I grew up in a family of prestige because my father was a significant figure in our city. We lived on over one hundred acres, raised cattle, and had a pool and a tennis court.
My father grew up on a farm outside of town, made it through graduate school, was asked to stay and teach, but returned to his roots. He went back home to help improve his city, to prove himself, and to heal his pain.
I remember many of his childhood stories. He walked behind a plow and mules to turn the ground for the next planting; they didn’t have a tractor until he was in college. He wired their home for electricity when he was in college. He also talked about feeling inferior as a poor boy from the country who went to the town school. I recall feeling bad for him and ashamed of myself because of how easy I seemed to have it.
He overcame his outward circumstances and was adored by the thou- sands of people he had helped. He did not, however, lose his inward pain and shame. He healed many; he did not get healing for himself.
I was eleven years old when the symptoms of drug addiction began to show in my father. He fell asleep at the wrong times, needed to go to his office at odd hours, and had a barely concealed seething anxiety in him that made me careful when with him. I didn’t want to bother him. I acted as normal as possible around him, but inside I was uneasy. I felt somehow that my presence irritated him.
The script my siblings and I learned said that he was exhausted from all the demands put on him because of his profession, and we conformed our roles according to that script. Though there was some truth to it, the fact is he had become addicted to drugs.
The myth about his actions was that they were caused by stresses at work. The truth about his actions was that they were caused by addic- tion. We went with the myth. We acted, played our roles, and followed the rules my mother taught us. By maintaining the status quo, we had a sense of normalcy. To face addiction meant helplessness. We had no tools for helplessness or neediness. The addiction was a secret, and denial kept the secret where secrets are kept—in the dark.
Before the addiction began, I was just scared of him. He was strong, big, tough, important, tired, and gone most days and nights helping others. I knew at an early age that I was not strong, smart, or important like he was. Everything about me was childish; everything about him was significant.
My siblings and I had separate lives from him. One life when he was at home—quiet and careful. My mother saw to that. Another life when he wasn’t home—playful and rambunctious. My mother enabled that. She loved him, and that love translated into controlling the environment to make everything seem okay. Without words, she taught us how to act when he was home.
We had two lives before the addiction. Perhaps we were already practic- ing for what was coming. Addiction to work rarely seems like real addiction, but it is. We were already growing up in an abnormal family before it became worse. To the outside world, we looked great. We knew perfectly well to honor the appearances. But behind the front door, another world existed.
My siblings and I knew how to follow the script, play our fixed roles based on unwritten rules, and “read” our father’s moods as we took cues from my mother’s enabling. Everything was about surviving addiction by, ironically, doing everything possible to hide it—from each other and from all others. Maintaining the status quo was the number one unwritten rule.
One night in my midteens, the entire family was at the dinner table. My father sat in his chair at the head of the table. No one ever sat in his chair, even when he wasn’t there. I sat to his left. My mother sat to his right. My siblings sat on either side of us.
My father had been working on farm projects all day on his day off. I had come in from football practice. We had already fed the cows, and we sat down to eat. My father looked particularly worn out. He was barely present. His eyes were glazed. One of his eyes seemed to drift off center, but not one of us said a word. We were all pretending that everything was normal.
We were acting like always when I saw him lift his fork with rice on it and then stop midway between his plate and his mouth, frozen. I remember, as in slow motion, a piece of rice falling from his fork and landing on his plate. I looked at my mother who was looking straight at me. Her face turned pale, then red, then back to normal skin tone in seconds. I “read her mind,” telling me to do something.
I looked at my father, whose eyes had completely glazed over. His right eye had moved to the right and his left eye had moved to the left in a terrify- ing way. His hand remained frozen in midair. No one said a word. I reached out with my right hand and touched his shoulder and said, “You must be exhausted.”
His hand went down, he slumped in his chair, and then he passed out, with his head hanging to one side. My sister shoved her chair away from the table and left, retreating to her room where she spent lots of time alone reading. The rest of us finished the meal. “My father was exhausted from all his hard work, even working the farm on his day off, while we enjoyed the fruits of his labor” was the line of denial that protected the addiction and reinforced our shame, though we thought we were protecting the family. Our shame was that we could never do enough to help him.
After the meal, we helped our mother clean the dishes. She finished cleaning up the kitchen. My youngest brother and I watched TV in the next room, while I kept one ear open for anything else in the kitchen. Another brother left to go somewhere with his friends. We all left my father “sleep- ing” at the table. My mother went to another room.
Later that night, I put my youngest brother to bed by watching a TV show called MASH that he and I watched every night. It comforted me too. My other brother came in later, red-eyed, to tell us good night. (He and his friends had already found marijuana.)
No one said a word about what had happened. No one said a word about all the other things that happened either. The family was coming apart, and the individuals in it were too. But the secret was kept, and denial continued to rule all the days and nights that followed until I was in my twenties.
Instead of my family developing around a foundation of connection, we orbited around secrets and denial. Our roles were cast, and we played our parts like actors reading a script. Every word in the script and every action by the actors were to support the denial that the problem was addiction. We loved each other and wanted to belong to each other, so we all tried to make it work.
The disease of addiction is a contagious sickness. It affects everyone it touches, especially the family and most profoundly the children. Rather than my family being able to grow in healthy ways, our family system was controlled by the addiction.
Finally, through intervention, my father went to treatment for five months. We were surprised to learn that he was addicted to drugs, even though the evidence had been there for many years. We believed that he was exhausted and had become deeply depressed.
Today, many decades later, I can see how my father’s recovery helped heal our family and the families of many, many others. At my father’s funeral visitation several years ago, there was a line out the door of our church of hundreds of people waiting to offer their condolences—many of those people with testimonies about how his sobriety helped them find healing and recovery.
I entered recovery several years after my father when my own life became unmanageable due to addiction. My siblings and I are close now. We love each other. We talk often.