Like Father, Like Daughter: Unexpected Gifts of Recovery

By Trish Cantillon 06/16/17

By working my own program in Overeaters Anonymous, I've found a level of compassion and understanding for my father and his struggle with alcoholism.

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Father and daughter with bicycle, arms raised, against sunset.

During my first year in Overeater’s Anonymous someone suggested I write my dad a Father’s Day card. He had been dead seven years and I was wallowing in how left out I felt on this holiday. I contemplated going to his grave and reading it out loud to him, which had also been suggested, but scrapped that, opting instead to sit at the counter at IHOP and write a long letter to him. The Father’s Day message was full of sadness and longing. The typical grief a 21-year-old would have for losing a parent; what I had missed out on when he was alive but consumed by alcoholism; what I was missed since he was gone. Today, 30 years later, when Father’s Day rolls around, I find comfort in how our respective addictions became an unlikely point of connection.

The first time I ever saw someone give “the finger,” I was about seven years old. My dad and I were waiting to walk our bikes across Balboa Boulevard and 15th Street in Newport Beach. A car failed to stop for us, whizzing past as we stepped into the street. My dad yelled “Jesus Christ!” and threw up his right hand, middle finger sticking straight up, and didn’t lower it until the speeder was way down the block. He wanted to make sure the guy saw him. This whole time he held his left arm out just in front of me, letting me know that I was to stay put until he told me otherwise. When the crosswalk was finally clear and all the traffic had stopped, he waved me forward. He pushed his yellow five-speed with one hand and held the handlebars of my bike, guiding me as I pushed my candy apple red Schwinn with the sparkle seat safely to the other side.

I had heard my dad swear and raise his voice before, that was nothing new, but the way in which he gave the finger and the mixture of fear and anger in his voice made me feel cherished and protected.

These bike rides were a regular father-daughter outing when we were at our beach house. On Saturday evenings we’d set out for Alley West, a bar just about a mile or so from our house, right off the boardwalk near the Newport Pier. We’d ride, side-by-side, singing Meet me in St. Louis, waving and saying hello to other bike riders and stragglers who were shuffling down the sandy boardwalk.

In the bar I’d either sit next to him on a barstool or stand beside him, depending on how busy it was or how lenient the bartender, since it was against the law for me to actually sit at the bar at all.

“She’s short for her age,” my dad would say with a wink. He’d order himself a screwdriver and me a “Squirrely Temple.” I always finished my drink before him. As he’d near the end of his, ice tinkling loudly against the highball glass, I’d start.

“Are you almost done? Can we go now? You said only one, don’t forget.” Our agreement was that he could have one drink only. It felt like we were there a long time when he only had one, but if he had two or more, we could be there for an hour. If he did have more than one, he had to buy me a toy from the souvenir shop next to the bar. Over the course of a couple years I got a fake Barbie, some playing cards and some jacks. We didn’t sing as much on the bike ride home.

Our Sunday bike rides were early in the morning, before my mom or brothers and sisters were up. We’d ride side-by-side down West Bay Avenue toward the Balboa Pier. My dad would sing, “Winchell’s is my kind of place” to the tune of Down by the Riverside. He’d let me pick out donuts for everyone and a special one for me--jelly filled and covered in powdered sugar. He’d order a coffee for himself and a carton of milk for me. Sometimes he’d buy a Los Angeles Times and let me read the comics while he finished his coffee. Even though it was early, his salt and pepper hair was combed neatly. He held the bag of donuts in his hand as we rode home. He wore his swim trunks with Van’s tennis shoes, his tan legs pedaling slow enough so I could keep up.

One of the first times my dad got sober, I was about eight or nine. My parents had not separated yet. Mom was going to Al-Anon and Dad was going to AA meetings. It was a big deal. A general sense of living on pins and needles seemed to pervade our house. I trotted into the den one afternoon after school and saw my dad, his back to the door, drinking from a decorative cannon-shaped bottle of liquor that had sat on display for ages in the cabinet that lined the back wall of the den. When he sensed I was there he pointed to the TV and said, “Look!” trying to distract me. I knew I had caught him but I didn’t want him to know I had. I turned toward the TV and never looked back.

A couple of years later, during another attempt at sobriety, I was with my dad at our beach house in Newport. He, Uncle Mike, and Uncle Jack were barbecuing. As my dad headed into the kitchen to get the chicken, I followed him in.

Uncle Mike and Uncle Jack had been drinking most of that evening. Looking back now, I realize it had to be hard for my dad, who was always the life of the party, to be sidelined from the fun. Uncle Mike came in the kitchen and without seeing me started picking a fight with my dad, yelling and swearing. My dad, in his orange and green striped rugby shirt, turned around and asked him to stop. Uncle Mike persisted and finally Dad got quiet and pleaded, “Please, Mike, stop. Not in front of Trish.” He pointed to me over by the kitchen door. Mike walked out, cocktail in-hand. I had heard swearing, loud voices and certainly been subjected to drunken adults, mainly my dad, but here he was, recognizing that I was a child and it was not right for Uncle Mike to behave that way in front of me.

My dad was briefly sober again the summer before ninth grade. Although my parents were officially separated and living apart by now, he spent a lot of time at our house. In an effort to maintain his sobriety, he was told to have dessert, thinking the sugar would help offset the withdrawal from the sugar in alcohol.

Even though I was overweight and always on a diet, I volunteered to make his nightly ice cream sundae. I’d scoop vanilla ice cream in his bowl and then some in my mouth. A squirt of whipped cream for him, two squirts in my mouth. I would stand facing the open refrigerator and take the Hershey’s syrup can from the side door. I’d peel back the tiny piece of tin foil my mom placed over the triangle shaped hole the can opener made, and quickly guzzle as much of the chocolate as I could, careful to not leave any on my lips or chin. If someone were to come in, it would look like I was grabbing the can from the fridge.

One day that summer, after a long day at the beach with my friends and a particularly intense sunburn on my face and chest, my mom reported that we were out of ice cream. My dad and I drove to Tony’s Liquor, a few blocks from our Westwood apartment, and he ran inside to get himself an Eskimo Bar. I worried that he might secretly buy a bottle of vodka or something he could hide easily in his pocket. I tried to watch him from the front seat of the car, my polyester nightgown sticking uncomfortably to my burnt skin. He came out with Necco Wafers, his ice cream, and a 50-50 bar, which he tossed onto my lap. Orange. Not my favorite flavor, but a nice surprise.

“A cooler-offer for you,” he said. Not a life-changing moment by any measure but a sincere gesture of thoughtfulness and kindness that was often missing in our relationship. And the fact that he had given me an ice cream bar despite my perpetual diet made me happy. In that moment I was just a sunburnt kid in need of a Popsicle.

For every tender memory there are, of course, dreadful ones, too. A late-night drunken bike ride where he repeatedly fell, cutting his leg; many car rides where he couldn’t keep his eyes open; lectures about how I needed to lose weight and would only get a new bike if I lost ten pounds.

Never able to truly get sober, he fell into a coma during detox at his final treatment program and died from cirrhosis of the liver at 53. I was 15, with several years of overeating and bulimia ahead of me before I was able to find recovery.

One of the benefits of working a program is being able to recognize the dark parts of my story in his, which has allowed me to find a level of compassion and understanding in that space where our addictions overlap. Today, I feel empathy. I can accept his struggle because I recognize it in myself.

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