My dad passed away in 1993, when I had just turned 10 years old. His sister, also obviously my aunt, passed away this past weekend. Both of them died as a result of their own actions. In my father’s case, it was intentional. In my aunt’s, years of substance and alcohol abuse had only one exit option – whether she clearly intended for it to happen at the time it did or not, she knew she was slowly killing herself.
I’ve been reeling since it happened. The emotions that have been bubbling over have left me feeling like I need to talk about it. There’s been a theme of mental illness and alcohol/substance abuse interwoven into my life since before I was old enough to know what it was. It was affecting me before I even knew that it was weird – that something was wrong in this picture. It’s not easy to talk about such painful things, but smothering them down is not any easier. Right now, it feels downright detrimental to hold everything in.
I’m always nervous about broaching the subject of my father to a new person, because I’m afraid they’re going to look at me like I’m a piece of glass about to shatter before their eyes. Or that they’ll think that after growing up the way that I did, I’m probably batshit crazy. Or, if you happen to be a guy trying to get to know me, that you may pack your shit and run away before listening to another word, because there’s no way you want to deal with the daddy issues I must clearly have.
As a result, whenever that inevitable “where’s your dad?” question is asked, I flinch a little bit internally. Not because it bothers ME to say it, but because I’m afraid I’m going to freak you out or you’ll look at me differently as a result of my answer. My response always begins vaguely: “He passed away when I was little.” Some people cut it off right there, offering an apology and then trailing off blankly, usually leaving me to quickly fill the silence with something like, “It’s okay, I’ve had plenty of years to deal with it. I’m okay.”
At times, though, some people go ahead and ask the obvious follow-up question: “How did it happen?” I dread giving the answer, because, again, I don’t wanna scare you or have you judge me for shit that I went through.
But I’m tired of it. Bad things happen to everyone, and while talking about them can exacerbate them, make a person dwell on them, and make others shift uncomfortably in their seats, leaving them unconfronted can cause feelings to fester and blow up. I’m not responsible for other people’s actions, and the sicknesses in my family do not automatically mark me for life as damaged. I’m affected, but not ruined. So here it is.
My father killed himself. It was a conscious decision. Not only did he do it on purpose, he planned it for at least 20 years before he did it.
As you could probably deduce, a host of serious problems led him to this choice. He suffered from severe depression, panic attacks, alcohol and prescription drug addiction, anger issues, and I’m not sure precisely what else. There was more to it than just that. As if that wasn’t enough, right? I don’t want to get too detailed here out of respect for certain people in my family. I would not want to hurt them by discussing things that are more about their experience with my father than mine, because this isn’t something that affected just me as his daughter. The consequences of his issues affected others, and not everyone confronts things the way that I do, so I’ll be purposefully vague and only give a piece of the story here.
I will say this: his actions affected those closest to him in various ways. There was something deeply disturbed inside of him, that crept into his psyche at such an early age that he was acting out before he even hit puberty. I have my suspicions on what might have started the ball rolling, but that’s all I’ll say.
Another thing I’d like to say before I say anything else, because I’m sure you’re wondering it: I was never abused. My father had a lot of problems, but he never laid a hand on me, in any way, shape or form. My scars come from the things that he allowed to go on in front of me. He loved me, that was always made perfectly clear to me, and in the midst of all the stuff that I saw him do, he frequently sat me down to explain what was going on as best as could be explained to a child. The things I can remember him saying most were usually along the lines of, “I’m sick. I have a problem, and I really want to change. I do not want you to end up like me, I never want to see you become an addict, and I am so sorry for all that I’ve put you through.” I’d reassure him, telling him that I would remember all that he taught me and never end up like that. And that I really wanted him to try hard to be a better, happier person.
The reason that I can remember specifics about these exchanges after all these years is because my dad struggled over and over, going back and forth between trying to get better and relapsing on an epic scale. In other words, we had the conversations enough for them to find firm footholds in my young brain.
When he was resolving to get better, he tried a lot of different things.
He went to AA meetings. He brought me with him often because he wanted me to see that he was trying to change, and I think he wanted me to understand the power of addiction. I was happy to go, because it meant a break from the storm — things were calm and he was working on recovery. I was excited to support him. I’d sit in the hallway, looking at the coffee pots and donuts on the table and listening to people tell their stories. I remember feeling proud of him for joining, and hopeful that maybe this time it would help him.
He went to therapy. He brought my mother and I with him at times. I loved going. It felt like another small glimmer of hope. On top of that, I thought it was great to have someone sit down, ask me how I felt, and let me read my stories to them. Oh yeah, I was writing even back then, y’all.
