Broken Silence

My dad helps with a school project while my sister watches (early 1980s).My relationship with my father has been strained and distant for many years. When I got sober, that relationship got worse. Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. It just takes away the cover we are hiding behind and leaves exposed our pain and imperfection.

 

I started writing about my alcoholism in November of last year. I warned my parents that my writing would be raw and honest and expose terrors from my past that would surprise and sadden them. They were as supportive as they could be. They didn’t fully understand why I felt compelled to reveal my horrors to the world.

 

I shared a couple of drafts with them before I published. The drafts I sent them shared the culpability for my addiction with my parents. I’m sure it felt like an accusation about their parenting, and I’m sure it was painful to read. My father made clear that he didn’t agree with everything he read, but he didn’t want to stand in my way of doing what I needed to do. He told me he would read every word I write with great interest, but he wouldn’t discuss it with me because he didn’t want to argue with me about details. At the time, I was terrified about my parents’ response to my writing, so I was relieved with his initial feedback. I had no idea how the disconnected approach my father suggested would further strain our wounded relationship.

My dad stuck to his plan. As I published my writing, friends and family commented, called, texted and emailed, but I didn’t hear from my father. We talked once every three or four weeks. We talked about my work, my kids, his travel and his golf game. He asked me how my blog was going, but we never talked about the content of my writing.

 

I wrote things that hurt him. I drew direct lines that connected my alcoholism to his daily drinking habits. I wrote about my grandfather’s drinking asking questions about my dad’s dad. I told vivid and disgusting stories of my debauchery when drunk. My father held his tongue.

 

I heard nothing. No anger. No conflict. No sorrow. No pain. Nothing.

 

At the beginning of July, my family of six joined my sister’s family of five and my parents for our annual week spent together. In the weeks leading up to our vacation, my sister, Joey, had sparked the idea for a meeting of the adults to discuss my resentment for our father that I displayed in my writing.

 

I’ve learned so much about alcoholism and recovery in the 18 months of my sobriety, so I was eager to have the family discussion my sister suggested. Without conversation – painful, truthful conversation – there is no moving forward. My family was stuck. I wasn’t drinking anymore, and that was universally considered to be a good thing. My parents and sister had agreed, more or less, to let me write and to stay out of it because it seemed to be a key to my sobriety. They bit their tongues because they thought it was helping. The unasked and unanswered questions – the hurt and misunderstanding – it all festered and grew like and infected wound.

 

Our family meeting was planned for Monday night after dinner. On the preceding Saturday, my father picked my family of six up at the airport with a warm greeting and lots of big, welcoming hugs. For the next couple of days, he enjoyed his role as patriarch and host. He played with his grandchildren and ensured everyone’s comfort and enjoyment. My father is most comfortable hosting gatherings, and this family week, he was hosting the fruits of his seven decades of loving labor.

 

As Monday afternoon turned to evering, I could feel the tension begin to mount. The conversation I had so eagerly anticipated suddenly felt too heavy and difficult. This family who could comfortably drink coffee together in our pajamas and bed-heads was going to try to shift gears from light-hearted vacation mode to discussing my disease that terrorized us for a decade. As we finished dinner and dispatched the children to the pool table and a stack of DVD movies, the weight of the moment was almost too much to bear. My eager anticipation turned to anxious dread.

 

As my brave little sis got the discussion started, my father listened quietly. Everyone was trying to share – trying to get involved in this most difficult conversation about my lies and pain and distrust and broken promises. Everyone except my dad. He sat and listened intently. After what felt like hours to me, but was probably only a few minutes, my father’s silence was deafening and I could stand it no longer. I couldn’t read his expression. Was he angry? Was he disappointed? Was he annoyed? I abruptly turned to my dad and asked him what he was thinking. I was terrified as I awaited his response.

 

He asked me if I blamed him for my alcoholism. I stumbled and stammered through my answer. I tried to explain that I thought there was plenty of blame to go around, but that his daily drinking was a leading factor in my embrace of alcohol from the youngest of ages. I sputtered on about how my parents taught my sister and me to fear drugs, unwed pregnancy, debt and even ocean undertow – but we were never taught to fear addiction to booze. I mumbled that I know parents just didn’t talk about alcoholism with their children. No one talks about alcoholism ever with anyone. They were good parents and this omission wasn’t their fault. But I still wished they had taught me a healthy fear of alcohol and, yes, I did, to some degree, blame him for my addiction.

 

My dad accepted my answer, and he apologized. His apology was sincere, but I could tell that he felt helpless. He didn’t teach me to fear alcoholism because he didn’t know he needed to. He has repeated countless times throughout my life his mantra of, “everything in moderation.” In his defense, his drinking is daily and consistent, but it is also moderate. I can think of only a couple of times when it seemed he might have had an extra drink or two, and I can never remember my father being drunk. Never. How could the picture of moderation be responsible for the excesses of my addiction? When he repeated his mantra during our family conversation, it was something I expected him to say, and I nodded acceptingly.

