I’ve always known he did his best. That was never in question. For many years now, however, I wallowed in my belief that his best wasn’t good enough – that he should have done more and known better. But time, when combined with an open mind and considerable reflection and contemplation, is a powerful potion to heal old wounds.
I’ve long blamed my dad. Now I’m not so sure…
It’s amazing how much we learn from our parents – much of the knowledge transferred magically without a word spoken. This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way with my own kids. As a drinker, I blindly assumed that my kids weren’t paying attention. When I whisper-fought with my wife late into the night, or when the beer bottles piled up in the recycling bin, I knew my wife was painfully aware, but I honestly didn’t think my kids noticed or cared about my drinking. I know now that they were paying attention. Children are intuitive, and they take their cues about life from their parents. My alcoholism wasn’t just punishing my wife and me, my love affair with alcohol terrorized my kids as well.
When I was still drinking, I was oblivious. That’s hard to believe considering the impact my father’s drinking had on me.
My dad drank gin and tonics every evening of my childhood. He drank beer on the weekend afternoons of my youth after mowing the lawn or other home maintenance projects. I noticed.
I don’t know if there is a compulsive urge to his drinking, or if it is just a daily ritual as comfortable as Mr. Rogers slipping into his button-down sweater. My father does not drink like me. I remember many times before my sobriety when on vacation together that he poured a glass of milk to have with a cookie after dinner on a day that featured afternoon beers, gin during cocktail hour and wine with our evening meal. Milk?!?! I was switching back to beer to keep the party going as he flicked that alcohol off switch with the comfortable ease of putting on a pair of slippers.
I couldn’t do that. I never had easy access to my off switch.
We are not the same. Alcoholism is a self-diagnosis, and when I drank, I most definitely was on the wrong side of that invisible line. I believe addiction to be a spectrum, and I don’t know what spot my dad would assign himself between, “I can take it or leave it,” and, “I’ve got to take middle-of-the-night swigs from the vodka bottle I keep under my bed,” but I don’t think we are within shouting distance of each other on the spectrum.
Regardless, nothing rubbed off on me quite like the drinking of my father.
From before I was old enough to ride the bus to school, I associated alcohol with adulthood, success, manliness and relaxation. I understood that there were different drinks for different occasions, and booze was the reward for effort and achievement – both at work and at home. And entertainment, whether it was watching football on a Sunday afternoon or vacationing with family, always involved alcohol. The messages about alcohol, messages my father never explicitly voiced or explained, were received and understood.
I’ll never forget how it impacted me when my dad upgraded his brands. When he switched from Beefeater gin to Tanqueray, I knew that change was monumental. It signified a promotion or a raise, and was an indication of Dad’s assent up the corporate ladder. And when he stopped drinking Budweiser from a can upgrading instead to Michelob light, that signified to me that my dad had made it. He was successful. As I’d watch the condensation drips slide down the side of those sexy brown bottles, I was proud of my dad for elevating his beer-of-choice to the beer I’d seen my grandfather drink for years.
He had made it. We were secure. Alcohol told me so.
My drinking was as inevitable as growing whiskers on my chin. Drinking was never a choice for me. I know that statement will make a lot of people bristle. For some reason, there is a badge of honor associated with self-blame in the recovery community. I have repented. I have recovered. But I’ve never accepted much of the blame. There just wasn’t an alternative option available to me in the family and the society into which I was born. I was going to drink alcohol. It was as much a choice as breathing air.
And for that destiny, I had my father to thank.
None of these words are new. I’ve shared them on our Sober and Unashamed blog, in discussions with my wife on our Untoxicated Podcast, and through the first few chapters of our book, soberevolution: Evolve into Sobriety and Recover Your Alcoholic Marriage.
For many years, that’s where the story of the impact my dad’s drinking ended. But now, there’s a new chapter.
My dad has read and heard it all. He knows that I assign a significant portion of the blame for my alcoholism on him. His reaction has been as baffling to me as his milk and cookies at the end of a day of drinking.
No matter what I have said, in the most public way possible, he has rarely if ever reacted. He has taken it, punch after punch, without flinching. He hasn’t defended himself by downplaying my assertions about his influence. He hasn’t pointed the blame back on me for letting my drinking get out of control. Honestly, that’s truly amazing to me. If I was in control of my drinking, I don’t think I would have the restraint to listen to the accusations, and not fire back at the person for whom control was clearly illusive. I blamed him for my drunken debauchery, and his response was quiet compassion. And I don’t understand that.