He went to rehab. Multiple times. I was sad to see him go away, yet relieved at the same time. My relationship with my dad was always a mixture of love and fear. I’d wrestle with wanting him to stay, but feeling like maybe he needed to go away, too, because things were downright scary in my house around those times.
He would take things way too far and get put in the hospital. Also multiple times. When this happened, I was more scared than anything else.
All of these attempts at recovery. All of these other people pulled in to try to change his life story and put it on a more peaceful, healthy path. All of these counseling sessions, mood stabilizing drugs from misguided therapists who probably should have thought twice about giving an addict addictive medications, all of these meetings and interventions and promises and renewed commitments to sobriety.
None of it did a fucking thing to help him.
There were some particularly terrifying episodes that were solid predictors that my dad was reaching the end of his rope. My mother and I had moved out, and when he finally committed suicide, it was very surreal, but not entirely unexpected. I remember getting the news. A friend with very unfortunate timing was sleeping over that night, and she burst into tears while I stared blankly.
I greeted shock with silence a lot as a kid.
I didn’t cry at all until the funeral. I don’t know what it was about the final burial that made me snap into this new, emptier world and realize my dad was really, truly gone, but that’s when it happened. Something about seeing the casket about to go into the ground made it all sink in, as much as a 10 year old could process it, anyway.
My dad wasn’t here anymore. And he made the choice to leave.
I don’t remember the fallout of everything and how the adjustment phase to this new chapter of life went, but you can imagine how the story goes since I’m here and relatively (arguably?) normal. Eventually I grew up, my mom did everything she could to take care of me, and I made my own life.
There are certain things I couldn’t consciously think or feel or understand about my dad’s life, his actions, and his choices when he died because what the fuck. I was 10. My dad did help me out with that when I got a little bit older, though. How? He kept journals.
He filled several notebooks with pages and pages of his innermost thoughts, his feelings, his struggles. His demons were poured all over those pages.
They aren’t a fun read.
Despite the unsavory contents, I can’t put into words how thankful I am for these glimpses into his head. I got an insight into the brains behind the man whose actions scared the hell out of me during my earliest years. Without them I would undoubtedly be confused about who my father was, and there’s a great chance I would have grown up remembering him as a monster. My dad wasn’t a monster. He was sick. He was tortured. He needed help that he could never find or commit to.
So where does that leave me on the feelings scale? The most prevalent feeling I have about him is sadness. Sadness that he could never find any relief from the demons shrieking behind every formed thought and emotion. Sadness that he was filled with such poison – towards others, but most of all, towards himself. Sadness that he hurt the ones who loved him most because he didn’t love himself. Sadness that he was aware of his brokenness and couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Sadness that no one was able to help him. Sadness that he couldn’t see any other way out than death.
And sadness for myself. Most of the time when I think about my dad, it’s when I hit some sort of milestone or am thinking about changes in my life. I think about all the things he missed out on, all the things that a girl’s father should be present for, and I wonder how he’d feel about who I turned out to be. I’ll always feel a twinge of sadness everytime I see a girl hug her father, because that’s something I can never have; something that last happened so long ago that I can’t even remember what it felt like.
But these are all things that are mostly locked away; that only pop out now and then in small pieces, maybe hovering over some part of my day here and there and then floating into the back of my brain.
Except for now. Now my aunt succumbs to her own demons, and it all comes flooding back to the surface.
I’m reacquainted with that deep sadness all over again. It’s heartbreaking that she was so haunted in her life that she turned to the same numbing agents that my father did. I’m sad that she was unable to find the help she so desperately needed. I’m sad that she couldn’t find peace. I’m sad that she was struggling so hard for so long. I’m sad to watch my grandfather, a great man, have to bury his second child.
I’m sad about a lot of stuff.
We don’t choose our families. For better or for worse, for the good and the bad that they bring into our lives, they are a part of who we become. That doesn’t mean that we have to let the bad parts define us.
What I have taken away from all that I have personally endured is that we have to take control of our own destinies. It’s easy to look at the fucked up things that happen and say, “Welp, no way I can deal with this shit. Time to go fuck up now.” It feels like the clear route at times, to just not try, because overcoming terrible things takes work and determination; and where the hell are you supposed to summon that from when all you feel is heaviness? You gotta find it somewhere, because if you lay down and do nothing about those trials and tribulations you are faced with and all the awful things you feel as a result, you might end up going down a dark road leading to a place you can’t pull yourself back from.
That’s what my father, and now my aunt, have taught me: That it’s literally fucking life or death to stay strong and never give up on yourself. It’s the most absolute, important lesson that I can take away from these horrible tragedies.
I hope that any of you, my friends out there reading this, who may identify with any piece of this part of my story, know that even in the darkest moments we face, this is a clear, undeniable truth:
The only choice that there is is to keep going.