 

As I sat with my family that evening and acknowledged my father’s mantra, it occured to me that my parents didn’t understand the disease of alcoholism. My father expressed his pain from being lied to and deceived as I tried to conceal my predilection. His pain was real and legitimate and deep and damaging to our relationship. He had taught me lying was as unacceptable as excess and gluttony.

 

And that pain had blocked his understanding of my written words that we had never discussed. In spite of thousands and thousands of words I had used to explain my disease, the associated shame, the change to my brain chemistry and my powerlessness to control the uncontrollable, my father didn’t understand. He talked of his willpower and surprise that his son lacked the same ability to easily moderate my drinking.

 

“You have never read a single book about alcoholism!” I shouted in frustration and anger. And they hadn’t. They hadn’t done any research about the disease that held our family in its deadly grip.

 

When we are diagnosed with cancer, we research and listen to experts so we can take the best path toward healing. When there is alcoholism in the family, we worry and whisper and shake our heads. But we don’t research because we think we understand the affliction of weakness, lack of willpower and gluttony.

 

I shared some of what I learned about brain chemistry from my research about alcoholism. I went on to share what my research taught me about the similarly damaging effects of the sleep medication on which my mother depended. I asked my father if he understood that even moderate daily drinking had changed his brain chemistry over the years. He accused me of sounding like a know-it-all.

 

I locked up. I had hoped for a discussion of healing, but found myself in a room full of people I loved who were only able to express their pain. Healing would have to come later.

 

My sister shared that she had advised my wife, Sheri, to leave me once after a particularly disgusting night of my drunken behavior. Sheri told us she felt she was responsible for ruining the relationship between my parents and me by involving them in our alcohol-induced marital fights. My mom expressed her guilt for telling Sheri she couldn’t handle her middle-of-the-night phone calls anymore. Pain. Everywhere there was pain. Healing was not on the horizon.

 

I left the discussion that Monday night lost and angry. I completely understood the advice my sister had given my wife, and I was relieved to see Sheri and my mother address their guilt about their dire phone conversations in their dark and desperate hours. But I was mad at my dad. His expressions of his pain were like a gut shot. I loved my father, but I hated how his words made me feel.

 

When I quit drinking, it didn’t fix anything. Never had those words carried more truth than on family meeting night. My dad and I had made a mistake. By not talking about my alcoholism in hopes of avoiding conflict, we had allowed a cancer of silence to metastasize.

 

Two days later, we tried again. This time, it was my dad’s idea to talk, and my father, my sister and I were the only three involved in the discussion. The conversation went better this time around. My dad acknowledged that he had a lot to learn about addiction, and he apologized for calling me a know-it-all. We agreed to talk about my writing. We made progress. We were emotional, but there was no anger. The healing had begun.

 

I felt like I was losing my dad for a long time. It had started to feel inevitable like a devastating diagnosis of a terminal disease. Death is final. But alcoholism doesn’t have to be.

 

Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. Painful conversation is required for healing. We have a long way to go to form the relationship I want. I’m glad we’ve started the journey.

 

I’m glad I have my dad back.

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15 Comments
  • Reply
    Elle
    July 18, 2018 at 7:16 am

    Wow – such vulnerability. I know beyond any doubt that such a conversation needs to happen in my family – and I also know that there would be similar results to your first meeting should we ever do that. There is so much bitterness, and still so much unacknowledged alcoholism in my family. I am currently the only one who has admitted that I am powerless over it. The rest of my siblings and nieces and nephews drink to excess and see no problem with their behavior. I don’t judge, because I was just like them. Our parents drink only moderately, and just don’t understand.

    I have tried to allow conversations about where I was and where I am now in sobriety with my family as it comes up, but it always seems strained on their part. Like the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

    As we clear away the wreckage of our past, some piles seem to linger a bit longer, being buried under so much more. And while we are told that we won’t regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it, there are some aches that we have caused that are difficult to come to terms with. In God’s infinite plan though, I know it all serves some purpose, even if what that is remains unknown.

    I continue to be grateful for your truthful authenticity, and take inspiration from your journey as I follow the winding, but ever enlightened path of my own. Blessings.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 18, 2018 at 9:04 pm

      Thanks, Elle! I love your feedback. The idea of following God’s plan even if you don’t know where it’s going is scary, but so exhilarating. Thanks for reminding me of that!

  • Reply
    Laura Jaros
    July 18, 2018 at 9:06 am

    Must have been tough at the family meeting. I’m glad you had a second one and had a bit of a break through. A good beginning on all sides.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 18, 2018 at 9:06 pm

      We are off and running on a great path. Thanks, Laurie!

  • Reply
    Mike Young
    July 18, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Hope you can continue the process of family healing. Remember things didn’t get to the apex of frustration overnight and will likely involve more time and effort on everyone’s part. Kudos to your sister for starting the process. I hope no one opts out before the wounds are healed.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 18, 2018 at 9:07 pm

      Thanks for the reminder about patience and a long road. Always great to hear from you, Mike!

