06/16/2014 12:45 EDT | Updated 08/16/2014 05:59 EDT

My Father Is an Addict and a Good Man

Dad's recent bout with sobriety was four or five years ago, and lasted over a year. During that time, he was very good to his family. Dad's wellness certainly did not last long though, and within just over a year, he had determined he 'didn't need help anymore' and was back inside the cycle of pills and alcohol. At this point in my life, my father is still an alcoholic and an addict, and he has survived tremendous odds. He is a good man. Addiction is nasty company.

Shutterstock / Andrii Koval

It's right around Father's Day, and I'm thinking of dad. Some days when I'm feeling able, I wear his weight belt. It's this heavy belt that adds weight to the wearer. Dad wore it for a time, during one of his longest runs with sobriety. It builds muscle and stability by adding 12 extra pounds to the day. I like it. I took it from my father reluctantly when he got too frail to wear it. It was difficult to acknowledge he is no longer strong enough for it.

Dad's recent bout with sobriety was four or five years ago, and lasted over a year. During that time, he was very good to his family. He gave thoughtful gifts, something he has done few times since my brothers and I were young. He went to AA, made friends and helped out with chores. He became agile, and a good listener. He walked regularly and gained strength. He ate regular meals. He took his family out for food a couple of times. It was over a year of having him back in fine form.

While he was sober, dad confronted arguably the biggest obstacle that pulls him back into addiction each time he gets clean; ego. For the first (and only) time since I can recall, he admitted he needed help. He found it in treatment for depression in the psychiatric ward in Waterloo, and he found it in the pharmaceutical intelligence of Cipralex. He found it in realizing he was a small part of something bigger than him, rather than a big part of something small.

My parents have been together some 48 years, and I would venture to say the last 15 have been severely compromised by addiction. Addiction is nasty company. It sits beside us during conversation and messes up mornings. The sun rises each day to shine light on the addict sleeping in later and later, bathing less, showing less kindness, more hostility, surrounding themselves with more and more pill bottles and filth, soiled newspapers, clutter and half eaten food. 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. wake-ups. Empty liquor bottles tucked under chairs, dirty clothes, TV blaring, lights on, cuts and bruises from falling, emergency hospital visits, cigarette butts everywhere, windows left wide open in winter as heating bills soar. And still the stench of cigarette smoke and booze sticks to everything.

I remember picking dad up from the hospital shortly after my then husband and I had moved east, to Toronto, to be there for my family. Dad's condition had declined rapidly in the year prior to our move. But by the time we landed in Toronto, he was getting out of his third, and most successful rehab to date. He was level headed, clear eyed and energetic. He was buoyant, head held high, skin clear and dark and no longer ashen, chatting with his psychiatrist, a man who had earned his trust. The feeling inside my body when I saw my father that day is forever with me. That moment was worth all the costs and stresses of having temporarily relocated across the country.

Dad's wellness certainly did not last long though, and within just over a year, he had determined he 'didn't need help anymore' and was back inside the cycle of pills and alcohol. Food, exercise and kindness had once again become irrelevant. His former love of AA meetings, and of being there for others, took a backseat to his addictions.

People are unjustly hard on addicts. I have noted an extreme lack of compassion among a few in laws and blood family regarding dad's 'problem'. Some wish he should simply pull up his socks and cure himself through counselling, as if the counselling route is even available to him. Some wish he would put on a clean sweater, fix his missing teeth, and talk about the right things at the right times. Some are embarrassed of him, and try to deny his illness; "Oh... I talked to your dad on the phone... he sounded GREAT!", implying that the struggle we faced (face) as care givers was being blown out of proportion.

According to their phone call with him, he was just fine. And some wrote him off altogether for not making the family look good, for being a stain on the veneer of what they wish was a more polished, more caucasian, more presentable family. And I get it. Addicts in the family are a difficult thing to reconcile with. Addiction and mental health issues are often seen as weakness in character, and this perception leads to shame, even hostility. But those who are compassionate know addicts to be people in pain, and people who are genuinely ill with mental health issues.

At this point in my life, my father is still an alcoholic and an addict, and he has survived tremendous odds. He is a good man. He deserves respect for his accomplishments. He has provided for his family as best he could, and did a damn good job of giving us a privileged and eccentric upbringing. He has a tremendous wit, is struggling, and is getting older. He has been to rehab on three separate occasions and in and out of hospital so many times that we can barely remember which hospital provided what service. (As an aside here, the hospital staffs have been more than exemplary. Hats off to nurses and doctors and all staff at hospitals everywhere!)

Many members of our family, and family friends, have helped in every way possible, summoning a tremendous amount of energy to assist dad in his times of need while they too, were in need. I am grateful for the kindness I've witnessed, and been part of. I feel lucky to have lived with my parents for those years in Ontario, daily assisting them and being a part of their shifting world as technology speeds up and their health slows down.

Incidentally, people teased me here and there, and spoke behind my back, for living with my parents during that time. It was as if it were a sign of failure to be caring for parents, assisting them with the little things that wear us all down; phone calls with rude tech support people, groceries, online banking, computers, meal prep, nurse and hospital mediation, clean ups, little walks, company, nighttime falls and washroom mishaps. I wonder how many of those people would do the same for their parents; let everything take a backseat for years of elder care.

But I am proud of having spent time in my parents' home. Not just to help out, but to be helped out. I needed to get to know my parents again during a time when they needed me. My compassion for my father, and for men in general, and for addicts, has deepened from the experience. My respect for my mother and brothers has been fortified too, by seeing how they live. Just to see how they live was so nourishing. To spend days and days with them, rather than little visits, was such a gift. I can safely say that despite our struggles, my family is a remarkable group of people.

It's been eight months now since I returned to B.C. and I miss Ontario, and I miss my family. My plan now is to get my parents out to B.C. for their final years! The winters here are kinder than Ontario winters, especially for the elderly.

One of my fondest memories of those difficult years in Ontario is sitting with dad in the garage where he liked to drink and smoke. It was cold in there, and dirty. He liked it anyway, right by the recycling, bare feet even in minus 30. My dad has a thing for bare feet. When we were kids he used to command us to take our shoes off for the entire summer if possible, and I recall him telling me that bare feet cures back pain. As an older man, his feet still hold so much character; they are wily, and darker than the rest of him. It's as if dad parcels his Mohawk blood in his feet, the body part closest to the earth.

One day in that garage by the recycling, I sat with dad as he drank wine and vodka, mixed. He was talking lucidly about law, politics, and sports, as he often does. Even when he has been drinking, he has a sharp mind. On that particular day, I pulled out my iPhone to record him pontificating on the fact that until very recently, the majority of judges in Canada and the States have been white, specifically white men over 55, and how at the Supreme Court level, this imbalance is even more depressing.

Dad's knowledge base, and critical opinions on many matters, including the matter of so-called justice in this country, are what make him a fighter. A fighter with problems related to addiction. As I write this and think about Father's Day, I wear my dad's weight belt. It's my own personal form of long distance prayer. I build strength with it, and send that strength out to my family, and to my communities, and to all those fathers who struggle with addiction.


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