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.