“For the epidemic of influenza, a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado, the worst is quickly over; treatment and recovery efforts can begin. In contrast, the chronic disaster that results from (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is insidious and constantly rolling out from generation to generation.”
~ Doctor Robert F Anda and Doctor David Brown, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
Sometimes I wonder how I survived my childhood. That’s not an attempt at humor, because I am the child of an addict. I can tell you, it is nothing at all like the movies. There was nothing poetic or noble about my father’s numerous addictions. When he was high (or low, depending upon the drug that day) he did not turn into a brilliant philosopher. In fact, I can safely say that I have rejected virtually every life lesson that he purposely taught me when I was a child. Now, the lessons he taught me about his behaviors? Unfortunately, that is a different story altogether. When I consider how well I learned those lessons, perhaps I should say that sometimes I wonder how I have survived my adulthood.
I don’t think that there is an illicit drug or way to get high/low that my father did not try at least once. If he could smoke it, drink it, snort it, pop it, or shoot it, my dad was all-in. As my sponsor used to say, my father was an “equal opportunity addict”. In fact, it was absolutely impossible to ever predict my father’s mood swings, because not only did they depend on if he was using, they depended on what he was using – speed, weed, booze, or pills. When I became an oh-so-clever teenager, my younger brother and I would call him “Hurricane Dad”, because he was a force of nature that left destruction in his wake.
I Was So Lonely
If you haven’t lived through it, you probably would not understand precisely how isolated a child with an addict for a parent can feel. I was ashamed of how poor we were. We had our electricity turned off all the time. I wore shoes until they were falling apart and filthy. I never got to play sports, because we couldn’t afford the fees and the uniforms. It was very hard for me to make friends. I never invited anyone over to my house, for obvious reasons. On the extremely rare occasions when I was invited over to someone else’s house and allowed to go, I always felt completely out of place. To top it all off, it seems like we were constantly being kicked out, or as my dad would say “moving”. It’s hard to make good friends when you never stay in one place for too long.
Invisible and Invincible
At home, I learned how to be stoic and stealthy very early on. When dad was on one of his rampages, I learned how to be practically invisible, because if he noticed me, he could work himself into a rage over my slightest imperfection. I was always too mouthy… too lazy… too unappreciative… and then, he could REALLY get going. As bad as it could get, if I ever let him know how much something hurt or got to me, it would get that much worse. If I tried to explain, or ask why, or worse yet, cry, things could get really bad. If my father saw that something hurt me, he would zero in right there. He would jam the knife in and twist it. I found out early on that if I could just stand there, in passably, and act like he wasn’t getting to me, he would often simply lose interest and move on to the next thing. Or pass out, and that was fine by me.
My father never had any sort of epiphany while was growing up. He was an addict when I was a young child, and he was still using and abusing when I graduated high school. Yes, I graduated. My home life was always too crazy for me to be any sort of academic whiz, but I got by. Sometimes, school and books were my only refuge, and I guess enough of it stuck with me to keep my grades passable. I found out later that I was lucky in one respect. I learned later that children in my situation are four times more likely to become substance abusers. That was never me. On both an unconscious and conscious level I absolutely rejected both alcohol and drugs. I graduated high school, join the military, and ran as far away as I could.
Sins of the Past
I did not escape completely unscathed, though. I was still the angry-on-the-inside/quiet-and-emotions-on-the-outside emotional train wreck that I always was. I didn’t know how to relate to others in a normal and healthy way. I was either too cold or too angry or too distant or some horrible combination of all of the above. Nearly all of my girlfriends never made it to the “long-term” part of the program. It seemed like maintaining lasting relationships was not within the scope of my abilities. When I was in my mid-twenties, I did manage to get married to a great woman who somehow saw something positive in me, but I don’t think I really understood how to be a loving and supportive husband at that age. I have learned by attending 12-step meetings that the biggest fear of most alcoholics/addicts is to die drunk or high. That’s what happened to my father. He never got completely clean and sober, and when his ravaged body finally gave out, I was just shy of 30 years old. It was around the same time that my wife announced she was pregnant. For all of my stoicism, those two opposites – my father’s death and the impending birth of my child – hit me hard in ways that I never would’ve expected. About two weeks after my father’s death, and about one week since my wife’s announcement, I was up late one night, stressing over all of the usual expectant father worries, when I experienced what can only be called a flashback from the future. I saw myself as a father, but in my mind, I was really just a mutation of my own father – a continuation of his life’s work. I wasn’t a drunk or an addict, but I was a monster. I saw this twisted version of myself screaming at my future-teenaged son, belittling him with every curse and epithet that I hurled. I saw a young man who looked suspiciously like I did at his age, and I saw something break inside him. I literally found myself unable to breathe. I hyperventilated, but it felt like I was getting no air. I was sweaty, panicky, and it seemed like my heart was going to explode. My wife found me on the floor in the fetal position, bawling my eyes out. I cried every tear that I never allowed myself growing up. I cried for the monster my father was and I cried for the monster I was afraid I would become. I cried because my father and his demons had stolen my childhood, and I cried because I was afraid the stain on my soul would steal the childhood of my unborn child.
A Whole New Life
Having grown up in constant terror and stress, I am very familiar with fear, and I have never been as afraid of anything as I was that my vision was some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. When I broke down and tearfully told my wife – who had never before seen me cry – she told me there was help for people like me. I didn’t argue or protest at all. Like a drowning man reaching for a preserver, I did some research and attended the first 12-step meeting I could find. I went in with no belief and no expectations. Because of my father’s influence, I, of course, knew about such programs, but I had always been taught that they were a bunch of self-righteous ex-drunks blowing a lot of hot air. I was hoping this was different. I was attending the sort of meeting that didn’t focus on people who drink or do drugs. Instead, this was a gathering of people whose lives had been ripped apart by someone else’s drinking and drugging. These were people whose husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, partners, and friends were alcoholics and addicts, and who had felt the same shame, anger, confusion, fear, and every other negative emotion that I had. Over the next several weeks and months, every time I attended a meeting, I heard a story just like Mine and connected to this group fellowship in a way that I never had with any bunch of “strangers” ever before. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere.
My father has been dead for 10 years now. At that time, I applied myself and worked the Steps really hard. I learned how to quit blaming myself for the things that were outside of my control and I learned how to take responsibility for my own actions. Slowly, and painfully, I learned how to open up in positive ways, and my relationship with my wife, my friends, and my child are all better than I could ever have imagined. I’ve even been known to crack a smile from time to time. I forgave my father. I thought that it would be the hardest thing that I would ever have to do, but instead, I felt as if I was releasing a massive weight that I had been carrying all of my life. I didn’t have to be bitter, I didn’t have to be resentful, I didn’t have to hate, and I didn’t have to keep battling every moment of every day. I just… let it go. I know now that my father had a disease. He was powerless over his addictions, and although he died before we could reconcile, part of me likes to think that wherever his spirit is, he is free and at peace… as I am.