Adult Child of an Addict
Once upon a time, I left home, legally changed my name, finished college, left the state for graduate school, and got my master's degree.
I left my father and his side of the family in the dark.
I served my mother a warning that I could do the same to her if she didn't start acting like an adult. She's still crazy, sometimes she acts like an adult, but most of the time she doesn't. We've been able to find a kind of superficial truce. It took a long time for us to get there, but we're tentatively all right.
My sister eventually also left my dad's side of the family behind, although not quite as dramatically as I did. Neither she nor I nor our mother have had any contact with him or his side of the family for about 20 years.
My favourite aunt contacted my sister last week via Facebook, unsure if she had the right person. She was desperately trying to get in touch with us to let us know Dad has cancer.
My sister, given to emotional reactions, was understandably freaked. She forwarded the information to me.
Now, a portion of the reason no one has had contact with that side of the family is because I was adamant that dad never find out my new name or location. My mother was afraid she would slip, so she let everyone slip away. My sister had other problems with dad that just piled on and so she let everyone slip away as well.
The email didn't say much.
It gave my aunt's phone number and stated that Dad has cancer and she was taking care of him. I let myself think for most of the day that maybe he wanted her to get in touch with us. To make amends. When I called, however, that was not the case.
He has tongue cancer.
If you've ever seen the first season of Saving Grace, you will appreciate that I actually laughed out loud (after I got off the phone with my aunt). Apparently he's already had surgery. I didn't ask if they took the entire tongue or just a part. She said it was a very aggressive form of tongue cancer, and they're doing radiation and chemotherapy now.
I guess he didn't ask for us. She thought we should know. She wanted to get in touch with us.
I told her I wasn't ready to talk to him yet, and I was somewhat surprised that she seemed to completely understand. She knows nothing, really, of the circumstances that led to my leaving. I suspect she thinks it had something to do with my parents' divorce.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I'm a little numb right now. I was, for some stupid reason, hoping against hope that he wanted to make amends. That perhaps he was working the program, off the booze, and ready to try to make up for the things he'd done. The horrible, sick things he'd done as his alcoholism and sexual addictions raged.
I'm in a very different place today than I was then. Back then, I was terrified of him. I thought he was going to kill me in order to keep me from telling his secrets. Later, I was afraid that some of his cronies would hunt me down and torture me.
The name change was partly to hide my trail, so to speak, but it was also to redefine myself as someone different from the kid who was abused for so many years.
On the drive home from work today, I realized that some part of me is still a little afraid that one of his cronies will hunt me down. Most of me is sure that this is simply ingrained paranoia and not a real possibility. But I still didn't tell my aunt my new name or where I live.
Yesterday, I was gung ho about confronting my father and getting some closure. Today? I don't know. You see, he didn't ask to see me. Somehow knowing the contact was all on my aunt's end and not his makes a big difference. And I realize I was holding out hope that he gave a shit about me. That he was sorry about what he'd done. That I would get some explanation - a narrative of some sort.
Now, I feel like things are back to the status quo.
I don't know if I'll contact him or not. I don't think I wanted to confront him as much as I just wanted him to care. I need to decide if it's worth a confrontation and if I'm up for that confrontation knowing that, realistically, he probably doesn't remember a damn thing. With as much as he drank, if he didn't black out those nights, he's probably killed enough brain cells to not be able to recall those dark memories anyway.
And does it matter? I'd finally mostly let go of having to know. Now, I can feel questions bubbling up again.
But do they really matter?
I am who I am. I'm pretty content with myself. I've left the past behind.
Is there any reason to dredge up the past now? Am I ready to deal with his denial? Am I ready to deal with his truths? Am I truly as balanced today as I think I am?
There are a lot of questions.
Maybe I'll re-watch the first season of Saving Grace and see how I feel after that.
One of the most damaging emotions we can hold onto is anger.
Most of the time, we are angry at the right person for the right thing - we often feel (correctly) justified in our anger.