  • Reply
    Dad
    July 18, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    Matt, this is a very powerful post that I hope helps your readers as much as the events you described helped us. To read you say “I’m glad I have my Dad back” makes me even more determined to get our relationship back to normal very quickly. I love you.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 19, 2018 at 4:48 am

      I love you too, Dad.

  • Reply
    LISA
    July 18, 2018 at 10:51 pm

    Whether it is addiction, mental illness, abuse in the family or something else, we often feel like the outsider. When, in reality, we are in a tribe of many just trying to figure things out, learn a new “normal”, or living a more authentic life.

    Your blogs always ring true and clear to me. My struggles-and my biological family’s behavior- are different but oh, so similar! The path toward wholeness is the same. We do our best to be that person, one step at a time. It’s a lifelong process. Perfection is not reality but Authenticity can be.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 19, 2018 at 4:47 am

      So true, Lisa. We seek things like happiness and perfection, when, in reality, authenticity gives us the strength to manage imperfection and a whole range of emotions. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Jen Mitchum
    July 20, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    Matt,

    Thank you for your raw honesty and the openness to discuss such difficult aspects of your journey. Bravo to your parents and dad for being open to have this discussion, even if it didn’t end or go exactly like you had anticipated. I have a friend who while in rehab was told by his father, “if showing up to the family portion of group is what it’s going to take to get you sober, you can count us out.” Ouch. MANY of us trudge this journey completely alone and without the support of any family, even if it is instrumental to our sobriety. Then there comes the subject of blame…always an easy one to point fingers at contributors to our demise. Are their societal and family value influences that contribute to us becoming alcoholic? Yes. Is there a difference in our body make up that makes us more prone to addiction than others? Yes. Is it anyone else’s fault but our own that we are alcoholic? No. Frankly, expecting others to get our disease is really setting yourself up for massive amount of disappointment. Even well-intentioned and educated family and friends, can not fully comprehend the making and brain patterns of an alcoholic. That is in part why we promote fellowship, it creates a unity and understanding that only those afflicted can comprehend. Especially those that are moderate drinkers. Why can’t you just say no, or not have another one? One is too little and 100 is never enough. For us, it doesn’t matter the amount it matters the start. One drop sets us off and running. No one as they grow up and develop think hey, I think some day I want to be an alcoholic, that sounds like a fun path. That’s part of the disease portion of this. Even though I set out to have my first drink or drug or whatever it was, I never intended for it to have an uncontrollable grasp on my life;one that I couldn’t shake for decades.

    I come from an environment where I was told at an early age that alcohol and the dependence on it could be costly for me (age 14 first sit down about my drinking habit). My grandparents owned a bar, so I saw alcohol and its’ environments as a place of revelry and celebration. My father was and is a using alcoholic as well as many of the other men in my family. I’m blessed to be probably the first female one but I can guarantee you that many of my family members struggle with other addictions, whether it be to cigarettes, shopping, or gambling. We have a predisposition to not handle anxiety and stress well. They are all coping mechanisms. Clearly, heavy drinking for us has also created and damaged pathways of impulse control and reactivity sections of our brains, or they were never properly developed to begin with.

    I am fully responsible for everything I have done, all the misery I have created and the only solution and penance I can make now is to live a different life. One in which I no longer harm those that love and care for me. I have a daily reprieve and if I start to have resentments, anger and expectations I will surely drink again, maybe not today but most likely tomorrow.

    Much love and healing to your family!
    Jen

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 20, 2018 at 7:49 pm

      Thank you so much for your insight, Jen. I am so blessed that you take the time to share what you have learned. Your comments always leave me with a lot of thinking to do. This one is no exception.

      I hear you loud and clear when you write, “Frankly, expecting others to get our disease is really setting yourself up for massive amount of disappointment.” Call me stubbornly hopeful – maybe part of my recover is giving it my all – but I am prayerful about changing the stigma and helping to educate the unafflicted about our disease. Maybe someday I be more grounded in reality, but for now, that hope keeps me writing. And writing, in large part, keeps me sober. Much love right back at you, my friend!

  • Reply
    Jen Mitchum
    July 23, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    I should clarify, I think what you are doing is wonderful and I too work towards destigimatizing the picture people normally carry of alcoholics. I just haven’t encountered many that can fully comprehend the quick demoralizing, self defeating, destructive tendencies we can produce…except in others afflicted or so affected that they have sought family help from recovery education (usually parents who lost kids to it). Keep being hopeful and writing, it’s awesome stuff!!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 24, 2018 at 4:38 am

      Thanks, Jen!

  • Reply
    Amen(d)s | Sober and Unashamed
    July 25, 2018 at 3:40 am

    […] hour or so into a several hour family meeting to discuss the impact of my alcoholism on all of our lives, my mother made an observation. My […]

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