This post was originally published on the site Transformation is Real in the fall of 2016. The curator of that site is looking to transition the site to a new owner and so I’m republishing it here to ensure that it remains available moving forward.
On the morning of November 28th in 1977, Emil pulled the trigger of a .22 caliber rifle after covering the muzzle with his mouth. In all likelihood he died instantly. He was my birth father. I was five years old and my brother was just three. I have precious few memories of time with my birth father. My brother has none.
They say that the root of every addiction is trauma. And I suffered deep trauma as a young child.
After my mother and birth father separated, my mother moved us into my grandparents’ house. Although the situation was highly dysfunctional, I was not aware of it. It seemed perfectly normal that my uncle lived in what amounted to a shed behind the main house. And it didn’t strike me as odd at all that he had to store his urine in empty milk jugs in the refrigerator. Years later, I would realize he was likely being tested for drug use.
By the time I was in the fourth grade I had been enrolled in five different elementary schools and had lived in six different homes. We’d lived in several apartments and houses around the Baltimore and Washington metro area before settling in the small town of Taneytown, Maryland just south of the border with Pennsylvania.
From that time on, everything seemed normal in my life and I was a happy child with loving parents.
We were already living with the man who would become my father, when my birth father committed suicide. It was Don who gathered us together with Mom to tell us that Emil had died. He gathered us up in those broken years and did his very best to make us whole. And with time, we became a family.
Somehow he knew that my brother and I had suffered enough trauma and that adopting us wasn’t going to help, so he loved us as his own for the rest of his life. His unconditional love for our mother and for us provided us a safe refuge.
I always wanted to be like Don. He excelled in his profession. He was highly respected by people who met him. He was a man of character, honor, and dignity. But most importantly, he was the best father a boy could ever have, especially a boy who had lost his birth father to suicide. When Don died in 2002, I lost my best friend. I was crushed.
From a young age, I always envisioned myself becoming a father. I always envisioned myself being as great a father to my son as Don was to me. I imagined myself taking my son hiking, fishing, and camping. I imagined myself teaching him to shoot guns and hunt when he was old enough. I imagined teaching him to do all the things that Don had taught me to do. I imagined becoming his best friend.
In 2007, my son was born and I thought that my dreams were about to be fulfilled. He was the spitting image of me when I was a baby. He was perfection as far as I was concerned. He was an amazing little package of joy and I was ecstatic to have him in my life. I was on top of the world.
But it wouldn’t last.
I found out quickly that being a father was challenging. I learned that there were a lot of sleepless nights. I discovered that life is uncertain and that I was responsible for keeping this little boy safe. I discovered that I was scared. And on many occasions I wished that I could just talk to my father once again.
All the pressure of being a father, and all the fears that came with it, triggered something in me that I’d never expected. Within eight months of my son’s birth, I’d begun to go off the rails. I began to drink every day.
At first it wasn’t that much, a beer or two, but quickly it escalated and by the time he was four I’d progressed from beer to bourbon, and was beginning the downward spiral toward my emotional bottom. By 2013, I was a stone skipping across the rocks of a dry river bed of emotion and I finally came to rest at that bottom in September of 2015.
I have not worked out exactly what happened, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my addiction hit me with full force shortly after my son was born and that my bottom came when he was nearly eight years old. The fact is that I pulled myself together and sought help in a Twelve Step fellowship when my son was roughly the same age as I was when my life began to stabilize as a child.
While I am certain that I was not the worst father in the world, I was far from what I’d imagined I’d be, and I was nothing like what Don had been to me in my son’s early life.
There were times when I made big mistakes because I was drinking; times when I failed completely as a father. One of the worst times was when my wife and my son went to visit his grandmother for a week and I chose to stay at home under the pretense of work but in reality because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to drink like I wanted to on the trip. Every time I spoke to my son on that trip he was in tears because I wasn’t with him even though he was having tons of fun with his grandmother and uncle.
I felt like a complete failure during my drinking days.
I felt that I was ruining my life and that of my son and my wife. I knew that I needed to stop drinking, but I could not imagine a life without alcohol. I was certain that they would be better off without me and while I never seriously contemplated suicide, I found myself wondering if things would be better for them if I were dead.
Assuming that I don’t suffer a moment of temporary insanity, on September 23, 2016 I will celebrate a year of continuous sobriety. In the past year, I’ve started to become the father that I’d always dreamed I would be. I’ve gone from being ashamed of myself to being proud of myself, not just because I stopped drinking, but because I’ve become available to my son.
One of the first things I noticed was that I could walk him into school without an overwhelming fear of being discovered. I learned how to spend time with him, doing things that he wants to do, like playing with his Legos, reading Captain Underpants books, and shooting hoops with him—I hate basketball (with a passion), but I love shooting hoops with my boy.
In the spring of 2016 we went on our first camping trip together. It was with his cub scout pack. While there were plenty of challenges, including a canoe trip with the clumsiest scout in his pack, an encounter with an angry goose protecting her nest, and sliding down the floor of the tent all night because we’d pitched it on a hill (his choice) rather than flat ground the trip was a huge success. We both had lots of fun and I was sad when it was over.
It wasn’t long ago, that the idea of a cub scout camping trip scared the daylights out of me because I couldn’t imagine doing it without drinking.
Because I’ve been sober, I’ve been able to do the right things. I’ve been able to be both physically and emotionally present for my son. I hope that by doing these things, I’ll help to heal the wounds created by the trauma of living with a drunk father for seven and a half years.
I’ve got a long way to go to live up to the image I have of Don, but I know that I’m on the right path. I also know that maybe I don’t have to become the perfect father that I remember—maybe, just maybe—Don wasn’t perfect.
And maybe, if I just stay sober and continue to be physically and emotionally present for my son, he’ll think of me the way I think of Don when he’s grown up. If that happens, I’ll have done the best that I can.
I’ll have become the father that I was meant to be.