Anger, though, can turn to malignancies, and sometimes, the best answer to unresolved anger - especially when we find it ruling our lives, is to let it go. To learn to forgive (but not forget.)
I grew up a child of divorce.
I cannot remember my parents ever living together. Every other weekend, and six weeks every summer, I was sent off to my father's house.
Neither of my parents really had their shit together. Both were young, naive, and struggling. My mother would tell me stories of how my father abused her - broke her arm, broke her nose, and beat her.
When I was three, I watched him break into our apartment through a kitchen window. I remember he cut his arm on the glass; I was mesmerized by the blood dripping all over my high chair. The police came and hauled him away while he yelled obscenities at my mother. This was not his first time in handcuffs and it was not his last.
When I was four, my mom and I lived outside of town in the country. She would always meet my father in town when doing drop-offs. She sternly told me, "Never tell your dad where we live."
Not long after that, good ol' dad took me out on a motorcycle ride and very slyly asked me how to get to my house. I was excited to show off my excellent memory and proceeded to navigate up hills and along single lane roads. Halfway through our journey, I began to feel uneasy. My mother's voice echoed in my head and I began to panic. I feigned forgetfulness. I knew he didn't buy into my lie but he let it go. We turned around and drove back to his house.
When I was seven, I was scared of my father. I decided I didn't want to go to his house anymore because I had witnessed his terrible mood swings and violent behavior. My mother didn't force me to visit him and he retaliated by taking her to court. A judge ruled in Dad's favor, despite his history, and also in spite of the fact that he never held a job long enough to pay child support.
His second wife, an extraordinary and amazing women, birthed four beautiful children. When dad wasn't knocking her around, he was throwing punches at my brothers. When the oldest boy, Brian*, was about six, (I was twelve), I witnessed Dad eager to teach him how to box. Dad got his hands on some boxing gloves and began playfully scrapping with my brother. It didn't take long though for Brian to strike a nerve, Dad's mood changing from Papa Bear to Grizzly Bear, resulting in Dad throwing a forceful punch right into Brian's nose. Blood poured, baby brother cried. I wanted to stand up for him but I feared for my own safety.
I had seen the way he hurt my stepmother, dragging her into the bedroom to use as his personal punching bag. She would emerge with the beginnings of bruises and black eyes without saying a peep to anyone about what had happened.
When I was thirteen, and in the throws of puberty, Dad had his drinking buddies over one night and they thought it was fun to tease me about my new curves. Dad even got the tape measure out so he could see just how big those curves were. I felt violated. The oldest girl, Jessica* (five years younger than me and eight at the time), and I would hide under her queen size bed whenever Dad and his buddies were hanging out drinking. Nothing ever happened to us but I won't ever forget being afraid that it would.
It was during one of these hidings that we heard Dad head out to the backyard and shoot the family dog with a pellet gun for barking too much. The next morning no one said anything as Dad sat on the porch digging pellets out of poor Baxter's legs.
When I was fourteen I had an amalgam filled molar that cracked. Neither of my parents had dental insurance, but I was in so much pain that Dad took me to the emergency room. The doctor there prescribed pain medication until I could get the tooth taken care of. There were twenty pills in the bottle that night. The next morning I was heading back to my mom's house when I realized I forgot my medicine. I had only been gone fifteen minutes when we arrived back at his house. I grabbed the bottle and jumped back in the car. On the way home my mom asked me to count the pills. There were eight. I had only taken two. That meant ten were missing. This is when I first became aware of Dad's addiction to pain medication.
At fifteen, I became rebellious. When my mother couldn't control me any longer, she made me go live with Dad. At first it was great, I'm sure in part because Dad liked playing the hero and wanted me to like living there. After two weeks I knew it was the worst decision ever.
