Growing Up With An Absent, Alcoholic, Mentally Ill Father Made Me A Better Activist

And for that, I am eternally grateful.
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Dylan Manderlink
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And for that, I am eternally grateful.

I would never wish addiction, suffering, or pain upon anybody. I would never want the circumstances my family and I experienced to be repeated in any sort of way. But the addiction and pain my father battled for ten years of my life taught me vital values, informed my future decisions, urged me to recognize my sense of purpose, and helped me develop a strong sense of compassion. 

My father, his addiction and his absence unknowingly motivated me to be self-driven, to advocate for myself and others, to pursue productive and positive opportunities to self-empower, and to support and motivate others in times of need. It brings me great sadness to think how much our family dynamic has changed, how consuming his addiction became, and how our relationship has been lost. 

But looking back, I can feel thankful for the relationship we did have prior to things drastically changing, and the circumstances that taught me resilience and strength.

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I am well aware that comparatively, my familial situation and removed relationship with my father could be a lot worse. But that’s not what my story is about. It’s not about who suffers more than another individual. The more we tell people that their experiences are “not as bad as someone else’s” the more we communicate to them that their experiences and feelings are invalid and therefore of less influence or importance to them. 

My experience with my family and my father are my own and I’m not interested in comparing them on a spectrum of life circumstances. I want to share my opinions on my father’s absence and addiction, and their impact on my family because I want to highlight the positive productive lessons I was taught in the process. 

Additionally, when I have expressed my opinions on my family situation in the past, and how I feel like I’m a better, more whole, and stronger person because of what I experienced throughout my childhood and young adult years, I’ve been silenced. I’ve been silenced because talking about mental health and addiction are seen as taboo. I’ve been told that I’m being selfish and self-serving because I ‘ostensibly gained’ something and ‘benefited’ from my father’s addiction. 

But that’s not true at all. I’m not thankful that my father suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, but I am grateful that despite not having a relationship with him anymore, he’s surviving and is still out there. I’m thankful for being young and rising above an obstacle (one out of the many we encounter over the course of our lifetimes) and instead of letting it deter and unhinge me, it helped me uncover my passions, realize that life is bigger than myself, and commit to my ambitions.

Years before my father admitted his addiction, I sensed the tension, discomfort, and sadness in my house. My parents’ marriage appeared fragile and unbalanced, but lacked transparency, despite the repeated efforts of myself and my siblings to be made aware of what was going on. 

When my father started sleeping on the living room couch every night, when he reeked of mouthwash, when he was frequently arguing with my mother, and repeatedly missing work, my young but naive self started to suspect that something wasn’t right. For years that was the reality of my house. Despite not knowing the full truth, my hunches made me feel uncomfortable and anxious all the time.

Encouraged by friends, in 6th grade I joined a local chapter of the international organization, Youth to Youth. This program is geared towards preteens and teens who are passionate about living and promoting a drug-free, community-centered, and positive achievement-oriented lifestyle. I latched onto the group immediately. 

Although I couldn’t articulate it then, I know now that I felt a sense of empowerment, being surrounded by people who could relate to what I was going through at home. Looking back on my involvement with Youth to Youth, I realize that it was the catalyst that prompted me to look at the world through a less egocentric lens. My advocacy, volunteerism, and youth leadership through Youth to Youth allowed me to come to terms with what my family was experiencing. It enabled me to grow with the new knowledge and understanding of my father’s struggles. 

Instead of pushing the reality of the situation aside and passively living my life at home, being involved with an advocacy organization helped me cope with my own emotions and concerns while also molding them into something productive and motivating. Looking back, I have Youth to Youth to thank for showing me how inspiring it can be to find a community that supports both self-advocacy and social advocacy. 

I also have my father to thank. I was able to find my purpose and power in Youth to Youth and other community-based activities because of the situation with my father. When he finally confronted my siblings and I about his addiction after driving us drunk several times and putting us in danger, my advocacy made more sense. My commitment to bettering the world around me, in small and big ways, felt more solidified. 

For the first time in my life, the chaos I had experienced seemed to lead to a productive future, and I was in the driver’s seat of my own trajectory.

After serving as Co-President of Youth to Youth for two years in high school I went on to college. As my father and I grew more distant, and as I pursued my education in the heart of a major city, I realized that my activism did not need to be so hyper-focused. Substance abuse awareness and drunk driving prevention are extremely important, but these aren’t the only unfortunate ills that are present in society. Opening up my options meant I could contribute to my community more (with the help and willpower of others of course - no change ever happens alone!). 

And so I did. My involvement on campus continued to develop as I made efforts to learn from fellow peers and community activists and soon, I was thriving in my new Boston community too. I was leading on-campus organizations whose missions I strongly believed in, I was interning with nonprofits whose social justice efforts unfailingly inspired me, I was meeting and working alongside local advocates and influencers whose career trajectories and ambitions helped inform my own. 

With each internship, with each cause I fundraised for, with each community activist I partnered with, and with each volunteer opportunity I dove into, the same thoughts would immediately come to mind: I’m serving my community for my father, for a neighbor’s mother, for a sister, for a brother, a sibling, a niece, nephew, uncle, grandfather, widow, divorcee, aunt, grandmother, wife, husband. For people. 

We are all inhabiting this often confusing, sometimes terrifying, but remarkably beautiful planet together - alongside one another, no matter how many barriers we construct. I believe in the power of community and I am committed to fighting for justice, fairness, equality, and improved qualities of life. I want to leave this world better than it was when I began, and to help effect community change that is positive and inclusive.

So, no - I am not thankful for my father’s addiction or bipolar disorder. I am not grateful that my parents got divorced. I am not happy that I was driven drunk numerous times, had to mediate toxic fights, or witness the heartbreaking suffering of a parent whom I love. But I am unbelievably thankful for the person I have become because of it. Thank you Dad, for helping me find my voice, my soapbox, and my self.