When you grow up in a home with an alcoholic, you learn very quickly how to stay invisible.
I spent my younger years desperately avoiding my father. Fortunately, he worked a 9-5 job and he usually managed to make it to work. That meant safe stretches of the day when we didn’t see each other. But weeknights and weekends were anyone’s guess. As soon as my father reached for his first whisky highball, he morphed from a grumpy, depressed man into a volatile, abusive stranger.
My father was not a hitter—much. But when he was drinking, he was a slow-brewing mess of volatility, the muscles in his jaw tightening, his eyes narrowing, his voice getting louder and full of expletives. I would go to my room and hide. Sometimes this worked, but more often he would find me and frighten me with his threats, delivered with smelly breath and slurred speech.
Part of me realized something was wrong with him—but, as a child, I wasn’t sure what it was. I would see him sitting alone in the evenings playing solitaire for hours on end, nursing his highball and smoking cigarette after cigarette. While the rest of us went to church on Sunday mornings, my dad would stay behind, sleeping off a hangover. He would yell at the TV while watching football, and punish us severely if we shirked our chores. Though he had friends who would occasionally hang out with him and joke—especially if they too were drinkers—my mother was the social one who drew people to her. My dad scared them away.
When I became a teenager—and my sisters both went off to college—I faced the full brunt of his disease and depression alone. I was getting straight A’s in school—but I was chastised for being lazy. I had lots of friends—but they were rude or trouble, according to my dad. When I got a scholarship to go abroad the summer of my junior year, my dad assured me it would be a waste of time. Nothing I did was good enough.
Living with an alcoholic can make you feel on edge, as if you are living with a grenade that might go off at any moment. It can cause you to retreat, to avoid calling attention—even positive attention—to yourself. I felt deeply ashamed of my father. I also felt ashamed of myself, as if I were responsible for his abuse. I later learned this was a very normal response to living with someone who is an alcoholic. At the time, it tore at my self-confidence.
You’d think that I would have learned to tune him out, and, to some extent, I tried. I looked for parental figures in other places—teachers, friends’ parents, my pastor at church. However, it’s nearly impossible not to look to your parents to reflect back who you are in the world. If they tell you there’s something wrong with you, you assume there is. I would often respond to his criticisms by working harder, desperately trying to please him or, maybe more truthfully, make him eat his words. This was a losing battle. No matter how well I did, he aimed his spotlight on all of my flaws.
Growing up, I found it very difficult to trust other people’s friendship or love for me. Later, when I started working, I’d cower in the face of criticism, worried that I’d been found out. I know that many people get that “impostor syndrome” when they stretch themselves at work and worry about their qualifications. But my experience of inadequacy infused everything I did. It made me scared to commit to anything, to make sure I had an escape planned, in case someone tried to humiliate me.
It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I finally started to disentangle myself from my dad. I went to a counselor after having a mild nervous breakdown at college and I learned something about alcoholism. It helped me to understand my father’s disease and how it had affected him and, by extension, me. I was someone who felt I needed to be a people-pleaser, who feared making mistakes, who had trouble committing to people and plans. I felt uncomfortable standing out in any way, because I’d learned it wasn’t ever safe to be seen. But I also learned that I wasn’t alone in being this way. Many children of alcoholic parents adopt the same coping strategies.
Seeing a therapist helped me to take things into my own hands. I started to set limits with my father. If I came home for the holidays, I would stay for only a couple of days, then find a friend’s place—or even a nearby hotel—to stay. If he wanted to drive the family somewhere for a dinner out, I would drive myself, not wanting to be in the car with him post-drinking. If he got mad, I walked away. I might have cut off all communication, but I wanted to see my gentle, loving mother, and she was still living with him…despite my attempts to convince her to leave.
Eventually, my father’s depression overwhelmed him, and his drinking escalated. After 42 years of marriage, he angrily divorced my mother, blaming her for his problems, spitefully cutting her from his will. It was an outcome that I’d always wanted. Even so, it took me by surprise. I’d always thought it would be my mother who would leave, not my dad. Still, their divorce allowed me to spend more time with my mother and avoid seeing my father. In fact, I saw very little of him after that. Until something shifted.
I had moved from Santa Barbara to Berkeley in 1990, eventually meeting my husband and settling down. It was probably when we had our first child that I began to have a little empathy for my father. I realized how hard it could be to find yourself reducing your own dreams and ambitions in order to raise your kids. This happened to me, and it caused some inner and outer conflicts in my life. Facing my own need to adapt to these changes made me a little more open to thinking about my dad’s story and how much he’d had to give up to raise us.
I knew that when my dad was a young man, he’d wanted to teach high school, but he ended up working in the insurance industry—a boring job, for him—to make a better living. I also knew my parents had had a difficult time conceiving children because of blood incompatibility and that their first child died shortly after birth. My dad had to care for my depressed mother and persevere through that tragedy in order to have my sisters and me. I also knew that he didn’t get along well with his own parents and that my grandmother was often harsh with him when we’d visit. These disappointments must have been hard to manage for someone like my dad, I realized, and that gave me insight into his struggles.
Still, I didn’t reach out to him much. I think I felt more sympathy than empathy for him at that point—he was a sorry person, but not someone I really cared for. Then, late one night, he called me out of the blue.
He was crying, which shocked me. I could tell he’d been drinking, and I wasn’t sure it was wise to talk. Still, I listened as he confessed that he’d figured out my mother wasn’t to blame for his depression, and he wished he could take back his request for a divorce. Instead of encouraging him on this fruitless path, I suggested he find a therapist. I was utterly surprised when he did.
