Confusions and Insecurities
By the time I was ten and my brother was eight, we were both used to waiting for our father to show up. Would he be late? Would he show up at all? We never knew.
I also never knew, let alone understood, why, as a society, we designate or expect so much from certain people just because of their titles in our life? “Mom”, “Dad”, “Aunt”, “Uncle”…and why do we let them give us so much emotional and personal problems because of their lack of fulfillment within these roles?
I was actually always a little embarrassed of my father growing up to tell you the truth. But writing this sentence seems wrong somehow. A child isn’t supposed to feel this way about a parent. As a matter of fact, many days were spent writing and rewriting this essay, many days in between of feeling nothing, and then other days feeling a nameless anxiety just at the thought of finishing it. Mostly because I didn’t want the judgement or ridicule that so often comes along with having cared so much about someone who could only have cared about me when they were sober , someone who cared more about their addictions than me. It’s just not an easy task writing about how you first learned that your father wasn’t a superhero at the age of ten.
According to a paper published in the journal Child & Family Social Work, “Living With an Elephant: Growing Up With Parental Substance Misuse,” children of addicts suffer the most from what researchers call “invisible losses.” Losses such as love, stability, a caretaker, and a carefree childhood. But even as the introduction to the paper acknowledged, it can be hard for researchers to fully understand what it’s like for a child to have to grow up in that type of environment. One subject said of watching others play when she was eight: “They seemed so young and I felt so old...standing inside the hallway as I worried about my mother.”
Studies have also shown that children of addicts develop anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic illnesses at higher rates than others. Some may even enact what researchers have called the “No Feel Rule,” blocking out feelings altogether as a coping mechanism. For family members and close friends of an addict, nothing will ever be the same.
I remember there would be moments in everyday when my father would disappear into his bedroom and lock the door. And I would stand there, in front of the door, for what felt like hours trying to imagine what was happening on the other side. And I can still remember exactly how it felt while standing there, quietly knocking on the door, but never receiving an answer. It was a feeling so strong that it has stuck with me ever since. A feeling that I was irrelevant and that I was invisible. As a result I became extremely quiet as a kid and perhaps a little overly sensitive, sometimes I wouldn’t speak for hours and then suddenly I would just burst into tears. My sense that I was alone in the world was a weight that I carried around constantly. It’s also probably one of the reasons my mother later sent me to see a counselor. However, that feeling of aloneness is still there and keeps me awake practically every night.
Shortly after my father came home from one of his first stints in rehab I remember him leaving abruptly while my mother was still at work, leaving my brother and I alone in the house. Later that night, after putting my brother to bed, I found a note that he had left behind intended for my mother to read. I won’t recount here what the note said. But after reading it, I sat alone in the dark and cried until my mother came home. I was afraid to turn on the light. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Especially my brother. I often wonder if he remembers that night. But even now, at age thirty-four, I’m still too embarrassed to bring it up.
There is a book by Ann Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which is about how three people, in particular how three siblings, can have three very different experiences of a shared childhood and how they are each shaped by those experiences. Each experience alien to the others. I’m sure my brother has very different memories of our father. I hope he does and I hope they are better than the one’s I have.
I also kept a journal during these years at the suggestion of my therapist. I don’t know whatever happened to it, but I remember most of the entries dealt with my father and how I wished that he was more involved in my life than he was.
He stole everything I ever cared about to help support his drug habit. Including Christmas and birthday presents, as well as any cash I managed to save and stash away from doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. As a consequence of all of this I started putting my belongings into tiny containers and pouches, one inside the other like Russian nesting dolls, trying to protect every little thing I owned with layers of fabric and plastic. None of it worked.
I also became a bit of a hypochondriac, seeing tumors in bug bites and sunburns. I was convinced, and possibly secretly hoping, that I was dying. The fear of germs sometimes occupies my mind, even now, to the point that I can’t even share a drink or touch a door handle without experiencing a crushing sort of unease.
My nervousness during those early years, also invariably presented itself by surfacing always in the form of an upset stomach. That was how I spent the entirety of my fifth grade year. My distress was palpable. In art class, I remember repeatedly drawing figures with arms and legs, but they weren’t really people, and all of them were squashed together into one corner of my large sheet of paper. I don’t know why or what it meant.
Sometimes I think it’s that feeling, unending weakness, total vulnerability, of which I’m most resentful of my father. There is a hole inside of me that, unless I keep filled with anger, will consume me. And one day even that won’t be enough to save me.
My mother never divorced my father through all of this. It’s something I can’t even understand to this day. I feel for my mother, but in a way I resent her as well. I resent my father for the pain he caused me and for the childhood he stole from me. But I have discovered over the years, that my anger is one rooted in shame, shame not just for having a drug addicted father, but also for feeling that it was wrong to be upset and hurt.
I’m sometimes asked, and I’m sure I’ll be asked again after people read this, why I choose to write so negatively about my family, but I’m always reminded of what Anne Lamott once said when she was asked the same question, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” In this world there are no fairy-tale endings.
There are, of course, a lot of things I did learn through all of this. Some of them being independence and determination. Because of my parents’ mistakes, I now had a passion to do things differently. To never be like them. To always try my damndest to be the best father I can be to my own son. Spending every moment I can with him, doing everything I possibly can for him. I’m a stronger person now I believe. But there is still, nevertheless, a pensive little boy that lives inside of me. A little boy that still wishes that he had been born into a better family. The only thing he wants, more than anything else in the world, is for someone to tell him that it will be ok, and that he shouldn’t worry, and have it actually be true for once. But there just isn’t a goddamn thing I, nor anyone else, can do now to help him.