My father died alone at dawn on a Sunday in December. He was fifty-seven, and had been living with his parents in his childhood home in Tucson, Arizona. His father went to wake him for breakfast and found him on the floor, gone.
That Friday night before, my father had sent me a slew of texts. To someone else, these messages would have been alarming. Someone else would have sought help, notified all of the right people. Someone else would have put down her martini, excused herself from her friends, and walked out of that bar in Brooklyn.
But I wasn’t someone else; I was his eldest child, now twenty-seven years old, who had long become accustomed to the threats he made on his life. Without breaking conversation with my friends, I skimmed my father’s pleading messages. He said I was the only one who would still speak to him. He went on about how everyone wanted him dead—so he would give them what they wanted.
I put my phone back in my purse. I thought: He must be drinking again, and he knows my rule; I won’t talk to him when he’s drunk. I remember feeling proud of myself for creating and sticking to these boundaries, for finally figuring out a way to have a relationship with my father while still protecting myself.
When I received the news on Monday morning, I was at work: an industrial, open-office space in Manhattan with all of the trappings of a start-up media company, so there was nowhere to hide when I opened an email from my father’s sister. I expected her message to be about the holidays since there had been talk of my father and my grandparents making the trip from Tucson to my aunt’s house in upstate New York.
Instead: “Paul has died. I’m in shock. Do you already know?”
I stared at the keyboard, searching for an answer. No, I hadn’t known. But I had imagined receiving this news so many times in anticipation that it seemed as though I’d known for decades. He had prepared us well.
I was eight years old when I first witnessed my father threatening to take his life. It was nighttime. I was hiding under my bunk bed with my younger brother and sister. The bedroom door was cracked, and we could see my father pacing the hallway outside the room. He held a gun to his head as he walked back and forth, raving about how he wanted to kill us and then himself. I was terrified that he might push the door open and find us huddled beneath the bed. I tried not to breathe, not to make a single sound that could give us away. My mother called the police, and we were rushed to the neighbor’s house while he was arrested.
Many more arrests, along with hospitalizations and other interventions, followed. We moved from Texas to Virginia to New Jersey to South Carolina in a fit of fresh starts, each of which spiraled out of control, delivering us back into the same old chaos. The police came to know us wherever we moved, sometimes dropping by unannounced, just to check in.
Of course there were good times, too—glimmers of what life would be like if my father could stay sober. During those lucid patches, he was present and engaged: he played the guitar with remarkable energy and mastery, challenged us to games of ping-pong, assisted me with homework and ballet training, and took us for bike rides and hikes in the woods. He consumed books and films and music, and he shone with the sort of intelligence and humor that drew people to him. He ascended fast in his career as a lawyer in Dallas, becoming one of the firm’s youngest and brightest players. These moments of happiness and stability inspired hope in me, but as time went on, they began to evoke a sense of dread; I became increasingly aware that it wouldn’t last for long because the light days were always chased by the dark ones.
When I was fourteen, my parents separated. Even though my mother said she was done, she would still stop by his apartment to check on him, particularly when she suspected he might be on the brink of a drinking binge. On one of these visits, my mother and I showed up at his door with a few bags of groceries. He greeted us with bloodshot eyes, matted hair, and disheveled clothes. There were heaps of crushed Budweiser cans on the floor and half-full jugs of vodka and orange juice on the counters. The stagnant air was foul, nauseating. He grabbed the carton of milk from one of our grocery bags and began to shout about how he didn’t want this shit; he wanted money. Then he turned and chucked the carton in our direction. It hit the wall beside us and exploded, milk spewing everywhere. We hurried out of the apartment, and he followed us into the parking lot, carrying on about how we didn’t give a fuck about him. Everyone would be better off without him. Before we could pull away in my mother’s car, he threw his body onto the asphalt behind the back tires. He wouldn’t move, he said, until we gave him money. Passersby with babies in strollers and dogs on leashes stopped to stare. My mother dropped a couple of twenties out the window and drove off as soon as he stood to gather the bills.
After the divorce, my father made his final move—from Charleston to Los Angeles. He wanted to be closer to his parents and to pursue his dream of writing movie scripts. I welcomed the sudden distance between us; by then I harbored so much anger and resentment, blaming him for all of the years of instability. I hated having to be the new kid in class again and again. I hated packing and unpacking, the police calls, the screaming fights and slamming doors—and the prevailing feelings of fear and shame, which I kept hidden behind my smile and honor-roll grades. How many nights had I lain in bed and prayed for my father’s death to come fast and set us free? At last that prayer seemed closer to fulfillment with over two thousand miles of land splitting us apart.
My father continued to reach out to my siblings and to me, but his communication was always sporadic and dependent on his sobriety and mental state. We couldn’t rely on him to be there for anything important, no matter how many times he promised. He wouldn’t miss my ______ for the world. You can fill in the blank with: sixteenth birthday, cross country state championship, high school graduation, and so on. He missed it all. In reaction, I either dismissed his phone calls, or, if I did answer, punished him with curt, one-word responses to his questions.