Growing up I had only been privy to occasional bouts of abuse of my stepmother and brothers but once I moved in, I was seeing it everyday. During a round he had going with my stepmother, I took the kids, all under eleven at the time, outside so they wouldn't have to see him in action. Apparently that was the wrong move because he moved on to me next. It was only a verbal assault but I knew if I kept emasculating him or defying him, he would take it further than just his words.
I felt like the clock was ticking and I began to plan my escape from his house. In the meantime, Dad began taking me along on his visits to his "friends." These friends were women he grew up with around the neighborhood or school but they were also women he would have sex with in exchange for prescription pills in their medicine cabinet. Whether or not they knew he was pilfering, I do not know, but I was brought along to "play" with their children.
He also began growing pot in one of the bedrooms at his home. He dragged me along on his drug runs to shady buyers in the rent-a-center parking lot. On my last day at his house, I was taking a shower, waiting for my friend to pick me up. The shower had those 90s translucent glass doors that did not fog from the steam. I had purposely locked the door. While I was rinsing out the last of the conditioner, I heard Dad knock on the door to let me know that my ride was here. I yelled out "OK" and began hurrying to finish. Five seconds later I heard his pocket knife in the doorknob. He opened the door and stared at my naked teenage body a bit too long and quietly repeated that my ride was here. There was no apology for walking in and no embarrassment on his part. He shut the door and left. I quickly got dressed, told him I'd see him later for dinner, and left. I never went back.
I went to my grandparents house, called my mom, and begged her to let me come home. She obliged and she offered to tell my dad for me. He brought all four of his kids, his wife, and all my stuff over that night. However it was not a peaceful exchange. My mom stood out in the front yard with a baseball bat while he threw all of my stuff over the chain link fence and drove off.
Over the next three years I was fearful of running into him, and rightly so. When I was seventeen, I had an after school job at a gift shop. Dad showed up at my work ten minutes to closing. My co-worker saw me turn white and without even knowing who he was, she ran to the back and called my mother on the phone. I am not sure if Dad realized the phone hadn't rung when Susan called out that my mom was on the phone. He told me in a very strict voice not to tell her he was there, however my mother guessed immediately and said she'd be right there. His visit was short, a song and dance about wanting to see me on my birthday which was coming up in a few days. Still a scared teen, I took his phone number and promised to call him.
When my mom arrived, he was long gone but we both knew his attempts to visit me were not over. Just before I moved eight hours away to go to college, he called me and said he was thinking about moving to that same town. For the next two years I slept with a butcher knife under my bed, convinced he would find me and break in, and the image of my bloody highchair from fifteen years earlier replaying in my head.
Over the next five years, I heard from Jessica how her mother was divorcing him yet he would still break into their home and beat her for dating other men. One time he used her own phone to hit her in the face. My stepmother eventually shook him loose and remarried a wonderful man. Jessica told me that Dad began dating women younger than me.
Slowly, Dad's drinking buddies began dying. One from a car accident, the other by suicide. Dad had his own almost death experience when he offended some Russian men who stabbed Dad in the chest. He survived but part of me wanted to send those Russians a gift basket. I was still in my early twenties and still fearful and angry.
I am now thirty and two years ago, I got the call from Jessica that Dad was in the ICU. She told me that this would be my only opportunity to say good bye, that he was not conscious and considered brain dead. Dad had accidentally overdosed on prescription pain pills, methadone, and other pill-based drugs. He had been found unresponsive just a couple days after Easter.
I went to the hospital emotionless.
My sisters were in tears. The nurse in charge of his care was compassionate. She wiped the dried fluid from his face and spoke gently words to him as she checked the machines he was hooked up to. I was silently grateful that she could be so caring and kind to him when I myself could not. Not even in that moment could I pretend I cared. I was still processing. I said my goodbyes in my head and decided I could be a better shoulder to cry on than a child about to lose her Dad.