The therapist helped my father understand his depression and encouraged him to stop drinking. This was not something he truly wanted to do. He especially didn’t want to go to AA meetings, where people talked about God—something he didn’t believe in. He went anyway and found some support to help him stop drinking. And, maybe more importantly, he began to learn about some of the costs of his alcoholism on his relationships with other people.
Some months after he’d told me he’d begun counseling, he called me at work to tell me that his therapist had given him a homework assignment involving me. I was sitting at a desk full of papers, preparing for an evening talk and not really in the mood to participate. But he pushed on, telling me that this therapist had assigned him to call up each of his daughters and ask us if we’d thought he loved us when we were children.
“So, did you think I loved you as a child?” he asked, as if reading from a standardized questionnaire. I had no idea my sisters had received similar calls.
“No, Dad, I didn’t,” I said. “Maybe I knew it on some intellectual plane, but I didn’t feel it.”
That stopped the conversation cold. There were no follow-up questions, and he quickly made an excuse to get off the phone. But, surprisingly, I think this was the beginning of our true reconciliation. He needed to hear that truth, and I’d needed to say it.
He began to ask me to meet him for lunch occasionally. I obliged. He liked to meet me near my office at the Harbor Restaurant in San Rafael—a small, casual café on the water and, according to my dad, a “great place.” We would talk about our lives, my dad slowly learning how to ask questions and listen to my answers, rather than cutting me off with a snarky remark. He showed interest, keeping track of the stories I told of my kids, occasionally delivering a small present to me that I could give to them. He was trying—albeit one step forward, one step back—to be nice. To be loving.
This is when he started to tell me more stories about his life, too. He told me that when he was a child, he’d never felt love from either of his parents. He did poorly in school, probably because it was hard for him to sit still and concentrate, for which he was often punished. One time, when he was very young, he got hold of some matches and accidentally started a fire at his house. For that, his mother beat him severely.
As a teen, he wanted to go to work and probably would have dropped out of high school except for the encouragement of a teacher who helped him apply himself and get good grades. This allowed him to be offered a spot in officer’s training school after enlisting in the navy during World War II. Luckily, he saw little action before the end of the war, and his stint in the navy allowed him to go to Stanford and earn his M.A. in History. It was around that time that he met and married my mother, who came from his hometown. My grandmother tried to talk my mother out of marrying her son—a rebuke that stung.
Though this background explained a lot, the stories concerning moral stands my father took as a young man most changed my view of him. When he was a senior in high school, he protested loudly as the student-body president of his school—a Japanese-American boy—was carted away with his family to a detention center. Watching this grave injustice deeply affected him, and he went out of his way to make friends with our Japanese-American neighbors during my childhood in Richmond, sampling the octopus they served him for dinner and helping them organize cultural parties.
One time, when he was an officer on a boat at the end of the war and was told to sail his ship up the coast during a storm, he questioned his superior officer’s order and tried to delay moving the boat until it was safe to do so. This earned him a disciplinary rebuke. Another time, as a high school teacher in Taft, California, during the 50s, he’d given his students a lesson in race relations by assigning them to go downtown and report on the mistreatment of African Americans in the community. This civics lesson cost him his job, but he felt justified in opening up his students’ eyes.
These stories gave me insights into my father that I was never able to see through his disease. He’d had a hard life without the love of his parents, but he’d tried to do the right thing. He was disheartened by injustice, but he’d tried to make a difference. He wasn’t a perfect dad growing up, but he tried to make sure we were cared for, in his imperfect way. He had trouble expressing his love, but he’d had no good role models to follow.
When my mother died some years later, my father offered to help me sort through her things, taking them to Goodwill for me and carefully sending me the receipts. He volunteered to store my mother’s piano, which, though he didn’t want it, I couldn’t bear to give away. He attended the memorial and listened with moist eyes to my tribute to her. Months later, when I still felt the grief hot in my heart, he held me while I cried.
I think it must have happened for him then—when he saw my pain at losing my mother—that he decided he would try to make his own death less painful for me. He bought a plan from the Neptune Society, which would ensure that someone would come for his body and cremate him when his time came. He wrote up explicit instructions, taking the decision out of my hands. He made sure all of his papers were in order and went over his will with me several times.
I remember he asked me once if it would be OK if he had someone else bury him, someone besides his three daughters. He didn’t want people crying over his grave after he was gone. But I’d told him no. I needed that time to help me let go, to give my kids a chance to say goodbye, to process my grief. I cried as I told him this and saw rare tears in his eyes. So, he cut the funeral and the memorial, but gave me that time by his graveside. His gift to me.
It wasn’t easy to forgive the man who had so bruised my self-esteem—indeed, my entire sense of self. But, as I came to have more empathy for him, I began to naturally feel forgiveness. Being truthful about my pain and standing up for myself probably helped, too. And it was important to hear his stories and appreciate him for who he was, rather than simply focusing on all that was wrong with him. Though none of this erased his past abuse, it at least gave me some perspective. It allowed me to see that, late in his life, my father had tried to show me he cared.
When my father eventually died, my sisters and I cleaned out his house. I found a note he must have written a few days before he died. It was a list of things to do, written on the back of an envelope in his nearly illegible scrawl. I knew the day he wrote it, because it was by his bed with the date at the top, as if he needed to write the date down to remember it. The list included reminders to take his pills, to call his doctor, and other mundane activities. At the bottom of his list were the words: “Call Jill. Tell her not to worry.”