being superior to your former self.”– Ernest Hemingway
I was more skeptical than I’d like to admit, but my Dad seemed earnest in his newfound sobriety, and I wanted to support him. I felt like it was a scene out of a Planet Earth documentary: a rare animal slinks its way out and does something, and everyone around watching holds their breath to watch the gravity of the animal’s move. You don’t want to move for fear you will disturb it, so you do your best just to watch, and not interfere with its process. My Dad isn’t an animal, but this journey he was on was foreign territory for me. Sobriety? I didn’t know how to help or what to say, so it felt best to say little for fear I may knock this train off its tracks. At this point in my own life, I didn’t drink. Most of my friends did, but it scared me, and the only alcohol we had was Busch Light and siphoned liquor from my friend’s parents’ leftovers. I didn’t want alcohol to be a part of my life because I had seen how much it had rocked my entire family. I didn’t keep this attitude for much longer, but that’s for later in our story (wow, an alcoholic’s kid tries out alcohol? Who knew!).
My Dad tried out AA, and didn’t like it very much. “All they talked about was drinking. I wanted to be done drinking, and I was so tired of talking about all these old drinking stories, and about how hard it was to stop. I wanted to move on, and I didn’t want to be reminded every day that alcohol had a power over me.” Sobriety can be a touchy subject, especially in the realm of how a person came to be sober. Neither my Dad nor I think poorly of AA. I’ve seen AA and NA work for a lot of people. Anything that keeps you sober: a Higher Power (capital H, capital P), religion, meditation, prayer, AA, hypnosis; all of it is great. I think the problem lies in when some become overly zealous about their new-found sobriety, and it becomes a one-way highway of, this is the only way. We can share our experiences but in order to truly understand one another, it takes an open mind and an open heart. Coming to the table with a closed mind idea doesn’t help anyone, and I’ve found that makes it incredibly difficult to recruit others to your, “foolproof method” of sobriety or [insert belief here]. I digress. My Dad’s method of sobriety was quitting cold turkey.
Most people who are substance abusers are doing it to cover up feelings that all along the spectrum: from anxiety to depression to loneliness to sadness and back to anxiety. My Dad drank for many reasons. “It pissed me off I couldn’t be a part of my culture. I still had that pain even after I found out I was adopted, so I drank, excessively. I felt like I had missed out on being Native American: growing up in the southwest, being with my (biological) Mom, and no one told me. Even when I was drinking I could have been surrounded by 150 people in a bar and I’d still feel alone.” After my Dad stopped drinking, the pain he experienced as a child and throughout his adulthood was still there. Sports had salved it when he was a child, and alcohol had salved it when he was an adult. Now that he had neither, the pain was exposed; left raw and untended for many years. My Dad had to sit with this, and “I knew I had to do something to help myself after I quit drinking. I realized what I was doing to myself, my family, my grandkids, and how it was hurting everyone around me. That’s why I went. I knew I had to do something.” He sought the help from a clinical therapist. “I can’t remember who told me but a buddy of mine told me that the Catholic Diocese in downtown Toledo offered counseling. I had to go. I needed help. I ended up going to therapy for a year and a half.”
I didn’t take my Dad’s sobriety very seriously until he started going to counseling. It wasn’t an overnight change, but I could see he was putting effort in to repairing our relationship, and just as important repairing his relationship with himself. There was a shift in his demeanor: he was calmer, and one evening when we were eating dinner he asked if he could talk to us (me and Amber). We said sure. He apologized for, “all the things he did when he was drinking” and said he was sorry. I felt it was disingenuous. It was a blanket statement that didn’t make me feel better in that moment. The fear I felt growing up around him, and the anxiety I experienced did not cover a, “sorry for all the things” kind of statement. I was angry. The only response you can say to someone in that moment is, “okay” because I could see how painful it was for him to even say those words. But I felt my experience with him growing up was invalidated. He had seemed to be on a journey of self-forgiveness, but what about those he left in his wake of self-destruction? I put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to say anything for fear it would change the trajectory of this journey.
Maybe it’s selfish I was angry that my Dad gave that apology. But that’s how I felt. In that moment and until my early 20s I was so angry. I was frustrated that he seemed to lack the ability to process the ripple effect his alcoholism had on me and my siblings. Or maybe he did, but he didn’t acknowledge it to me. How my nervous and emotional regulation systems are wired differently because I felt so unstable growing up. It felt like when he became sober it was the final step, and not the beginning of truly repairing a relationship, which is what I was expecting. Even after going to counseling, he seemed at peace with himself, but not necessarily his children. I had to learn to accept a (genuine) apology I never received. This may sound resentful, and harsh. But it’s hard to hold on to so much anger. It’s poisonous. I couldn’t do it any longer, and needed to figure out how I could let go of that, and maintain a relationship with my Dad (which I very much wanted) while not resenting him. Insert therapy here! It took a lot of talk-therapy, EMDR, meditation, and work to accept that my Dad was and is doing his best. We are all just doing our best. We are all just doing our best.
I talked to one of my siblings about this time period, when our Dad was getting sober. She said he would call her all the time to talk about how hard it was, and how desperate he was to be and stay sober. How he was sorry, and she said it was like he was drowning. My heart sank into my stomach, and I nearly threw up. I never saw that side of my Dad when he was in the early stages of sobriety. I didn’t see the physical toll sobriety was taking on him after 30 years of alcoholism. I didn’t see him wrestling with the demons of his past, raging against him and him working through his identity crisis he experienced at such a young age. I didn’t see that. I needed to trade anger for compassion if there was ever any hope of my Dad and I maintaining a relationship. I opened my arms to empathy, and had to focus on:
- My Dad was now sober, and didn’t drink himself to death
- He was in my life and someone I leaned on greatly
- He was working on himself, and taking care of himself
- I love my Dad
- I know he loves me
None of this is easy. There are missteps and awkwardness and feelings accidentally or purposely get hurt and we have different expectations and some uneasiness. But I would take all of that a hundred times over than go through one more day of watching my Dad take a drink. “No one warns you about the amount of mourning in growth” echoes through my head like a ticker tape when I reflect on this. It’s hard to grow, and even harder to change when we have habits so deeply ingrained in us. There is no greater impetus for change than the inner fire that burns inside of us, and we have to keep fanning the flames ourselves.
I find empathy to be a better road to take than anger. Empathy for the children my parents were, and their stories. Empathy for how they soothed themselves when they needed their loved ones. Empathy for myself when I get frustrated or hurt or a flashback of white, hot anger. Empathy for when they made mistakes, but knowing they are trying their best.