I started attending Alcoholics Anonymous when I was still in diapers. I spent sixteen years going to those meetings, despite never having had a drink in my life. I was raised going to AA pig roast's every summer and post-meeting breakfast on Sunday mornings when it was my dad's weekend. Even our babysitter growing up was my dad's sponsor. My father was a lifetime recovering addict. It was a never ending struggle for him to maintain his sobriety - and there were many relapses.
Alcohol happened to be my dad's drug of choice, but that didn't stop him from other substance binges when the opportunity came along. Addiction is a disease. My dad was not a bad guy - he was sick, suffering from a dopamine deficiency in his brain. He lived on the edge of life, balancing between some sense of normality and utter fucking chaos. There was no in between for him. When he relapsed, there was an explosive hurricane of angst and crazy that went along with it and we were all caught in the crossfires. He hated himself for what he did but once he started down that path it took rock bottom or worse to get him back on the straight and narrow.
Being the child of an addict forces you to grow up exponentially faster than normal because someone has to play the role of an adult while your actual parent is off smoking crack or feeding grotesque sums of money to a cocaine habit and a new girl friend's shopping fund. I'm thankful now my mom divorced my dad so that my sister and I always had a relatively normal place to call home - a place that was safe and distanced from the turbulence that followed the high's and low's of my dad's life. But even then, it wasn't easy.
10 Things That Are Totally Crazy But Seem Normal When Your Parent Is An Addict
1. You can't trust them with money. My mom always said that while they were married and pay day came around, she never knew if my dad was going to come home or go to the bar and blow his entire check. Oftentimes, he did just that. When I was 13 my dad was fired from his job as a Network Administrator for an international title company. He sued them for wrongful termination and received a $100,000 settlement. Midlife crisis + huge sum of money = out of control drug binge. Over the ensuing months, encouraged by the much younger woman my dad was dating at the time, a cocaine fetish led to heroin which eventually led to bankruptcy. We lost our house.
2. You begin to parent your parent. My dad's personality was volatile. There were times where he was a pretty normal guy; he went to work, wore a suit and a tie, came home and cooked steaks on the grill. Then there were times where he would be so high and so racked with guilt for it that he'd fly off the handle and sabotage every relationship that he could. Even as young as 7 or 8 years old I can recall him resting his head on my shoulder, sobbing while I patted his back and told him it was going to be okay, that we would get through it. When his wife and my sister would pack their bags and leave, I was always the one who stayed behind to help him piece back together the smoldering ruin that was his life. At the end of day, he was still my dad - and I loved him.
3. They have no problem stealing from people they love. Addicts don't give a flying fuck who they hurt when looking for their next high. Close family members are usually the targets of theft because they know that a relative is much less likely to call the police. In 2004, my dad had left my sister and I at his girlfriend's sister's house, whom we'd never met before, after a hurricane hit. He claimed he was going home for clothes and to check on our animals. After waiting hours for him to return, I called him to see what the hold up was. "I'm leaving. Find a way to get in touch with your mom. Don't ever call me again." Come to find out, he'd stolen a safe filled with his girlfriend's narcotics and was driving as fast as he could for the Florida-Georgia line. Three years later, he drained two thousand dollars from my bank account so he could smoke crack. I spent the next month and a half eating peanut butter sandwiches and wondering if our lights would get shut off while he was still in rehab,
4. The cops are a regular figure in your life. The first memory I have of seeing my dad get arrested was when I was 7 or 8. I remember him coming home and telling my sister and I to pack our little blue suitcase because we were going to go see Grandma. Yay! Except...Grandma lived across the country and my dad was piss drunk at the time. My mom locked herself in the bathroom and called the police to tell them her ex husband was trying to kidnap her children. When I was 17, I wound up having to call the police because he was on a crack and booze combo bender (which was actually a new thing) and I didn't know what else to do. He tried peeing in the middle of our living room and the cops tased him (twice). I remember him screaming maniacally to my dog, "Kill kill kill!" while two police officers sat atop him on a gurney in the back of an ambulance trying to keep him down while another cop and a paramedic held down his arms so the second EMT could give him a sedative.
4. You never know when you're going to get that phone call. There were definitely times during my dad's relapses when I wondered if he was going to live through it. He would disappear for days on end, sometimes longer, with no word and I would think, "God. This is finally it." My junior year of high school, he met this woman named Esther who introduced him to crack. Her son was pretty big into gang culture and their whole family was just bad news. Sometimes he'd leave at night to see her and not come home, and I'd lay awake wondering if I was going to see him again. The anxiety was overwhelming. I finally went to her apartment and beat on her door to come out and face me or I'd have her children taken from her by CPS because she was a crackhead. When I was 16 I decided to move across the country to live with my dad, and he elected to drive down to come pick me up. He called me from Georgia to say he'd be there in x amount of time. Then I didn't hear from him for a week. I thought he was dead. Turns out he'd "accidentally" overdosed on his pills and gotten in two car accidents in one day, landing him in a coma in an Atlanta hospital.