Whenever he tried to forge a connection, I evaded his efforts and took a vengeful pleasure in further depriving him of any link between us. Our common interests and strengths were difficult to ignore, though. One of his hobbies was long-distance cycling, while one of mine was long-distance running. Both of us had a propensity for language; I excelled in my Spanish and English courses as he once had in his. He had taken his studies to Madrid, and I ended up in Seville for a semester in college. We shared a love of poetry and each possessed writing aspirations. No matter how much I said I would never be like my father, I couldn’t avoid these similarities. Far from innocuous, they seemed threatening and fueled my ill feelings toward him.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City to attend graduate school that my anger began to buckle, giving way to an undeniable recognition of my own humanity in his. As an adult, in my early twenties, I started to better understand the power of vices and the nuances in relationships—how love and destruction tended to call the same places home. One day I answered his phone call and decided to ask him some candid questions: What did it feel like to be an alcoholic? To struggle with bipolar disorder? Why couldn’t he take his medication and stop drinking for his family’s sake, if not his own? Even though it was painful, I pushed myself to listen, not as his betrayed daughter but as a fellow human being. My father spoke about the existence of two Pauls: Paul and Anti-Paul. He explained that Anti-Paul wanted to ruin Paul, and every day, he was struggling to keep Paul alive and well, safe from the destructive hands of Anti-Paul.
This conversation led to more conversations. Eventually, I found myself opening up and truly enjoying these phone calls; it was almost like reconnecting with an old friend. I sometimes even shared my writing with him, and he would respond with thoughtful and astute feedback, reminiscent of when he critiqued my book reports in middle school. Through these exchanges, my compassion for my father began to take root and grow until one day, I realized that compassion had fully replaced the anger I’d dragged around with me for so many years. I felt liberated, more whole.
As my father got older, Anti-Paul seemed to gain more power. His stints of sobriety between relapses narrowed, and his body was losing its resiliency. His binges would sometimes trigger seizures, and he’d developed an arrhythmia in his heart from chronic drinking. I was relieved whenever he was arrested; he would be safer, or at least sober, behind bars. His longest period of sobriety was his most extensive time in prison: two years, reduced from a five-year sentence for a felony resulting from an accumulation of DUIs. He wrote me long letters from jail, mostly about the books he was reading, the memoir he was writing, and the English classes he was teaching, which made him popular among the inmates.
I hoped those two years would build a strong foundation of sobriety, making it easier for him to continue his recovery when released. I was getting married, and I wanted him to be there for the wedding. But he relapsed and ended up back in jail. Even though I was disappointed, I had stopped getting upset with him for not being able to transform into the kind of father I wanted him to be. Instead, I recognized he was suffering, trying to survive each day. I knew there wasn’t much time left before Anti-Paul would take Paul away forever.
And yet when the news at last arrived, it was incomprehensible. My hands shook as I typed, “What?” in response to my aunt’s email. Somehow an average workday carried on around me: everyone was typing at their desks—faces obscured by screens, headphones in ears, cups of coffee on hand. I told my boss I had to deal with a family emergency and then went outside to call my father. Finding a bench in a nearby park, I thought: just one more conversation, please.
The voicemail recording picked up. His voice sounded as enthusiastic and full of life as ever. My chest swelled with something like hope. Then, it beeped: “Dad,” I cried. “Dad, I’m here,” I cried and cried. “Come back.”
Once as a girl, I’d had the wind knocked out of me when I fell from a magnolia tree and landed on my stomach. Emptied of air, I’d remained sprawled on those knotted roots for what seemed like hours. That’s how I felt again, then: a child suddenly fallen, helpless. Unable even to breathe.
He was drinking when he sent those desperate texts on that Friday night before, and he’d continued drinking until his heart gave out. The answer to my aunt’s question was that I did already know. I knew in the way that everyone who knew him knew; we all knew he was sick. Sitting on that bench, I wondered something I’ve since wondered again and again: If I had responded to his messages that night, could I have somehow saved him? No. I never held the cure. No one did. Even if he’d survived then, there would have been a next time, and a next. This email had been bound to come one day.
A couple of years earlier, I had a vivid dream about my father. I still remember: there were two of him, one good and one bad. I was running through the woods, trying to escape from the bad father who ran after me with a gun. It was dark, except for the pale light of a crescent moon. The bad father started shooting at me; bullets splintered the air in loud cracks, echoing all around. As his footsteps advanced, the good father swept me into his arms and shot the bad one dead.
Only in the woods of my subconscious could Paul conquer Anti-Paul, and it was in that same unawake place where I’d held onto the possibility of Paul’s triumph and the redemption of our relationship as a daughter who still wanted her father to rescue her from the bad guy—even if the bad guy was him. This latent longing didn’t fully come into my awareness until he was gone, and it surprised and devastated me. His death made any further possibilities for Paul, for us, impossible. That was it. There wouldn’t be another opportunity for the connection and understanding I’d sought as an adult and to some extent achieved. Our newfound kinship was a fledgling drowned before it could take to the skies: the death of what never really was. Perhaps its wings were too bruised to ever soar anyway, but in spite of everything I knew, I had believed.
Rumpus original art by Dolan Morgan.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.