Are We Destined to Repeat the Family Cycle?
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
My father’s drinking and unresolved family matters were never a secret. Everyone, including my mother, knew of them. But no one addressed them.
So, I will.
I was eight years old when my parents divorced and, by that time, I remember seeing my father drunk daily. At first, my father was a passive-aggressive drunk; he ignored my mother and went straight into his man-cave (aka, “the garage”) after work. He stayed there for the remainder of the night instead spending time with the family. For years, I thought it was because my father was just angry with my mother. Little did I know, my father was trying to hide his addiction from me.
That was only the beginning.
It took years before I discovered that my father’s side of the family consisted of years of alcoholism, abuse, and neglect. My father’s dad was a drunk, as were his two siblings. My father often acted like one of the so-called “cool kids,” he cracked jokes and made anyone he met a part of “the club.” He did this with me and I felt special; I felt important and, to be honest, that was how I saw my father express love to others.
Sundays were known as “Sugar Sundays” because my father bought me any candy or junk food I desired. The rule was to consume most of it before he and my mother swapped me at a court-ordered halfway point. My father was an asshole because he purposely wanted my mother to be the responsible parent who had to put me to sleep. Not my father. He thought it was funny. My mother never did.
For years, he turned my mother into a villain, and everyone else around him, especially if you ever questioned my father’s choice of words or actions when he was drinking. This included me in the later years when I confronted him on getting help and staying sober. The first time I received a drunk phone call from my father, I was in the fourth grade. He called me while I was hanging out with my then-circle of friends. The saddest part was already knowing that he was drunk the second he opened his mouth and started cursing me out. Instead of crying or turning to a friend to confide in, I spoke calmly to my father as though we were catching up. Because I was afraid of him and what he might have done if I spoke and stood up for myself.
For years, my father was a mechanic at Caltrans, otherwise known as the California Department of Transportation. He always preached on pursuing a government job. An accident on the job cost him to ever see again in his left eye. Hungover at work, my father was not paying attention when chemicals spilled into his eye. So, when a second accident on the job left him with a torn muscle in his arm, everything appeared to change. And by change, I meant my father was forced out of his nine to five job and, ultimately, placed on both disability and early retirement. That was when the drinking appeared to intensify as my father eventually gave up when it came to turning his life around. Instead, he went to the nearest bar or liquor store and drank.
Regardless, he was still my idol, mainly for his stories. One of my favorite stories he used to share was his participation in a high school play for DARE’s “Do Not Do Drugs.” At the showcase, he was allegedly approached by a talent agent who expressed interest in representing him as an actor. When I asked him why he was not even an actor, he simply responded, “Oh, my mother told the agent no.”
In the years to come, I later found out that my father blew off the talent agent for a party.
But when my father attempted to turn his life around, after injuring himself on the Caltrans job, he enrolled in a tech school. His plan was to teach at a local community college or university until one weekend when everything changed. I arrived and noticed his school books were shelved away and he was beyond inebriated. It was no shocker because before hitting my teenage years, I knew he was unhappy. Even as a child, it was upsetting to see someone throw their life away by abusing their own body with an addiction. In moments of distress, I often blacked out a lot of my father’s aggressive behaviors. I forced myself into a state of wishful thinking, memories resurfaced where my father told me to reach for the stars and do whatever the hell I wanted. But my father was more caught up in cutting people out who either questioned his lifestyle or intervened to stop his drinking.
He always spoke to me about becoming anything I wanted to in life. The sky was the limit and anyone who was not supportive could, in his words, fuck themselves. I lived in fear of turning out just like my father. The idea of throwing away my dreams and years of work petrified; I thought that I was the next in line to become an addict if I didn’t stay on path. This influenced my work ethic and sense of self.
My father and his then-roommate, Mark—aka his drinking buddy—jumped my, now deceased, stepdad, Jeff, in front of me when I was thirteen years old. That was the first time I saw my mother cry. She was screaming at the top of her lungs. It was also the first time I experienced a panic attack. I missed school for four-days after my father was arrested because of a shocking and horrifying twist after what went down. The day after Jeff was beaten up.
