Trying On Courage: A Father’s Day Reflection

My mind is abuzz with many intersecting topics on this Father’s Day because as many of you know and have witnessed through the last several years, my relationship with my dad has been pretty complicated. I write this with so much compassion and tenderness for the many people I know who are without a father today. I pray that I write this with grace and humility in a way that brings hope to any of you dealing with the pain of absence, abuse, addiction, or grief. I believe healing happens in many ways. This has just been my particular experience of healing.

As I grew up, I generally felt no emotional connection to my dad. We rarely hugged or talked one on one. The exception was when he would share his hobbies with me. He spent many hours each week in a factory, so in his down time he enjoyed being outside hunting or training his dogs. He would take me to shoot skeet at the gun range with him or run our bird dogs. I still remember the whoosh of the pheasants breaking free from the brush where the dogs had pointed. Then the pop of his shot gun. The crack as he twisted the birds’ neck and stuffed them into the pocket of his bright orange safety vest. We walked spread out, our boots crunching to their own rhythms. We would drive home in his pickup truck, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking about faith or the confusing parts of life. There was a quiet distance between us, but I liked trying to know him more, even if it was scary sometimes.

From my father I also learned about the spectrum of human emotion. I saw him laugh and cry, yell and whisper, but most of the time he had a darkness around him. Even as a child, long before my own therapy sessions and knowledge of mental health, I saw a man who was deeply lonely, angry, restless. It ate him alive. He is one of the smartest people I know, gifted and in many ways self-taught, as he never finished his college education. But he always seemed to feel trapped in a job he hated, constantly worried about providing for his kids and wife, yet never really making that interpersonal connection them. It’s no wonder to me now that he drank, even that he was drinking long before I ever realized it. He carried that secret with him, hating himself, still alone and afraid. I used to be angry that he was an alcoholic, but now it just makes me sad he went through it by himself.

He had divorced and remarried before ever getting any help for his addiction. His wife forced him to go to rehab to save his life. She told him to dump out all his bottles, but he told me he dumped them down his throat instead. (Recovery humor is weird, guys.)  He said getting sober was actual hell. His addiction was so severe that getting sober meant facing DTs under medical supervision before he could even go to inpatient rehab. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, the guilt that descended on him more and more as his mind returned and he had to face the person he had been. He wanted to be better, but as I had to learn for myself, getting your life back together after living in addiction is very disorienting. And even the best efforts can still end with failure–something a lot of people don’t understand.

My dad had just gotten out of rehab for the second time when he came to pick up me up the day I got kicked out of my own rehab program for snorting pills. My mom was too angry to deal with me at the time, but he was calmer than I’d ever seen him. For the first time in my life, I truly understood him in a different way. I had messed up in rehab, but I’d still spent a lot of time facing my troubled relationship with him, as well as admitting how similar we were. The anger, the fear, the loneliness, just wanting to be numb. We understood each other through the lens of recovery in a deep way. I felt myself beginning to forgive him long before I was ready to forgive myself.

We went to AA meetings together for awhile before I got lost in my addictions again. He knew but didn’t judge. The truth is I had judged him so harshly for his drinking, yet even two years out of rehab I wasn’t ready to really be sober myself yet. I was too scared. I don’t know for sure if he relapsed after that second rehab stay, but even if he did, I celebrate his courage for not stopping there. The courage to self-identify as an alcoholic after years of denying and hiding. The courage to keep trying. That matters to me far more than the number of days he went without a drink.

I also celebrate my own courage today. The courage to keep the lines of communication open with him, to let him hug me and give his input on my medical school plans, even if we don’t see eye to eye, because I know that by giving him a chance, I’m offering him a different quality of life. I celebrate my courage to forgive the things he said and did when he was drinking in the same way I forgive myself for the person I was when I was ruled by my own addictive behaviors. We still often don’t connect in the ways I wish we would, but he’s in my life now, and I want him there. Today we continue to walk our own paths in the brush, but this time in the grace of second and third and fourth chances. This time we walk in the grit it takes to look in the mirror and see both our goodness  and our ugliness, to own it, and then to carry on anyway.

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