5. You get really good at rationalizing things. Because you have to. There were times where my dad would call my mom's house, high off his gourd and say, "Katie, tell your mom I'm going to fucking kill her." Well, someone was having a bad day. A stint in rehab should fix that. How about that time he decided to take a knife and carve tally marks into our laundry room door counting the days leading up to when he was going to get rid of all my pets because I wasn't doing my chores. I mean, I guess I was being a bad kid, so I deserved that. My entire life I found myself saying what I went through was normal. It was normal that my dad was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army for shooting up heroin. Other kid's parents got high and totaled their car three times in a year, right? I couldn't be the only one who had to stay home from school and watch her dad because her grandma was too scared to be alone with him when he was over medicating himself and staying up for days on end talking to people who weren't there.
6. You become a master of denial and repression. The human brain is quite remarkable in its ability to repress traumatic events. There are probably a lot of things I simply don't remember happening. As I grow older, some memories seem to come back to me in bits and pieces. I recall a time around age 20 that I was watching t.v. and the show's main character was talking about a shelter for domestic violence victims and it triggered a memory. I ran to the phone and dialed my sister, asking her if our mom had taken us to a shelter like that when we were kids to hide from our dad. Apparently she had.
7. Rehab is a place you've visited - often. My dad was in and out of rehab and mental institutions throughout my childhood. I know he felt ashamed to be there - but he didn't usually show it. Mostly he said very little so I wondered why we had even come. It was an odd obligation, visiting him in those strange sterile places. Everyone sat around with blank faces, doped up on some kind of anti-depressant or anti-psychotic to keep them calm. That's what rehab really is - a place to send addicts and crazies when no one else can handle dealing with them anymore. There is a sense of wrongness about them, like you're intruding on someone's hollowness and it fills you with twisty, sick feelings in your gut.
8. You are drawn to unhealthy relationships, oftentimes with addicts. My experience growing up with an addict led me to seek that sort of dysfunction in my own romantic relationships. I found myself being sucked into this real life re-run of meeting someone, falling head over heels, finding out they were an addict or a criminal - and then stupidly convincing myself that I could fix them. I mean sure, I never changed my dad's behavior but maybe this was different. If anyone could help them battle their demons it was me. Because I had spent so many years normalizing the mayhem of my father's disease cycle I told myself that the men I dated were just like my dad. They were good people - they just needed help. The truth is, you can never change someone unless they desire the change themselves. In Alcoholics Anonymous they say, "It only works if you work it." It took me many years and many failed toxic, abusive relationships to realize that what I was going through was not normal, despite what I told myself.
9. You learn that hate and love are not mutually exclusive. My dad destroyed my childhood in many ways and for years I despised him for it. There was a period in my life, in 4th or 5th grade where I refused to see him because I was so fucking angry with him for what he had done. And every time his visitation day came around, he would call the police and bring them to my mom's apartment, trying to force me to go with him. So I hated him even more. Despite everything, I was fiercely protective of my father and the second he went off the deep end I was there, throwing him a life preserver and pulling him back to shore.
10. Life is a roller coaster and changes moment to moment. My dad went almost ten years being sober. And then he threw it all away. There was a time where my dad and I were driving down this back country road and my dad looked at me and said, "I want to love you. I just can't." The next day he wouldn't even remember that conversation. When my niece was born, I watched my dad swell with pride and dive head first into the, 'World's Best Grandpa' attire. He told me that she was the only one who didn't know all the horrible things he had done in his life, the only one who didn't judge him for it. The up's and down's of life with an addict was interesting, to put it mildly. It was safe to have no expectations and leave it at that. My mom always told me, "He's your father...and he's an alcoholic. You have to accept him for who he is. Love him, but know that you will never change him."
I remember the times it would be my dad's turn to speak at an AA meeting and he'd ask my sister and I to come along. We'd sit in the back of the room and listen to him fill in the blanks of our memories with the details we'd never known about when he'd gone off the wagon, He admitted time and time again how much he'd failed as a parent, how he'd neglected his role as a father and chosen addiction over his daughters, his marriages, his career. And each time this happened, he would point the two of us out to the crowd of people listening and say how thankful he was that at the end of the day, despite all his failures - we were still sitting there supporting him. Because that's what you do for your family.
My dad spent his entire life chasing one high or the next. That didn't make him a bad person, even though he did some pretty terrible things. Despite the trauma of my childhood, I am grateful for my experiences. There is no drug in the world that could tempt me to chase it. I've seen what happens to dragon hunters - there is no treasure worth the cost of your life.
Kaylyn Hansen has worked in the alternative medicine field for over four years as a patient liaison, educator, and physician's assistant.