I didn't go to his funeral because I wasn't ready to work through his death. but the next six weeks were a roller-coaster of anger, tears, sadness, and pain. I was angry at him for being a drug addict. I was mad that I always thought I'd have so much time to confront him and tell him exactly how I felt. I had fantasized about the day I would meet with him and tell him how horrible he'd been to his family and hope that maybe he had changed in the meantime. I was upset that all of those things would be left unsaid and I wouldn't have closure, I wouldn't get the opportunity to allow him to apologize. And maybe he wouldn't have apologized but now I will never know.
I grieved over the loss of the kind of father he never was. Eventually I forgave him, even if he may never have wanted my forgiveness. I had to forgive him or I wouldn't have been able to move on and close the book on him. Two years later, I am grateful my kids will never have to know him personally. Someday they will ask about him and I won't have to go into detail to explain his behavior, his past, and the horrible things he did. I won't have to lie to protect him and I won't have to tell too much of the truth, to protect my sons .
At least in his death, he gave me that gift.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
Addiction to alcohol affects nearly 18 million people in the US.
This is her story:
The other night, I had the hardest conversation of my young life.
I sat on the bed, holding the phone to my ear and, sobbing, told my father that I thought I was having some problems with alcohol.
I have never felt so ashamed in my life.
I know that, as an adult child of an addict (my father has been a member of AA for years now), I'm predisposed to alcoholism more than others. I thought I had so much under control, that I knew my limits. But when I go week after week of having more than one drink a night and spending my hard earned money on booze when I know I have bills to pay? When my boyfriend finds the little bottles in the car that they sell at the cashiers counter and I have no excuse as to why they are there?
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't an addict. I don't know if alcoholic quite fits me but I know the road I'm going down. I keep thinking, I've been through so much shit, why do I have to deal with this, too? I've got the mental issues- depression, anxiety, ADD, I've got hyper-sensitivity going on and now... this.
I keep thinking I'm too young to be an alcoholic. I'm too young to miss out on being with friends and having to decline drinks with liquor in them. To be sitting here tonight, declining a drink as the whiskey and brandy sit out. They tempt me but my boyfriend tells me I can do this: I can be strong.
I want to be my best self. I have yet to talk to my dad face-to-face. I'm scared to tell people. I feel raw and even typing all of this up makes me feel like I'm going to weep. I feel so ashamed and guilty for what I've been doing and I just want it all to stop and go away.
What if no one believes me?
I know I have support if I turn to it, but shame keeps me away. I should know better and I should understand but right now I feel raw; salt rubbed into the wound. I just want to be okay and I'm trying to learn how.
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. It's also the hardest step.
I just need to figure out where to go from here.
One of the most damaging emotions we can hold onto is anger. Most of the time, we are angry at the right person for the right thing - we often feel (correctly) justified in our anger.
Anger, though, can turn to malignancies, and sometimes, the best answer to unresolved anger - especially when we find it ruling our lives, is to let it go. To learn to forgive (but not forget.)
This month, we are working on our path toward forgiveness.
Remember, forgiveness does not mean we absolve another for their role in hurting us, trying to break us, shaping our lives with their words and deeds.
So, The Band, who do you want to forgive? Who will you never forgive? Who have you forgiven?
Many years ago, as I watched my second child writhe around in my gut, using my internal organs as his own set of punching bags, I found myself angry; furious.
"How dare she?" I nearly screamed at my poor (then) husband. I was nearly hysterical, and we were on our way to our anniversary dinner on a very chilly September day.
"How dare she be angry that her mother wasn't going to be able to be in the delivery room?" I went on, my anger mounting every breath I took, referencing something I'd read on some blog somewhere ages ago.
I was nearly hyperventilating, my poor husband looking forward as he drove, afraid to make eye contact with his beastly wife.
Finally, I began sobbing.
"I'd...(snort, snort) give anything to have a mother at all," I sobbed. "I've looked for a mother my whole life," I went on. "I'd give anything to have one."
My husband nodded. He knew. He understood. He'd seen the pint glasses of whiskey she'd drink, the way she slurred in the morning, the way she showed up so drunk she could hardly stand at our wedding.
