A few weeks ago I found myself chatting with someone I hadn’t spoken to or seen in years. Someone who works in drug rehab. Six months ago today my relapsing, alcoholic father killed himself. The chat brought on more thoughts, and questions, and work on processing the death. And thoughts don’t quietly wander or move on from my mind, they take up space until they are forcefully evicted from the premises. This is the curbside view.
Does alcoholism follow the same patterns as drug abuse? Could a simple pill of Methadone eased my father of his desire for alcohol? I could probably Google that and have an answer, but the answer isn’t really important. He died with no alcohol in his system. The only thing on the toxicology report was the med that makes you violently ill if you drink alcohol. There were no anti-depressants in his system. None of the things prescribed to him to take the edge of that desire.
What of that was intentional? Did he purposefully go off his meds to bring himself closer to suicide? Three weeks before he died, he met with a pastor and told him “The only way out of alcoholism is to stop drinking or die.” I get the impression that statement is bounced around a lot at AA meetings. Did he believe it? What was he planning? Why not just . . .
The impending election intersects with processing his death. My father was a staunch conservative, and he and much of the rest of my family taught me plently about the Republican platform. I get it. I understand the narrative. One of my father’s favorite lines was one of ‘personal responsibility’. The idea that you alone are responsible for both your current and future circumstances. I wonder if that idea ever caught up with him. It’s certainly caught up with me.
I remember one spanking in particular – where I had been unable to meet the requirements for me to avoid the punishment. I remember my mother telling him I couldn’t have finished what he asked of me. He said I needed to learn that I was responsible for the consequences regardless of what obstacles were in my way. (Was he trying to teach me something he knew he’d never learn?) At the time, and ever since, I believed that it was more about the idea that my choices brought me into the situation, and only my choices could bring me out. But that’s never been true, has it?
No one is fully responsible for their lot in life. Your family can have money and buy you a house. Your family can have money and never tell you about it. You can go to work every day and show up one of those days to find the place closed and shuttered. You can work hard to move up the ranks and have your health take your job from you. You can do anything you want and it may or may not give you the result you intend.
I wonder if that realization was too hard for my father to process. Because the consequences for his actions were huge. Huge. The drinking, the years and years of abuse of his health, body, family, and finances. He chose not to keep going. Did he have control over all of the things in his life? Of course not. But, to maintain his beliefs about personal responsibility, he’d either have to admit all of those years of wrongs or lose his house, his family, his job – everything. How could he do that? Either of those things would seriously alter his paradigm for understanding the world.
I’ve had a few realizations that have changed the way I function. One of them is that I do not have to accept that what I’ve been told is all there is. It’s a process, to be sure, but I have been running (however erratically) down that path for many years. I do not have to do the things my family did because they’re what is expected of me or what I expect of myself. I do not have to accept that I can’t do the things my parents couldn’t. I do not have to accept that the knowledge I have already acquired is all I need. It never is. There is always, always, always more.
As a result I tend to grab a topic, soak up everything I can find, and try to mush all the pieces together until I think I can see match the puzzle to the box. Till I think I understand the answer. I am a birth junkie. Absolutely. I have lists of breastfeeding resources. I have shelves of parenting books and ideas on index cards and a family where I try to practice and perfect.
Even death. I oscillate between trying to avoid and wanting all the information, but in the end I just can’t process without sliding the pieces around. I thought the absence of this relationship would be a relief. I honestly didn’t know if he would every be emotionally healthy enough for me to be in an emotionally healthy relationship with him, but I didn’t exclude the possibility. And here we are. Where the absence may be worked for good, but the work is no relief.
Maybe that is similar to the work of rehab. It’s no relief. Not even with a pill. Not even with the right people and resources and structures. Transferring the addiction, the problem, the pain from one place to another is not healing. It’s only the hope of a more manageable situation while you struggle through the work. I suppose in a sense, the addiction’s just been passed down to another generation. His pain was put into his parenting. His parenting passed his pain to me. His death absolves him from the work of healing. I bear extra work because of his choices, because of his actions, because of his words. Luckily, for me and for my children, I’ve never been as lazy as they said I was. I will do the work. I will break the dysfunctional paradigms that transfer pain to my children. I will make many mistakes and expect no easy road. But I will not let my politics or my parents or my pain burden them with false beliefs about themselves.