Home Is Where The Harm Is

When I was in third grade, I asked a friend if he could sleep over. He came back the next day and said, “My parents said ‘no’ because your parents are drunks.” That was the moment it hit me: my family isn’t normal. My parents are alcoholics. Every aspect of my parents’ life revolved around drinking; it was all I’d known.

Reality hit even harder when my sister and I had Thanksgiving dinner with another family. There was no drinking or fighting. They played games and had fun together. It didn’t take us long to learn that we were safer away from home, so we tried to get away as much as possible. My uncle lived nearby so sometimes we’d just escape there for the night when our parents’ drinking and fighting got out of control. When we came back in the morning, the house would sometimes be in shambles, with broken furniture and shattered dishes.

I would often retreat to the loft, which was my bedroom, but it didn’t provide much refuge. I could still hear my parents abusing each other verbally and physically in their bedroom below. No child should have to hear what I heard. Or see what I saw. My father didn't know, but I saw him push my mother so hard that she ended up in the hospital with a broken pelvis.

When my father wasn’t an angry drunk he was a sad drunk. Sometimes he would come home and get me out of bed and tell me the woes of his life, and of course, I was a kid, so I would just sit there and watch my father cry. I was numb. I remember thinking, “I don’t know what to do with this.”

No child should have to hear what I heard. Or see what I saw.

I came to the point where I wondered if life was really worth living. I’d stare at the big oak tree from my window and imagine hanging myself. I went so far as to make my own tombstone out of a thin piece of plywood. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still there in the loft where I tucked it away under some loose carpet.

My ticket out was my strong academic performance which allowed me to attend university. I did really well there and ended up on the dean’s list. When my dad heard about it, he told me for the first and last time that he was proud of me. It was one of only two times that I knew he really noticed the events of my life.

I didn’t become an addict myself, but the effects of alcohol stayed with me. Growing up in such a dysfunctional family, I had no frame of reference for what family should look like. When I became a husband and father, I found myself navigating completely foreign territory, trying to figure out what was normal.

There was also the emotional impairment. I never saw my parents deal with negative emotions without alcohol, and they never acknowledged our feelings as kids. If any of us would start to cry, my father would say, "Stop crying or I will really give you something to cry about.” I remember giving my mother a hug during my university years. She went stiff as a board. She didn’t know what to do with tenderness, and I was just learning how to give it.

For years I lived with a lot of disappointment. I would look back and wish I’d been raised in a different family. The “poor me” record kept playing in the background: why did I have to grow up like this? I’d imagine how life could have been different. I bottled up my bitterness and anger towards my dad especially; it began to eat away at me.

A few years into university, somebody told me I needed to forgive my dad and find a way to love him. I realized that I had two choices. I could either continue to feel bitter and angry and ripped off, which I somehow knew wouldn’t be good for me or my relationships. Or I could accept the good and the bad of how I grew up, and that my parents were flawed people. I knew I had to learn to forgive or the resentment would control me.

I eventually came to the point of telling him, “Dad, I love you,” with no buts or complaining. That opened up a relationship with him again. He became more transparent. One year for Father’s Day, I wrote my dad a letter. I chose to be really intentional and write out every good thing that I could think of about him. He never responded, but I don’t think he’d actually ever learned how to write. But my mom did respond. She wrote, “Your father read your letter and then he cried. I think that’s what he needed.” That was a really significant moment for me. There was a noticeable transformation in our relationship by the time he died in 1989.

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