What he didn't know was the darkness inside of me. I'd never told him - or anyone - about that. The fears of abandonment. Feeling unworthy. Feeling like deep down, when anyone got to know me, they'd leave me. (in an odd twist of fate no one could've foreseen, that's what happened this July).
But this isn't about my current Soap Opera version of my life as it stands today. Someday, I will tell you, The Band, about everything else, but today, I will focus upon what happened back then.
"I wanted a mom - so much," I confessed again. "I never felt like I was good enough. Or I was, up until, anyway, age six or so. That's when it's clear that I stopped mattering to anyone."
And when I was done crying, I began to think about the hurt and the anger; the old wounds that had been rubbed back open, the anguish I'd felt for so long.
Stuck dealing with hyperemesis and antenatal depression, I sat around the house most of the time - puking in public isn't a whole barrel of laughs - which meant that I had plenty of time to think. Think about my life, my anger, being an adult child of two addicts, the adult child of a bipolar mother, and the toll that anger was taking upon me to that very day.
And that was when I realized that anger was a burden I didn't have to carry - I didn't have a mother for many years, I was left with a darkness no one can touch, but that anger was going to change me into something I wasn't. For the sake of my family, I made the choice to let it go.
I've forgiven her, mostly, for how she treated me for much of my life. I'll probably never be able to completely forget it - it's now a part of me. But the anger, the anger I clung so desperately to, well, it's is gone.
That anger that has shaped me no longer defines me.
I define me.
Adult children of addicts face many challenges to overcome their childhood.
This is her story:
Yellow was my mother's favorite color.
She said it was because it was bright and cheerful; that it reminded her of sunshine and daisies and hope. It reminds me of a lot of things too, but none of them quite as twee and pretty-sounding.
Yellow reminds me of the time when I was seven when they took me to Disney World and my mother spent most of the time drunk in the bar. She sat talking about alien abductions with a complete stranger while I wandered into the arcade or pool to play with someone, anyone, who might be there.
Later, she was wearing a yellow shirt when I hid her car keys so she wouldn't drive herself drunk to the store to get us food. Because of that, she dragged me to the top of the back stairway, and threatened to throw me down it.
Our car was a sick yellow. The one I sat in, and begged her to let me drive home at nine years old, because she kept falling asleep. She drove onto the railroad tracks she was so drunk. The same car she wouldn't let me get out of, because she couldn't remember my name.
She threw her yellow AA chip at me, along with the others, when I asked her why she bothered going to meetings when she was really still drinking and taking pills. She said I had no business getting into her life.
When I broke my hand punching a door in frustration after a fight with her, she sat in the orthopedic surgeon's office with me. She told me she was disappointed in me, and said I should get a yellow cast because it was cheerful. I got green instead.
I learned to crochet from my cousin and had a good time making a blanket for my boyfriend. My mother was so jealous she demanded I make a blanket for her, too. A bright yellow blanket. Grudgingly, I made one for her and gave it to her just a month before she drove herself off the bridge full of cocaine, pills and booze. It would have been a waste of yarn and time, if her mother hadn't asked if she could have it. I told her to take it. I didn't want to look at it.
Yellow daisies on her casket.
Yellow roses in the wreaths.
A yellow shirt under her patched-together face that the mortician worked so hard to restore but still looked puffy and broken.
All my life I've hated the color yellow. So many negative thoughts and feelings when I saw it that I didn't even want to use it in my stitching or crochet. I'm trying to get over that, though. I bought a yellow shirt with my favorite band on it. I bought another one with a cute artichoke and I wear it happily now. I joined a friendship afghan swap where the Summer Sunshine theme is colors of yellow.
I'm not going to let my mother ruin one more thing for me. Though my immediate reaction to the color yellow is to recoil or grimace, I'm going to make yellow a color of hope.
And I'm going to do it one piece at a time.
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