The counselor leading the session placed the Feelings Chart in front of my father and repeated her question to him:
“How does hearing that make you feel?”
It was family night at the intensive out-patient program my father was enrolled in following his detox in early October 2013. The floor was opened up for people to share, and I had finally worked up the motivation to share some things that were on my mind.
I told the group that I was grateful to be there, and that it was still hard to fathom that my father had been sober for over thirty days after almost a decade of drinking. Things were now changing rapidly and it was hard to keep up. Recounting the past decade, I spoke briefly about having had an eating disorder in college. The counselor stopped me to ask how Dad’s alcoholism might have affected that.
“Well, I was living downtown at my university, and was isolating a lot already. So sometimes I avoided going home just because I didn’t want my parents to interrogate me about my health or appearance since I was losing so much weight. But other times I did want to see them, but didn’t always feel like I could go home because if he had been drinking, I really didn’t want to be there.”
The counselor turned to my father and asked him how it felt to hear me say that I didn’t feel like I could come home because of the alcohol. He told them about our family dynamics and how we’ve maintained a sense of family even when things were their most difficult (which is true), but another person in the group stopped him and said:
“You didn’t answer the question. How does it make you feel?”
He considered their words, and realized he indeed hadn’t answered the question. There was more discussion, but even after having it pointed out to him, he still seemed uncertain. That’s when the Feelings Chart came out. The question was repeated:
“How does it make you feel?” He studied it for about thirty seconds, and then said:
“I feel sad. I feel sad because we probably didn’t have the relationship over the last few years that we could have had.” That initial sense of uncertainty I had at the beginning of this, our first family night, started to wash away, and was replaced with relief and gratitude as I held back tears.
While I had never stopped hoping that my father would quit drinking, there were times I had trouble believing it would happen. Things had gotten progressively worse over time – as they often do – and for the two or three years preceding his detox, even he was open about the fact that he had a problem and needed to quit. There had been a few attempts prior to enter a detox program, but for one reason or another they didn’t work out. Sometimes over insurance, sometimes over other obligations.
For better or worse, I think that sometimes we have to fail at attempting to do something on our own before we’re willing to try something different. I had one such experience way back in 2003 with my eating disorder. I was a freshman in college, and a long evening class became an excruciating three hours. I was late to class and didn’t have time to grab a snack. This was during one of my lowest points, and I was in very poor health; that entire first semester is a bit of a blur. With nothing to even mildly offset my hunger pains that evening, I was almost in tears by the end of class and I had difficulty standing up.
Prior to this moment, I had regarded the food restriction, my commonplace obsession with weighing myself, and the endless anxiety over meals as just some weird thing that had happened. That night after class, though, there was no denying I had a problem and that I needed help.
I was anorexic.
Over the next few months I slowly sought that help out, although I was terrified of speaking to my parents and probably should have been taken out of school to receive care beyond therapy. There were times when I almost spoke to them, but then I would get scared. Dad gave me a ride back home downtown one Monday morning, and could see the death in my face. There aren’t many pictures of me from back then (and I don’t share them with anyone), but I can tell you that I looked less like a person and more like a walking corpse.
Concerned, he asked me if everything was okay. I came so close to telling him, but then my mind started racing with all of the cultural baggage that comes along with this stuff. I worried I wouldn’t have the words to explain what was wrong, barely understanding it myself, and so I held my tongue.
After being afraid of speaking to Dad about my eating disorder, it was to my surprise and happiness that, years later, I found myself in a much more competent position to talk to him about working towards sobriety due to my experiences in recovery. Although they are obviously different, I see a lot of overlap in the ways that substance abuse and eating disorders affect a person, as well as the work involved in recovery. Both involve a lot of soul searching, being honest with oneself, overcoming the sense of shame so often associated with mental health, and being accountable.
As it stands, I’ve shared more about my experiences with anorexia and recovery with my father than anyone else in my family. This is because he could relate to a lot of what I had to say without me “starting from scratch.” More importantly, recovery taught me patience. Patience with myself, and patience with others. That’s why even if I sometimes had trouble believing he would someday get sober, I never gave up hope.
My best friend Mike had been living in Japan for over a year when he came back to visit over Christmas in 2009. We were doing our rounds, seeing friends from high school and stopping by various parties early on New Year’s Eve. Already in the neighborhood, I decided I should stop by and say hello to my parents.
Initially, I regretted the decision as I realized it was a long weekend and my father had been drinking. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, but I felt bad putting Mike in that position. Dad was always a fairly pleasant drunk -- it’s not as though we ever had to be concerned for our physical safety or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It was just awkward, and a little depressing. I was in my mid-20s, and meaningful interactions with my father were often overshadowed with intoxication.
