This post has been on my mind for the past six months or so, but when my dad died recently, I knew I had to find the time to write it- too many things in my life were pointing me towards this topic. The cause of my father's death that we, the family, reported to the general public was "complications from surgery" or "stroke". That is true. But what is also true is that he died of complications of alcoholism. What I feel to be an even more accurate story is that my father's death was a result of mental health struggles and unhealthy coping strategies.
When I was in middle school, I was pulled out of class and informed that my father was in a coma. The doctors told us that he was going to die. His liver was failing and I had no idea he was a drinker until that time. Luckily, despite all odds, he began to get better and stopped drinking for a while in order to be there for us. A while later, he received a liver transplant. I don't know for sure if he ever stopped drinking after that, but I suspect it was always a fallback to help him cope with life's unpleasant moments. You see, my dad was a very emotional guy. I loved that about him. He cared so deeply for my sister and I and the beautiful aspects of life- like music. So often men are told they can't be emotional. Further, society seems to paint the picture that men- and people in general- are weak if they seek professional help for their mental state and emotions. Meanwhile, life is full of difficult transitions and the need for mental health services and practices is almost imperative for each and every one of us. As I got older, I learned my dad struggled with anxiety. His side of the family also has a substantial history of mental health conditions and substance abuse. I am prone to feelings of depression and anxiety too. And isn't this the story for most families? It is for far more than we think. It's just so rarely talked about.
A few months ago, my dad texted to check in on me, a regular weekly occurrence, while I was grocery shopping at HyVee. At the end of the conversation, he casually mentioned that he had some belly swelling and that it was nothing to be concerned about- he would get it taken care of. Several weeks later, I saw him in person and as soon as I caught view of his drastically changed abdomen, I knew something major was happening. His liver was failing again- though he never admitted it. I was angry with him of course. But I still loved him. I was angry because I loved him... and I didn't know why he didn't love himself enough to keep living.
Of course alcoholism is a disease- I know that. It's a mental health disorder. To love himself enough to quit would be a battle of a lifetime at this point in his addiction. But as the weeks wore on and I fought with him pleading him to care of himself- he responded that he was ready to die. During another one of my lectures, he said if he quit drinking, he would have to take a lot of xanax to relieve his anxiety. I recommended he see a counselor.
I realized a long time ago that it's really not my place to fix my dad.
It always felt like if he loved me enough, he would change his behavior. But that belief led me to a lot of hurt. I couldn't change him if he wasn't willing to change and my heart broke with each failed attempt. And besides- using my dad's addiction as an ultimatum to prove his love just wasn't fair. He did love me enough. He loved me more than he loved himself- that was the problem. So to believe that my dad was this horrible person actively hurting me over and over by drinking himself into harm just wasn't true.
Since I knew I couldn't do anything to change the painful situation that was unfolding with my dad's health, I sought endlessly for some explanation to take the blame off my dad- to help me understand the full story. Was there something in his upbringing or his genetics that made him so self-destructive? I had heard tales or stipulations that my grandpa, his father, was a drinker and that he was hard on my dad. My dad rarely spoke of him and he died before I was born. My aunt said my dad had always been sensitive and that, growing up, even when he was feeling horrible, he wouldn't let on that he was. Whether that was a survival technique in his household, I don't know. He was a peacemaker in his own way. Unfortunately, it destroyed his own peace.
Many of my dad's behaviors were attempts to suppress feelings. He used alcohol, cigarettes, and xanax to cope. He avoided blame and guilt like the plague, but that avoidance got him into ultimately stickier situations that made him feel increasingly guilty. It was this self-perpetuating cycle. We gave him so many opportunities to confide in us so that we could help him, but he never really wanted to admit the underlying cause of his continued drinking. I don't think I'll ever know for sure, but what I do know is that he didn't want to make waves. He was afraid to admit that he needed help. He was overwhelmed with guilt and that guilt perpetuated his habits and addictions. Even when it was very apparent that his liver was failing again, he would respond to our pointed questions with a lie- a story. He went to great lengths to conceal his "wrongdoings" as a way of protecting us and avoiding reality. This is kind of a trademark of alcoholism. But it's not the alcohol that makes you that way. I believe it's a mental tendency that predisposes someone to alcoholism.
Thinking back, I wish I could tell him that I believe he's a good person and that I see so many attempts at good in his "bad" behaviors. Going forward, I want to tell everyone it's okay to admit when you are not okay. It's actually a beautiful thing. It's the necessary sign to change the course of our current path and set sail towards healing. For some of us, our feelings of anxiety and depression are the result of genetic tendencies, inherited from our families. For many of us, a large portion of our feelings of depression and anxiety are compounded by our environment and how we deal with it- a kind of social inheritance.
Think through the last time you felt mad, sad, or anxious. If you think back from that moment, was there an obvious trigger? Or perhaps there were small things that added up over time: a less than friendly cashier, a mean comment from a teacher, a back-handed compliment from a supposed friend. Often we are so busy in our lives we forget to take the two seconds necessary to let that shit go! People act out as a result of their own mental states. You aren't offending anyone. You aren't the cause of their hateful attitude. Hate is learned. Hate is inherited- most often from interactions with others. Through the day, we pick up other peoples’ burdens (that really had nothing to do with us in the first place) and we carry them! We feel we are the cause. Or if we believe there is no cause, we feel justified in our expressed outrage. We get worked up over other peoples junk. All this makes us angry, or sad, or anxious and it impacts our mood which, in turn, impacts the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat others. It perpetuates the cycle of hate in this world. So, it's our duty to examine all this crap that we've picked up and set it down so that it can end here. Don't stuff it inside. Do the work. Seek help if needed. And go through your day treating the uncompassionate with as much compassion and understanding as you can muster- they too carry a big burden they never asked for. It is my hope that this will be my dad's legacy.