I have, on a small number of occasions, pushed to have the face to face discussions about my drinking and his drinking and the unavoidable crossroads. On the best of those times, the conversations have been uncomfortable and surface level and left me with unresolved feelings. On one occasion, we both raised our voices, and spent a couple of days trying to repair the damage. It was an awful and (hopefully) unrepeatable experience.
For the very most part, I write, I think my dad usually reads, and we rarely talk about it. He asks me about the sales of our books and the growth of our email lists. He gives me enough feedback that I know he is still engaged, but we largely stay out of the deep end of the pool.
I have long believed that my father considers my sobriety to be a top priority. I think he thinks that as long as I don’t start drinking again, I can say whatever I want, and he won’t react. It is noble and valiant, but also a little curious to me. I can’t hold my tongue if my kids forget to hang up the bath mat, so I can’t imagine the restraint my father demonstrates in the interest of my sobriety. He loves my wife. He loves my kids. He avoids rocking the boat because he knows how important my sobriety is to their health and safety. But he loves me, too. And he internalizes the anger and frustration he must surely feel for me.
My compulsion to drink is not the only difference between my dad and I. I like to talk. I cannot stop exploring my feelings. I spent 25 years drowning my emotions in booze, and I have a lot of emotional catching up to do. I have long recognized my lack of filter as a character flaw that suits me perfectly for this kind of writing work. I still have my secrets, but considering what I am willing to share with the world, can you even imagine how depraved the few things I keep to myself must be?
My father likes to talk, too. He is a great storyteller, he always has a joke up his sleeve, and I cannot ever remember him being intimidated in the presence of anyone. He is comfortable in his own skin. At least that’s how it seems from the outside. What’s going on inside my father emotionally is a mystery. I’ve seen him angry plenty of times. I’ve seen him cry when someone close dies. But I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve discussed one of his weaknesses or fears. I get it. I’m his son, and no matter how old I get, it is ingrained deep within him to give the impression of a man in control and in charge. Maybe that’s not a facade. Maybe he’s really that even keel. I don’t really know because, as I just spent this paragraph explaining, we don’t talk about it.
So for many years, I have assumed that his decision to take my accusations without retaliation was because he thought it was best for me and my family, and because he is not comfortable talking about the squishy stuff anyway.
And for years, I thought his strategy was misguided.
This one-sided conversation was not enough for me. It’s well known that there is something very cathartic about writing our honest truth. But the quiet acceptance left me with a profound lack of closure.
Maybe my dad’s strategy was more enlightened than I’ve given him credit for. You see, I’ve spent the last several years talking to anyone who would listen about the importance of blaming the alcohol for the trauma caused by alcoholism. Alcoholics are not inherently evil people. Alcohol is a poison, and it warps even the most loving of humans into emotionally isolated demons. Until we stop blaming alcoholics for their own alcoholism, we’ll never end the epidemic of alcohol addiction. The alcohol is to blame. All the people who get hurt are victims. All of them.
And that includes my father.
He didn’t demonstrate the connection between alcohol and adulthood, success, manliness and relaxation because he wanted to nurture me into an alcohol addiction. He didn’t know any better. He did what he learned from his father and from the society he was immersed in. He loves me. He always has. And just like I make countless mistakes as I raise my four kiddos, he was far from perfect as he influenced my development.
Did he make me an alcoholic? No. That’s on the alcohol. He didn’t know any better. Absolutely none of it is his fault. Until recently, I didn’t understand that. I’m incredibly relieved that now I do. It feels like closure.
Here’s another way in which my dad and I are different. While I would never wish the pain of alcoholism on anyone, I am eternally thankful that I experienced addiction and survived. I have written extensively about the man sobriety has made me, so I won’t elaborate here and now. You either understand or you don’t. Besides, this isn’t about me.
It’s about my dad.
And I am absolutely certain that my dad does not share my thankfulness for my addiction. If he could do it over again, with the power of hindsight, I am thoroughly convinced that he would do whatever it takes to prevent my alcoholism. Regardless of the sacrifice, he would make it for me. He would do it because he loves me unconditionally and completely.
Finally, I understand. He’s my dad, and he’s done his best. Not only is it good enough, his insight and persistence is far more than I deserve.
I’m glad he still reads my writing. It makes it easy for me to tell him all of this.
If you’d like company as you process blame and forgiveness in your alcoholism and sobriety, we hope you’ll check out our SHOUT Sobriety program.