This week I put the sassiness and swearing aside to share something a little more personal. If you have ever loved someone experiencing addiction and mental health challenges I hope you too can find some light in all the darkness.
March is a hard month for me.
Eighteen years ago, just shy of his 58th birthday, my father died. It is almost certain that he drank himself to death.
My dad was an alcoholic.
I don’t share this lightly. It’s actually not something I choose to talk about with people. It’s not that I’m ashamed, even though the stigma surrounding addiction encourages people to feel that way. I don’t talk about it because I don’t want anyone thinking that being an alcoholic was all that my father was.
And I don’t talk about it because it still hurts.
I know this isn’t the beacon of hope that people want to hear about when it comes to loss, that I should be saying things like “time heals,” or some other bullshit like that. But when you lose someone whose life was cut short because they were dealing with a lot of pain and sadness, it’s hard not to take on some of that yourself. As flawed and as broken as my father was, I loved him and I miss him.
For the record, my dad wasn’t always an alcoholic. He kind of grew into it as his life took turns that weren’t of his choosing, paving a runway for his demons to come out. My early memories aren’t of a person plagued by addiction, but of a great bear of a man who was kind and protective and who swung his daughter round and round in his strong arms before tucking her in at night.
It wasn’t until he moved our family back to his hometown for a job at the pulp and paper mill that things began to unravel for him.
I think there’s a lot of truth to the saying, “You can never go home again.” There certainly was for my dad. Going home meant returning to a place where he never felt good enough. Where he was known for being a young man who got by with his fists instead of his smarts. Where no one thought he would amount to much of anything, including his own family.
It also meant going back to a place where men worked hard all week so that they could drink all weekend. And my dad really embraced that. It became his crutch to deal with the stresses of life and to cope with something much darker that he was secretly wrestling with.
After finishing high school there weren’t a lot of options for my dad. He was one of eight children, not academically inclined, living in a tiny town with limited job opportunities. So he chose to enlist in the armed forces at the tender age of 17. It was a decision that would alter the course of his life.
Although he only served for two years, it defined him. It was a perfect fit. He loved everything about it, the order, the physicality of it and the clear sense of right and wrong that the military insists upon. It just felt right. And I believe he truly felt valued there, like he belonged, maybe for the first time in his life.
I can still remember him speaking with such pride about being a Canadian Peace Keeper. And can picture his blue beret tucked safely on the top shelf in his cluttered office. It meant so much to him. More then I could possibly ever understand.
But his time in the service exacted a high price.
From talking to other’s who’ve served in the Canadian Forces, I’ve come to understand that many of our soldiers end up seeing and doing things that are incredibly difficult to reconcile themselves with when they re-enter society. And my father was no exception. During his tour in Cyprus in the 1960’s he witnessed the very worst of humanity and a level of violence and destruction that would be almost impossible to comprehend. And he wasn’t even twenty yet.
Those were the things he never spoke of. Except once. To my mother.
After he died, she revealed that he had told her a story about finding slaughtered children and their mother in a bathtub full of blood. Unimaginable horror for anyone to witness, let alone a teenaged boy from a tiny, French Canadian town. She suspected that this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what was haunting him. But he simply wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t talk about it.
Because talking about things or asking for help is not what we did back then. It’s barely what we do now. Instead military culture embraced and continues to embrace a code of silence that is steeped in alcohol and pain.
And so my dad drank. And the older he got and the less he dealt with the pain of his past, the more he drank. And by the time I was a teenager it felt like the very best he could do was put one foot in front of the other and just get through his day.
There are no big dramatics to share here regarding his alcoholism. He was a functioning alcoholic. He worked and provided for his family, but he became emotionally checked out. Maybe he had to because the pain was too great. Or maybe he knew that if he ever tried to address that pain it would swallow him whole. I have no idea. He never let me in.
But there is some light in all of this darkness. In spite of his pain and addiction, my father chose to spread so much good in the world. He was a tireless volunteer who truly believed in service above self and contributing to the community that he lived in. I am still brought to tears when I picture just how many people came to his funeral. The church was literally overflowing. He had touched so many lives and given so much of himself even though he was a deeply wounded man.
My father was a caring, kind person with a giant heart who genuinely wanted to help people. He loved reading and history and dancing and Christmas and couldn’t wait to be a grandfather one day. He was so much more then an alcoholic.
It’s March and I miss you dad. It still hurts that you’re not here and it probably always will. But I hope that wherever you are, your spirit is a little lighter and that you realize how much good you were able to do and how very much you were loved.