Dad came down the stairs and welcomed Mike back into town. He rummaged in the kitchen for a moment, and then walked up behind me and put his arms around me from behind in a bit of a hug.
“Do you know who this is?” he asked Mike, who gave him a bemused smile, unsure of how to respond to such an obvious question. Dad repeated himself, but then added:
“This is my best friend.”
While my father always made his love and devotion to our family clear, I was caught off guard by the unsolicited sentiment he had just conveyed. It was moments like these that reminded me he was still in there, and that underneath the demon of addiction was a man who needed help.
As time progressed, it became clear that he was going to end up in the hospital one way or another. My mother even started to set some money aside in case there was an emergency. Straight-faced, she’d rather matter-of-factly tell me she was saving it for either detox treatment or a funeral. Unable to intervene directly and feeling somewhat helpless, we fastened our seatbelts, crossed our fingers, and went about our lives hoping for the best but planning for the worst.
My father started attending Alcoholics Anonymous in June 2013. Although he was still drinking, the way he spoke about alcohol and himself provided evidence of a change taking place. In his clearer moments, he would acknowledge and apologize for the way his drinking had affected someone when he saw them again. Despite this gradual change in mindset, it was much harder to simply quit drinking.
The effects of withdrawal on top of his being diabetic meant that without medical supervision, he would ironically be risking his health and possibly his life if he ceased drinking.
Remarkably, he began making his own plans to go through detoxification. He coordinated with his insurance and found out what he needed to do in order to be admitted to the hospital, and even had a day in October scheduled to go in. About three weeks before the scheduled date, he looked at me across from the dinner table and said:
“By your birthday [at the end of the month], I will be your sober father.”
He said it in a way that was a statement of fact but also like it was a promise. I smiled back and told him that that sounded great.
When the call came at work, I listened with trepidation. Mom explained to me that Dad was unable to keep any food down, and had been sent home from work. It was a week before the date he had scheduled to take time off to go into detox, but it was clear that he didn’t have that long. Knowing my mother wouldn’t be able to go home until after 6 p.m., I worried about him alone in the house. What if he had a seizure, or went into a diabetic coma? These were very real risks; one of my best friends from high school had a roommate die in his sleep at the age of 26 from alcohol withdrawal in 2010. (Rest in peace, Brett. We miss you.)
I left work early and drove the 30 minutes into the suburbs to be with him. I tried to come up with something bland for him to eat that he might be able to keep down, but no such luck. We sat in the same spots at the kitchen table as we had been two weeks prior when he told me he would be sober by my birthday. I watched his hands, unsteady from the withdrawal, shake so much that he could barely lift a fork to his mouth, and I thought of his father -- my grandfather.
I never knew my grandfather as well as I had wanted to. His generation in general seemed a bit more private, especially emotionally, and living two hours away meant we primarily saw the extended family only at holidays or special occasions. By the time I was old enough to ask the right questions, to take a real interest in his life, his memory and mind were too far gone. I actually learned more about his life at his wake and funeral than I did while he was living. I don’t blame him and I’m not being critical. It’s just the way it is and I wish that it were different.
In a way, I’m grateful for the example he provided. Sitting across the table from my father that afternoon, I could see how ill he felt and I couldn’t help but think about mortality and how little time we actually have. While my own father has always been more open, never shy to express his love for us or his gratitude for us sticking by him through his addiction, the simple fact is that substance abuse hampers the quality and depth of relationships you can have. I always made it clear to him that I understood how hard it was, and that I would do anything he needed to support his sobriety.
I stayed the night at my parents’ house, and we all went to the hospital the next morning. He was released about five days later, and the difference in his mental state was clear. The man who had looked so old and ill at the kitchen table was now more present than he had been in years. Upon returning to work, coworkers told him he looked ten years younger (and they were right). Associates who usually only heard him on conference calls told him he sounded younger.
October 4, 2014 marked one year of sobriety. Visiting over the past year, my parents' house has felt more like a home than it has in a long time. He remembers conversations we had weeks ago. He asks me about the trips I’m planning, or that date I had told him I was going on. My parents go places together on the weekend and post selfies of their outings on Facebook. They’re happier. His commitment to being and staying sober is evident -- he recently told me he thinks less and less about drinking every single day. He attends meetings in part to provide support to other people, to give back to the community that accepted him as he was. I’ve never been so proud, and I’ve never been so grateful.
For some people, talking about mental health, substance abuse, or disordered eating is too personal, and I respect that. Me? I think a legacy of recovery is worth talking about.