My father is an alcoholic. He didn’t have a drinking problem when I little. As a matter of fact, because he was very religious, he never even touched alcohol. The man wouldn’t even eat rum-flavored cake or a chicken grilled with a beer in the cavity. I never even considered the idea of my father taking a drink. Alcoholism just wasn’t possible. Alcohol never crossed the threshold of our home, never mind my father’s lips.
But that changed when I was a teenager.
My dad experienced a series of traumatic events in quick succession. His mother passed away in a freak accident, leaving him reeling with shock and sadness. He was the unfortunate victim of corporate downsizing, losing his career of 25 years, and with it, his plans for early retirement. My father started a business with some former colleagues, but it was not a success. He took another corporate job that paid enough to maintain our lifestyle but didn’t excite him at all.
He watched the life he had built rapidly change, and it proved more than he could handle. Dad walked away from the church, and we walked away with him. My mother was more devoted to my dad than any god, and it never entered her mind to stay without him.
With the expectations of our church social circle effectively erased, my dad entered a dark depression, and that’s when the alcoholism began.
He didn’t drink at home at first. He would come in from working his unfulfilling, unexciting pay-the-bills job already smelling of whiskey. My mother, ever the devoted wife and homemaker, covered his tracks, offering him mouthwash on the front porch to mask the smell. She would accompany him to the bedroom with a cup of coffee while he changed out of his work clothes, running down a quick list of talking points. By the time we sat down to dinner, he was able to have a short conversation, “remembering” which of us kids had a science fair, a track meet, a choir competition.
Then he decided he was a wine connoisseur. His new hobby was going to be learning about the different types of wine, collecting impressive bottles, and memorizing pairings. He scoured the internet, joining forums with other wine enthusiasts, tracking down enviable vintages for his collection. For the first time in my life, alcohol came into the home.
Wine did a clever trick. It masked the Scotch he was secretly nipping in the bathroom, his car, his bedroom closet. Anywhere he could conceal a flask, he could step away and find the relief he was craving, and nobody could accuse him of alcoholism because he “just had a glass of wine.”
That was the beginning of the end.
He missed so many things that were important to us. Before he knew it, we grew up. All three of us. My brothers moved out, moved away, moved on. One joined the Navy, and the other ran to Vermont for university.
After a few years of constant drinking, spending, arguing and chaos, my mom couldn’t take it anymore, and eventually their marriage crumbled. She left him to preserve her heart, and I couldn’t blame her.
Wives can leave, but what about daughters? He’s the only father I have.
So, I stayed. By his side. No matter how bad his alcoholism got, I was his ally. His constant. I knew I couldn’t love him out of his addiction, but I also knew setting a boundary to preserve myself could mean a death sentence for him.
Was I still entitled to that boundary anyway? Yes. Of course.
But he’s my father and I love him, so I let myself keep hurting so I could stay. I don’t know if it was the right decision, but it’s the decision I made.
The years that followed can only be described as hell on earth. My father lost his job. Drank all those expensive bottles of wine he’d spent so long collecting. Lost our childhood home. Lost his license. DUIs. Jail cells. Ambulance rides. Frenzied calls to local hospitals when I couldn’t find him. Sleepless nights spent awake, sitting on the floor next to the couch, holding ice packs on his face when he fell and got a black eye or a split lip. Quietly collecting the laundry when he threw up, so I could wash and fold it and return it to his dresser. Screaming matches about the whole thing when he was sober enough to argue.
He was never a mean drunk. Not ever. Not for one moment. On the contrary, he was humble, sad. Contrite. Our fights were always me screaming about the terror of losing him, and him shouting back that he was sorry, but he couldn’t help it. We both cried every time.
Round and round and round.
Sometimes, he would get his shit together for a few months. He would get a job and his own place, and I would believe in him. Every fucking time I would believe in him. We would make plans. I’d assure my brothers that this was the real deal. I’d let my guard down, start relying on him, trusting him again.
When my dad is sober, he is excellent. Even during his heavily religious days, he was never a stick in the mud. He is warm and laid-back. Welcoming. Charming, funny, handsome, and smart as a whip. He cleans up so nice, you’d never, ever guess which demons haunt him. Addiction? Never. How could it be? Look at this man! This is not what an addict looks like.
Over and over, he would get his ducks in a row, only to pick up a bottle again the minute shit got good.
Until a few years ago.
One of the times he cleaned up his act, he fell in love.
I’m not sure why my mom wasn’t enough. I don’t know why my brothers and I weren’t enough. But I can barely even be mad about it because his new love has been enough. For the last handful of years, my father has been mostly sober with brief relapses rather than mostly drunk with brief periods of clarity.
He has turned it all around. He owns a home again. He’s married. They have two great cars, stable jobs, plenty of money in the bank, nice things, and a little dog.
To the outside world, it appears that he has successfully slayed the alcoholism dragon.
But he hasn’t. And he knows it.
One of my brothers has a child our father has never met. Their relationship didn’t survive the worst of it.
My other brother insists on making an official plan and an alternate plan for every single birthday, holiday, special occasion and vacation just in case Dad starts drinking and we have to change course. He says it’s for logistical purposes, but I know it’s to protect his heart — and mine.
It’s a good practice. Happy occasions seem to trigger our father’s alcoholism more than traumatic ones. He managed to stay sober when his brother got cancer and almost died, but he got fall-down drunk the day his last grandchild was born. It makes no sense to us, but addiction doesn’t exactly operate in logic. He’s ill.
I’m the only person who has been there from the first sip to today and hasn’t left. He reminds me of that often. I know he means to express his gratitude, but that thankfulness feels like a million pounds of pressure, crushing me from the top down.
I am always there with a clean slate, wiping away everything he said and did (or didn’t say or didn’t do) when he was drinking.
But it hurts me. Because this beast is going to kill him, and I know it. His body didn’t escape the alcohol abuse unscathed, and every time he drinks heavily, he compromises it more and more. One day, his body is going to give out. Alcoholism is going to win. I know that to be true.
In my heart, I simultaneously love him fiercely but hold him at a distance because I’m always afraid he will die. I’ve made peace with losing him even though he’s still here. That’s not to say that I will not be devastated beyond words. There will be no consoling me when I find out I have to live the rest of my days without my father. Through it all, I love him more than life. Imperfect though he may be, he is my father, and I don’t want to know how it feels to live without him.
I can’t stop it from devastating me, but I can at least try not to let it shock me. Every day he is still here is a miracle. Some of the things he did when he was at his worst should have spelled immediate death. But he made it. He’s still here. I just have to focus on all these undeserved years we have gotten together.
I am grateful his alcoholism didn’t ruin my childhood, but it still shaped so much of who I am today. It affects my relationships with men and how I parent my own daughters. Trauma changes you, no matter how old you might be. I’m grown now, and I have a life of my own. My dad seems to be on a path that is working for him. I am hopeful.
But my arms are tired from carrying all these clean slates, and sometimes I wonder if I did him any favors at all by choosing never to walk away.