Happy Imperfect Father’s Day - Living Amends in Recovery

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Happy Imperfect Father’s Day - Living Amends in Recovery

By Kiki Baxter 06/18/16

I once bought a card that said something like, “to the dad who is always kind, fair...” and a bunch of other positive attributes. My dad wrote back saying, “That’s a lot to live up to.”

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Happy Imperfect Father’s Day - Living Amends in Recovery
Love my proud dad as best I can.

Traditionally for Father's Day, I go to the card store and read a bunch of cards that make me depressed. “Thanks for always being there!” “Thanks for teaching me golf!” “Thanks for being a great role model!” Where’s the “I am who I am despite you” card? Ew. That’s unattractive. One time I tried a more positive approach and bought a card that said something like, “To the dad who is always kind, fair,” and a bunch of other positive attributes. My dad wrote back saying, “That’s a lot to live up to.”

So here it is, another Father’s Day, and this year is a little different than previous ones, in that my stepmom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is only a fraction of the person we knew her to be. A couple months ago, my dad had to put her into a secure facility and he’s living on his own for the first time in forty years. My reaction is avoidance. Happy Father’s Day!

LIVING AMENDS ANYONE?

I made amends to my dad and stepmom last year. For cool stuff like being unappreciative, for acting disrespectfully as a teenager, and for not staying in touch with them consistently afterwards. They said it wasn’t necessary to make amends. My stepmom gave me a tearful hug and, in the months that followed, sunk quickly into the nightmare of paranoia, fear, and physical fragility that accompanies Alzheimer's. Time is precious. No time for avoidance.

Many people in the “rooms” suggested that as a living amends, I try to call once a week since I live 3,000 miles away. Some people said call once every two weeks. Some said once a month. Some said email. When things escalated with my stepmom, I called my dad more frequently to offer support. I had to learn to respect his process and not give unsolicited advice. (Hello Al-Anon and powerlessness.) The last phone conversation with my dad felt awkward. It felt like he wanted to get off the phone. Like I was boring him. I told that to a friend of mine who’s not in the rooms and she said, “why don’t you ask him? Or just tell him how you feel.” “What?!” I exclaimed. “Communicate? Are you crazy?”

In the pre-Alzheimer's days when I would call, my dad would say, “Hold on, let me get your stepmom.” When I’d come for a visit and ask my dad if he’d like to go on a walk (so I could have some one-on-one time) he’d say, “Let’s see if your stepmom wants to come.” I don’t know if this has anything to do with the fact that I used to be attracted to unavailable men. (Hello SLAA.) My therapist once told me that if I’m attracted to unavailable men, chances are, I’m unavailable. The apple doesn’t fall far from the dad. But back to the phone. A long time ago, my dad told me that he didn’t really like the phone. He said it was the bearer of bad news. (That’s how he learned my sister had died in an accident and then, years later, that my stepbrother had killed himself.) So maybe calling him isn’t the way to go. He seems to like email. He’s a writer, like me. But now I’m writing this instead of emailing him.

AVOIDANCE

His last email was about how my stepmom’s mouth was full of blood. It seems that her teeth are falling out. So, in a few weeks, they are going to take them all out. This is about a good time to have a drink. Or act out in a plethora of ways I don’t do anymore. My acting out is now simply stone-cold sober denial and avoidance, or self-um-centeredness. Not, "Oh my god! What can I do to help? How can I be of service?!” It’s, “How can I not feel these feelings?!” or “When’s the new season of House of Cards start?” 

“Did you see Dad’s email about Judy’s teeth?” my sister asks. “I’m really behind in my email,” I respond, semi-lying. It would probably make me feel better if I just sat down right now and emailed him. Instead, I live with a gnawing anxiety that, frankly, I think I’m used to. It’s like an old ripped-up, dirty teddy bear that I can’t live without. As my life has gotten more stable physically, emotionally and financially, I realize that I’m not used to life without anxiety. Time to overspend. Time to overwork. Time to avoid writing my dad so the familiar tendrils of anxiety can massage my psyche back to its normal freaked-out self. 

