Meetings With My Dad

By Taylor Ellsworth 06/14/12
Some people have to travel across the country to see their dad. I only need to show up at an AA meeting.
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Hey, Dad, pass me the basket Danny Jock

My dad has been sober two years longer than I have so rest assured that he infiltrated the last two years of my drinking and drugging with the fervent codependency and 12-step jargon that newcomers often latch onto. Thanks to him, I knew well before I got sober that the quintessential definition of a problem with alcohol—or insanity, as the Big Book calls it—was the inability or refusal to stop despite increasingly negative consequences. I learned that blackouts were not normal—that, in fact, they were usually an indicator of alcoholism. Every time I got caught coming home with vodka breath or drooping red eyelids, I was reminded of these facts.

I guess that’s why they recommend attraction over promotion. The one time my dad forced me to go to a meeting, I refused to listen to anything the other members said and then I got drunk that same night. Part of my refusal to get sober was simply my defiant teenage instinct that refused to let Dad win. I hated my mother for not getting sober with my dad, yet I was unconsciously replaying her story in my own life. Every time I came home the morning after a drinking binge, I tried my best to hide from my dad. Nothing reminded me of what a piece of shit my drinking had made me more than the disgust in his eyes when I would stumble in the door the wake of my last blackout. In active addiction, it was impossible for me not to drive a wedge between myself and the people who loved me. I pushed them away because I needed to believe that the drugs loved me more.

I learned that my dad had experienced the same sweat-inducing anxiety at the drop of a hat that had plagued me throughout my life; we had both covered it up well enough to keep the other from realizing it.

When I was actually ready to get sober of my own volition, I instinctively knew to call my dad and ask for help. I don’t know what it’s like for people who have no connection to a 12-step program when they try to get sober. I know the stereotypes that people who have never given it a chance believe: the chain-smoking old men in trench coats drinking black coffee; the Christian cult psychos; and of course, the room of people complaining about their problems while doing nothing to solve them. These people certainly do exist within the rooms, to a degree. But I was given the gift of having someone in my life who had honestly worked the steps and recovered from the hopelessness of addiction and in my experience, people who do this generally don’t fall into one of those categories. I imagine it is very hard to walk into a room full of strangers who may or may not be completely crazy and openly admit to a fatal and often shameful disease.

My dad took me to my first few meetings like a former all-state champion takes his son to his first football practices. He gave me my first Big Book, complete with an inscription; he encouraged me to stand up and take a 24-hour coin—the quintessential 12-step symbol of hope—on the day that became my sobriety date; he encouraged me to meet other women and get their phone numbers; he took me to my first Young People’s meeting, where I later found my home. For the first few weeks, I would slink into the room behind him, avoiding eye contact with anybody who happened to look my way, staring at the floor until the meeting ended. But it didn’t take me much time to find a sponsor and start getting rides to meetings with other women instead of my dad. I was lucky to have him—a living, breathing example of the effectiveness of the 12 steps—in my life. I knew that his advice was valid because I had seen the two-year transformation that had taken place within him. He had gone from being an ominous symbol of fear that was never home and grounded me when I got caught drinking to a friend I could be honest with. He was less angry than he’d always been; he had interests outside of work; but most importantly, he had stayed sober. He didn’t make recovery look religious, boring, or cult-ish. He made living without drugs and alcohol to dull his feelings look like it could actually be better than the alternative. Despite my doubts, I had faith that if he could do it, I had a chance, too.

When I was a year sober, I became the secretary of my home group. It was my job to choose the speaker who started the meeting off and eventually, I asked my dad to do the honors. It was the first time I had ever heard him tell his story. I was familiar with a lot of it from the various anecdotes he had shared throughout my childhood—all of which were meant to scare me straight and to keep me from repeating his mistakes (they had been pretty unsuccessful but were compelling stories nevertheless). But I found out that night that my dad used to freebase cocaine and though I’m still not entirely sure what, exactly, that entails, it sounds a lot to me like smoking crack. Throughout most of my adolescence, my father was a Cuban cigar smoking car salesman. I knew he drank but a former crackhead?

War stories and drugs of choice aside, this was the first of a myriad of things I learned about my dad after getting sober. I was just coming out of the teenage parent-hating phase and he and I began to finally treat each other like human beings for the first time in years. I learned that my dad had experienced the same sweat-inducing anxiety at the drop of a hat that had plagued me throughout my life; we had both covered it up well enough to keep the other from realizing it. 

I imagine that seeing a parent in a meeting is most addicts’ and alcoholics’ worst nightmare. I certainly never wanted to tell my parents about waking up from a blackout in my best friend’s driveway or selling the Coach purse they gave me for my 16th birthday for alcohol money. Throughout my drinking, I spent most of my sober hours covering the tracks of my drunken ones out of fear of my parents’ reaction. Something changed when I heard my dad’s story, though. Those shameful acts stopped being offenses against him or critiques of his ability as a parent and instead became something we bonded over. I didn’t have to apologize for selling the gifts he’d given me because I knew he understood and I didn’t have to hide who I was anymore because I stopped being someone I hated. Most of the alcoholics I know are constantly trying to make up for lost time with their parents to prove that they have changed; they are living a never-ending amends for their alcoholic misdeeds. I got lucky. All I have to do is show up to meetings.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She has also written about getting fired by a sponsee and eating disorders, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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