How do you love someone who doesn’t love himself?
How do you love someone who doesn’t want your love?
How do you love someone who doesn’t even see the above qualities in himself?
You do it because you have to. You do it because you are his daughter, and he is your father. You do it by remembering that just because you love him, you don’t always have to like him.
Tonight I watched a movie on Amazon Prime by the name of “Beautiful Boy.”
It hit extremely too close to home for me.
When thinking of addiction, most people would think of scenarios such as played out in “Beautiful Boy” . . . the parent fighting to get their child through the grip of a wicked addiction. But rarely do people ever think to reverse the roles in that scenario . . . the child fighting to see their parent through to the other side of addiction.
And thus, the tale of an addicts daughter.
First, allow me to state this . . . despite what you may or may not believe, addiction IS a disease. I will not debate that. If you disagree, then you have obviously never been through an addiction. Addiction is a disease as much as cancer is. The ironic thing, though, is that with cancer the horrible drugs are what heal you when your body is trying to kill you. With addiction, it’s the exact opposite.
Second, though I have never physically battled a chemical addiction of my own, I have gone head-to-head with the monster that is heroin.
It is said that there are three sides to every story. There is your side. There is my side. And then there is what actually happened. You see, perception plays an enormous role is how we believe we have lived a moment. Two people could stand side-by-side just as a Spring rain and while one of them sees nothing but blue skies as the clouds roll away and reveal a beautiful day, the other may only see the mud left behind by the rain. Life is made up of what we choose to see. Denial is also made up of what we choose to see, and for a long time I chose to see nothing.
I was slow to mature into adulthood. Some would say despite my 42 years that I am still a big kid. I’m okay with that. I would rather maintain a childlike sense of wonder with the world than be bored with it. Because I was slow to mature into adulthood, I was full of naiveté. I believed that nothing bad would ever happen in my life, that nobody in my life would ever do anything wrong, illegal, or even stupid. But life has a way of slapping you in the face with a wall of bricks sometimes.
We all knew that my father was on drugs. We didn’t know specifically what he was using, and as a family we refused to talk about it. You see, drug use just doesn’t happen in respectable, upper-class, Christian families. We know better than to let something like that happen. Addiction is only something that happens on the wrong side of town to the people who don’t know any better, to the people that don’t know Jesus Christ, to the people who can’t hold a job, or don’t come from good families. Addiction doesn’t happen to people that own their own businesses, are leaders in their churches, that live in big houses and drive fancy cars. We were all thinking those exact things back then. We were so far in denial that even when my father was sitting in front of us and he was so high that he couldn’t keep his eyes open, that his words were slurred, that his temperament was as changeable as a woman trying on outfits for a first date, that we just said, “he must be working too hard because he is so tired all of the time.” Yet, we knew what was going on. We just didn’t know how to talk about it. We were afraid to talk about it. We thought that if we didn’t talk about it then it didn’t exist and it would just disappear on its own, like a zit. Addiction is not like a zit. We were scared. We were ashamed. We didn’t know how to handle this brand new aspect of life. Nobody in my family had ever been near an addict before. Nobody wanted to be the first one to say, “hey, I think there’s a problem here that could get out of hand if not addressed soon.”
Over time, my father lost everything he had. He lost his 4-bedroom home, both of his cars, his insurance brokerage business, his wife, his step-daughter, his mother, his father, his brother, his sister-in-law, his nieces and nephews, his friends, and his freedom. He lost it all in the war against his addiction. My family slowly took off their rose-colored glasses as time passed, and his addiction proved to be more than a passing fad. His parents had to bail him out of financial trouble more than once. He wife caught him cheating, but he also made no attempt to hide his philandering. Cars were getting repossessed, but we were told they were stolen right out of the garage. Utilities were getting cut off. Items of value were disappearing from his home with clockwork regularity, and with these disappearances came outlandish stories of repeated home break-ins, but the break-ins were never reported.
And through it all I believed every single word he had to say. He was my father.
Deep down I knew what was going on, and people outside of my family tried to help take my rose-colored glasses off, but I was determined to keep them on as long as I could. To take them off meant the end of naiveté, meant the end of innocence, meant the end of everything I had ever known or perceived about my father and the world. Fathers are supposed to be strong, wise, have stories of dumb things they did in their younger days to teach you lessons from their experience. Fathers are supposed to be well-rounded and have their head on their shoulders. Fathers are supposed to have the kind of mid-life crisis where they dye their beard to cover the grays, buy a sports car, and try to be buddies with their kids friends as an attempt as retaining their waning youth. Fathers are not supposed to jump over the edge of the ship into the abyss of addiction.
About a year after his addiction started I moved 200 miles away from him. I was offered a job in Kentucky, so I packed up and made the move. I was terrified to be moving away from everything I had ever known, but I was relieved to be leaving the oppressive weight of my father behind. The worst was yet to come with his addiction, but he was already the stereotypical master manipulator. I was looking forward to a fresh beginning.