The bad, yucky, embarrassing truth is that there’s still a part of me that feels like he doesn’t deserve my attention. He doesn’t deserve my regular participation in his life. He doesn’t deserve my support ‘cause where was he? He left when I was six and was only available for visits on holidays. When I moved in with him and my stepmom during high school after the tumultuous years with mom #1, he chose wife #2 over a very needy, angry daughter. Or so, that’s how I remember it. Sometimes.

I know. Attractive. I would so like to be way more Mother Teresa-y than that. (Although I heard in real, life Mother T was actually not the nicest of peeps.) So, what to do? Fourth Step Shenanigans? Again? Pray for him. Again? Yes and Yes. The crazy thing is that when I email him, when I see him, and generally when I talk to him (iffy if it’s on the phone), I feel better. It an esteemable act, as they say. I could fucking call him right now. That’s how close a little hit of self-esteem is. Eh, what’s on TV?

WILLINGNESS

The Buddhist Monk and author Pema Chodron said that to live, you have to die many little deaths. Getting sober is dying a sort of death. Putting any addiction down is dying a little death. But then there comes (trumpets blare!) rebirth. I have experienced that many times. With each little death, a little bigger rebirth. It seems that if you let go of all the grosser handicaps, i.e., the substances—alcohol, drugs, sugar etc.—then often what comes next (if you’re willing or don’t have a choice) is what they call the process addictions (sex, love, codependency, gambling). And then there are the subtler addictions, or "attachments" as the Buddhists might call them, or "character defects" as they say in 12-step recovery. Am I willing to let go of resentment? Am I willing to let go of self-righteous anger? Am I willing to let go of procrastination? 

The other day I was asked to speak on the concept of willingness. I like willingness. I particularly like what my first sponsor told me, which was, "If you’re not willing, are you willing to be willing?" "Not really," I answered. So he said, "Are you willing to be willing to be willing?" I laughed. "No." He went on. "Are you willing to be willing to be willing to be willing?" Somewhere in the midst of all those willings, I found an opening. But, in response to my sharing that a woman said, "I came from a tradition that said you knew you were willing if you were taking action." BAM. She just shot my willing to be willing out of the water into the land of just do it.

In AA, and particularly DA, it’s all about taking action. In Al-Anon, it’s a little different. The motto is, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Ew. Ew to just sitting there and feeling your feelings. And, while we’re at it, ew to taking action. Ew to everything. Hello to dis-ease.

LOVE YOUR PROUD DAD

The last time my dad emailed me, he signed it, “Love, your proud dad.” Boy, does the disease in me want to hold on to my 16-year old version of him. Boy, does it want to nurse a grudge. Boy, what a nice, little shitty house I live in. I know where all the nice, little shitty things are and, on occasion, I like to take them out and fondle them. But, truth be told, it’s time to get a new house. I’ve vision-boarded it, I’ve written about it, I’ve prayed about it (meaning slept), but am I willing to open the shitty front door that’s barely hanging on the hinge and walk out into the unknown? 

Let me tell you about my dad. He smells like coffee, newspaper and sometimes red wine. He likes puns and occasional sarcasm. At 80, he still goes to the gym. He adores my stepmom. When he was three, his mom went to the hospital to give birth to his baby sister and they never came home. His dad, who was a poet, raised him. Once, he told me a story about asking his dad to join him for some father and son activity at school. His dad (my grandfather) said, “I don’t really see myself as the dad-type.” He told me that story to tell me that he didn’t really know how to see himself in those terms either, and that he didn’t have much of a role model. (For example, when my sister died, my grandfather never called or wrote my dad. He never visited or expressed condolences.) The apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree. 

Do any of us know what we’re doing? Did any of us get a manual? The 12 steps are described as a design for living and it’s the one thing that doesn’t fuck me up. Buddhism, new ageism, and all the other ‘isms start off good with me, but on their own, are no match for my dis-ease. So, just for today, I will do a mini-fourth step, turn it over, and pray for him. 

Or I’ll just email him and do what he said: Love my proud dad as best I can.

Happy Father’s Day.

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