When I was a teenager, I would leave school each day and head home to get ready for whatever extra-curriculars I had going on that night. Without fail, as I approached our neighborhood my stomach would tie up in knots, flipping and flopping as my anxiety skyrocketed. Once I turned the corner and had a clear shot of my driveway, my knotted-up stomach would sink with dread if I saw my dad’s car, because I feared what mood he might be in. If his car wasn’t there, a sense of relief flooded me as my nerves relaxed.
It’s not like it was always the worst thing if my dad was home after school. Sometimes he was in a great mood. There were many moments when he treated us kindly and wasn’t filled with the destructive anger I had become accustomed to. But those were the exception. Most days, my mom, sister, and I were victims of emotional and verbal abuse, largely propelled by my dad’s drug and alcohol use.
Fast forward almost 10 years to today and the scene is much different. Our relationship is still strained—messy and unbelievably difficult to navigate at times. But overall, we are in a better place than we once were.
When I went to college I found my voice. Getting some distance from my dad allowed me to experience a freedom from abuse that was foreign to me and allowed me find out who I was when I wasn’t so consumed by my broken home. Going away to school gave me room to work through my pain without my dad’s constant presence adding new hurts on top of old ones.
Yes, there was the occasional call from my sister about what terrible things dad had done that week. And more times than I would like to admit I made poor life choices to distract myself from how much pain he had caused. But overall, distance gave me space to heal, space to grow up, and space to see that I can’t change my dad—I can only decide how I respond to him.
During this time, my father became more vulnerable. I don’t know if it was because of sadness that he had wasted so many years of our relationship, or if he just got tired of keeping it all in. But he began opening up to my sister and me about past hurts in his own life, abuse he himself endured as a child. Hearing his story didn’t excuse how he treated us growing up, but it gave me some insight into his own struggles and made space in my heart for a little more compassion towards him.
Although this vulnerability bridged part of our relational gap, it didn’t fix everything. He and my mom still got divorced. He still continues to abuse drugs and alcohol. And my sister and I still long for a normal relationship with our father.
Like I said, things are messy.
But they are better than they once were. I used to never talk to my dad; now we share the occasional phone call. I don’t see him very often, but we do try to make some time for each other. And while I don’t call him for life advice, I still keep him updated with the big decisions I’ve already made. And if my car ever needs a fix, you better believe he’ll try his best to help.
I let him back into my world, just not to the point where his toxic habits can affect my mental and emotional well being. Because the two-fold truth is that he is an addict and he is my dad, whom I love. At the end of the day, I try to view him through those lenses: as my father, but also as a fellow human being who has faced incredible hurt, just as I have, and is dealing with those hurts in the wrong way, just as I have in the past.
If you’re in a similar situation with one or both of your parents, let me tell you that it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to mourn what you never had and to long for things to be different. But please don’t let that sorrow take you down the same path they’re on. And don’t try to fix them in an effort to gain a healthy parent. It’s up to your dad or mom to make the choice on their own to get better. All you can do is process your own hurts, take steps to deal with your pain in non-destructive ways, and move forward a stronger person for it.