Loving and protecting my wife, Sheri, and our four kids, is the most critical component of my life. I think about the safety and development of my children constantly, and struggle to balance being present with letting them explore their worlds on their own. I don’t really care about money, power, status or control. I have made a mess of much of my life, and I just want to help them avoid the same pitfalls. This top priority of mine is both pretty simple and overwhelmingly complex. I pray daily for the strength and wisdom to get it right.
So when my oldest child, Cathryn, asked me if I would be OK with her writing her first essay of her junior year in high school about my alcoholism, I was excited that she was taking an interest in the topic that consumes much of my life. I expected her to write a story about our family overcoming this deadly disease. I was eager to read about the closeness of our father-daughter relationship. I anticipated reading of her trepidation about addiction and her plan to tread cautiously into the waters of alcohol consumption in her adult life.
What she wrote was not what I expected. Her essay was the most painful collection of words I have ever read.
Cathryn is a skilled writer. Her introduction paragraph was filled with intrigue – the kind of intrigue designed to keep a reader reading. She wrote about an easy, peaceful childhood free from stress or struggle. Except, she wrote, for the struggle presented by her father’s illness. “…my father is very sick. There is no cure for his disease…” She built suspense like a master writer. Then she told a story:
One night, when my dad’s sickness was making it very hard for him to interact with us, my mom was in charge of getting us ready for bed, even though she had to get up when the sun rose to go to work the next day. She had gotten us all to brush our teeth and get our pajamas on, and we were all sitting on the floor of the room my brother and I shared while she read a book to us. Sooner or later, my dad appeared in the doorway, looking extremely confused and angry. “Goddammit Sheri, why the hell aren’t these kids in bed yet?” my dad slurred as loud as he could manage. My mom handed the open book to me and stood up calmly, saying with a strong voice, “Matt, it’s only 7:30.”
Cathryn wrote about a hideous drunken episode that our family has discussed extensively. She wasn’t writing about her pride in our family recovery, she was revealing the details of our family trauma. My heart was racing as I read on:
At this, my dad put his hand through the glass of a picture frame on the wall. His hand was bleeding, there was glass everywhere, and my dad alternated between screaming at my mom that she was crazy and an awful mother, and commanding my two brothers and I to get in bed right away. All four of us were crying, but my mom, adept at dealing with my dad when his sickness was in control, was sweeping up the glass and getting my dad a washcloth for his hand, all while he hurled insults at her.
I had to stop reading because I couldn’t breath. Cathryn had laid it all out there – the worst night of my precious children’s young lives. Nothing she wrote was a surprise to me as Sheri and I have talked about it with our children as part of our recovery as a family. Not a word of her story was untrue or exaggerated. I have grown comfortable with baring my painful and shameful soul for my readers. But Cathryn would have an entirely different audience, and they were about to be welcomed into our family anguish at my drunken hands. I regained enough composure to continue:
It amazed me how it seemed he would never pay attention to her quiet tears or our bawling at the sight of him like this. I would get so angry at him for not being able to control himself, angry at him for letting himself get so bad sometimes, angry for making my mother cry…for a time, I hated my father for something I thought he should be able to handle.
Hate is a powerful emotion, and not a word my daughter throws around casually. Reading of her hatred for me hurt like nothing I have ever experienced. Hatred from my daughter was the definition of failure in our relationship – one of the father-child relationships I cherish above all others in my life. My alcoholism had brought me to my knees. To read of the pain I caused my beloved children while in the grip of addiction was almost too much to bear.
My daughter had done exactly what my writing has taught her to do. She put it all out there and held nothing back with the hope and belief that the truth would set her free. She peeled back the bandage and left exposed the open wound for all to see. There was no new revelation in her words – at least nothing new to me. But still, her story re-filled me with shame and a tormenting sorrow that will never truly end.
Beyond my emotional reaction to her essay, there was a practical aspect to consider as well. Cathryn attends the same high school where I coach soccer. All employees, coaches included, have recently been required to undergo enhanced mandatory reporter training. Under Colorado state statutes, anyone deemed a mandatory reporter (including all school employees) must report any suspected incident of child abuse or neglect to the police or the Colorado Department of Human Services. The mandatory reporter is subject to jail time for not reporting any suspected incidents. The information was fresh in my mind as I had just completed my training. So had Cathryn’s teachers. And now one of them was about to read a paper about my loud and demanding drunken behavior. Cathryn’s essay was not only painful to read. It could potentially subject my family to a DHS investigation. Is it any wonder why families dealing with alcoholism keep shameful secrets?
My coaching job is also potentially on the line. My head coaches and athletic director are all aware of my recovery from addiction and my writing on this subject, but now they could potentially hear about an incident from a decade in the past from a member of the faculty. This could cast new light on my battle with alcoholism and put my job in jeopardy. Nothing brings me greater joy than my family, but coaching high school soccer is not far behind on my happy meter. And now, that is all at risk.
When Cathryn asked me to proofread her essay a week before the due date, all of my brain cells dedicated to self-preservation screamed at me to explain to Cathryn the perilous predicament her essay left me in, but I didn’t. I told her it was hard for me to read, but the essay was very well written and I was proud of her.
She was making the brave leap of faith to share her truth fearlessly. How could I ask her to keep her perspective on my disease a secret? How hypocritical would that have been? What a tragic lesson on telling the truth only when it is convenient I would have been teaching my beloved daughter. She was staring pain and conflict in the face and refusing to blink. I had to encourage her and face the potential repercussions.
Cathryn’s essay is vital to my mission to end the stigma associated with alcoholism. Since coming-out about my addiction in January, I have written consistently and urgently about the need for communication and honesty regarding this disease of hushed whispers and quiet shakes of the head. Now, my daughter is answering my pleas for honesty and transparency to the benefit of other families battling alcoholism. Our story, from her perspective, is important and needs to be told. That she feels safe and comfortable telling her story is a blessing for which I am reverently grateful.
I have no choice but to celebrate Cathryn’s courage and skill to tell her story, come what may.
In Cathryn’s essay, she went on to describe our society’s complicity in the epidemic of alcohol addiction. She wrote about some great aspects of the life of our family, and she used words like, “oxymoron,” and, “taboo,” to describe the relationship our culture has with alcohol. She made strong arguments and told a compelling story about our family disease.
I am so proud of Cathryn. I never imagined I could love someone this much.
Cathryn concluded her essay with these two sentences that tell her readers how she feels about me: “He is strong, he is protecting, he is present, he is loving, and he is an alcoholic. Most importantly, he is my dad and I am not ashamed of him.”