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The next morning, the police arrived at my father’s house. My mother and Jeff had called the police about an hour before. The police advised me to wait in my father’s bedroom, while they escorted him outside. I forgot how much time had passed before another officer arrived and told me to gather my belongings because I was going home with my mother.
The police officer escorted me out of my father’s bedroom. We crossed through the combined living and dining room. Mark was sitting down on the couch, across another police officer who was amid his questioning. That was the moment when Mark proceeded with his lies, to cover up what he and my father had done. He stated that it was Jeff who started the fight, and not he or my father. What left me with an even more sickening feeling was the fact that Mark looked at me before I walked out of the house. I felt betrayed. I kept wondering why individuals such as my father and Mark lied to the police, let alone in front of someone like me who was only a child.
One of the scariest images I ever saw was immediately after leaving my father’s house and finding my mother in the driver’s seat, parked in front of the house. She was crying. As the police officer walked me to her car, I saw my father from the corner of my eye. He was sitting in the backseat of a parked police cruiser. They were arresting him.
It was only two months ago when I texted Mark about how I felt that day, holding him accountable for my father’s addiction and for never protecting me from the chaos. After I hit ‘send,’ I immediately blocked Mark’s number and never looked back.
I was eighteen years old when I cut all ties with my father. It was just weeks after he relapsed and was drinking again. He called me the day he started drinking again. This time, I blocked his number and email, terrified to speak with someone who I thought was self-destructing. I doubted his sobriety.
Amongst my father’s family it felt like an endless pissing contest on who was the so called better person because they were sober or found Jesus. It only became worse when the children, such as myself, were dragged into the ongoing cycle of suppressed childhood traumas of our parents. It took many years to realize this. My father, his sisters, and his niece were all survivors of abuse themselves. Unfortunately, they never maintained the help they sought or attempted to or had the opportunity to distance themselves and heal.
When it became clear that my father was choosing the more destructive path of drinking, just weeks after my high school graduation. By that point, it was no shocker as all of the red flags were there from my father leaving the house all of the time or his speech becoming slurred. Not to mention, another giveaway of his relapse were his dilated, red eyes. I was heartbroken. For weeks, I cried my eyes out, especially once I started college. Rather than sharing the experience with me, my father was sending me one of his many drunk and threatening rants.
Something that always felt like home was writing. Before I started going to therapy, I was writing about what had happened to me from an objective standpoint, in the third person. That was something my therapist later explained, “Natalie, you were always dealing with your trauma and your father but in the third person. Your characters are YOU because of that.”
Still, everything scared me.
In a therapy session a few years ago, I revisited the discussion of my father’s relapse. During this particular session, I recalled one of the final conversations I had with my sober father. He told me to be careful when it came to the post-high school graduate parties because drinking problems were hereditary on his side of the family. That was the only time when my father acknowledged his drinking addiction.
So of course, I avoided bars, clubs, dating, and anywhere where there would be alcohol. Later, when my therapist discovered my fear, she told me to go to the bar with my friends that same night and drink. I returned the following week and discovered that my therapist wanted me to do so. She wanted me to see that alcohol was my father’s problem and not my own.
My father escaped his problems with alcohol. I dealt with my problems by going to a counselor. I learned how I was creating stigma by taking on my father’s drinking problem as my own. Now in my late twenties, I must admit that it is still a struggle of mine to not have a relationship with alcohol. Whether drinking at home or going out to a public setting, thoughts and feelings of following my father’s footsteps with drinking pop up. I don’t want to repeat the cycle. It is something that I am still working on in therapy.
Addiction is an illness. In my family, it’s something that went unspoken for many years. Often, it goes unspoken and unreported in many households. Those who come from a family of addiction should know that it was NEVER our fault. It is not our fault.
There are too many stigmas around addiction, especially for the children of addicts. Although my father, his father, and other relatives were or still are addicts, that does not mean I am “next.” Something that has taken me many years to realize is that no one is ever destined to repeat the cycle. We can defeat the ongoing stigmas, no matter what, even if our inner circle does not believe us. Your truth is your truth and by damn, you have EVERY RIGHT to share it.