One thing that any recovery program will teach you is that unless you deal with the source of your problems then, no matter where you go or what you do to escape your problems, you will always take them with you. That was true with my move to Kentucky. Not long after I moved here a bad hail storm went through St. Louis. Many of my father’s insurance clients had damage that they tried to report to their insurance companies only to discover that their policies had been cancelled due to non-payment. My father was stealing their insurance premiums. Eventually the state of Missouri wanted to put him in prison, but my grandmother paid his fines to keep him out of prison. He had to sell his brokerage business and had his insurance license revoked for life. All the while, my family was finally seeing my father’s addiction for what it was. One of the last things my grandmother did before her cancer took her in 2003 was to have my father removed from the will because she knew that any money he received would get blown on drugs. I firmly believe to this day that the act of doing that broke her heart more than the terminal diagnosis of her cancer, because in the end she finally admitted that, despite the thousands of dollars she had spent to bail him out of various problems, there was nothing she could do to save him from himself. How hard must that have been for a mother to say about a son?
After my father showed up to his mother’s funeral high and made a spectacle of himself, the rest of my family slowly disassociated themselves from him. They knew what I didn’t want to know, that sometimes distance is the best thing you can do for yourself and an addict. Eventually I was the only one in the family that would still associate with him. By that time he was in and out of jail and prison. When he was out he couldn’t hold down a job. He cycled between living with friends and living in pay-by-the-week motels. Through it all he filled my head with lies of his clean time, and how his life was finally back on the up-and-up. And I believed him. I didn’t know how addiction worked. I though that if I loved him enough then he’d want to get clean for me. I thought that if I helped him enough then he would see the error of his ways. I thought that with enough support, financially and emotionally, then he would magically go back to being the dad he was before the addiction, and then the family would go back to the way it used to be, everything would be cupcakes and unicorns and we could put this addiction nonsense behind us.
One place a child should have to go to visit their parent is jail. I had the unique privilege of doing that twice. Both times I was left at a loss for words. I didn’t know how to process it. I was angry at him, angry at my family for not keeping him out of there, angry at myself for not doing enough to make him quit his drug use. I sincerely felt it was my obligation to cater to him and get him off drugs. By the way, I learned the names for my behavior back then . . . I am co-dependent and I’m an enabler.
Back then I thought I was just doing what family is supposed to do for each other. I thought it was normal to be emotionally turned inside out. I thought I was doing my duty as his daughter by hunting down my father through his probation officer. My father went to rehab the same way that you and I change socks. It seemed, for a while, that he was always finishing up on rehab, only to relapse a few months later and end up in another rehab, or worse, in jail. Our routine was to talk at least once a week on the phone so that I would know he was alright. It would be explainable if he missed a week now and then, but if I hadn’t heard from him in three or more weeks, then I would call his phone and almost always hear, “this number is not accepting calls at this time.” That meant his phone had been shut off and he was in jail or rehab again. I would call his probation officer only to find, more often than not, that he was in jail. Eventually he’d get out and go to another rehab.
6 rehabs. That’s how many it took. 15 years. That’s how long it took. In those 15 years my father lied to me on countless occasions, manipulated me, stole from me, missed my wedding, missed my entire pregnancy and the birth of my son, and caused me get alienated from the rest of my family because I wouldn’t turn my back on him the way that they did.
In recovery programs there is a chip system. These chips look much like poker chips and each differently colored chip represents a different amount of sober time. The very first chip is the blue chip. It’s your 1-day-sober chip. It’s the line-in-the-sand chip. It’s the chip that says the behaviors and addictions of yesterday are no longer going to affect you today. With that chip you are making the choice to write a new ending for the story of your life. I had my blue-chip-moment (though I would not actually pick up a blue chip for a few more years for the co-dependence and enabling) when my father was in jail for the last time. When I found out he was there I wrote him a letter and told him that I couldn’t do it any longer. I couldn’t spend anymore time tracking him down with his probation officer and constantly worrying about if he was alive or dead. I had spent 15 years constantly on edge, afraid that I would get the call that he was dead from an overdose. I was mentally and emotionally tired of the cycle. It was time for something to change. So I wrote that letter and told him that this was the last time I would go through this cycle with him again, and that if he relapsed again or ended up in jail again then he would never have contact with me or my family ever again, because I didn’t want to have to explain to my son my grandpa was dead or in jail. I was extremely angry when I wrote that letter. My hands shook as I folded in and placed it in the envelope. My whole body trembled and I put it in the mailbox. I worried that he would get mad at me for the words that I said. Let me say that again, I worried that he would get mad at me for standing up for my own emotional health. Doesn’t that sound like it’s skirting the edge of a mentally abusive relationship? I was more worried about what he would think of me when he read that letter than I was about my own emotional well-being. I had spent 15 years more worried about keeping him happy and placated than I was about what it was doing to me.
Later he told me, though, that it was that letter that made him finally realize that things had to change, that it was time to get and stay clean. He wanted a relationship with his grandson. He wanted a relationship with me. He wanted to make up for time lost to his addiction.
He did get clean, and has been clean for 6 years. Our relationship has slowly rebuilt, but is still completely dysfunctional. I am still the more mature of the two of us, which bothers me sometimes, because I shouldn’t have to remind my father how to behave like and adult. But he’s no longer a slave to heroin. I’m no longer having to track him down in jail.
I didn’t choose to be the daughter of an addict. I doubt, if given the option, that I would have ever chosen that. But today it is part of who I am. I was given the experience of addiction from the family point-of-view. Rather than look at that as a burden, a skeleton in my closet, or a 15-year why-me moment, I choose to remember that we are all given experiences so that we can help others facing similar situations.
Until next time . . .