Figure 1: Me and Dad’s father, Stanley Sr., in my family’s backyard, Burlington, VT, early 1980s
And that story was the shadiest one to forgive.
Dad quit smoking via a hypnotist shortly before my sister Margaret was born. When I was eight or nine, he liked telling me the story of the hypnosis, sitting together on the green sofa in the living room, parallelograms of sunlight on the brown carpet. I think he knew the tale was cool and strange and that he came out looking golden, heroic even, since he said he’d quit to protect his daughters from secondhand smoke. As I watched his face, each time, he said he couldn’t remember the exact magic of the woman, only that he sat quietly in a darkened room, listening to the hypnotherapist’s soothing voice, her words rippling like water. The woman sank my dad’s body into a dreamless sleep, and the world blurred. When Dad awakened, he no longer wished to smoke. He breathed deep, exhaling the past.
When Dad finished his story, I loved filling in the blanks with my imagination: The woman was clearly older than him, with flowing, white hair streaming down her back. She wore batik robes and smelled of patchouli, like the dirty hippies who sold sno-cones in downtown Burlington. And when Dad closed his eyes and began counting back from ten, the hypnotist placed her long, gnarled fingers on a crystal ball the size of a school globe. Her papery skin lit up from inside, the way my toy Glo Worm shone when hugged, its very soul a nightlight. Then the crystal ball filled with smoke, drawing carbon monoxide and tar straight from Dad’s lungs.
My mom, a nurse, sometimes overheard Dad telling his story and rolled her eyes back to her amygdala. She knew Dad had quit, but in her book, the hypnotist was too easy an ending. One of her best friends was a heavy smoker, and that friend quit nearly every summer, only to start up again around the holidays. And Dad had other problems, ones he hadn’t begun to address yet. When I was about ten, he would start attending twelve-step programs: Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. But for now, Mom knew Dad’s body, its capacity for addiction, and her eyebrows remained knit.
I didn’t care if Dad was fibbing about the hypnotist. If he wanted to simplify the story to flatter himself and me, that was fine; I was charmed. The timing made him sound like our mom’s dad, a cuddly bear of a man who quit smoking before Margaret’s birth, too, though not through hypnosis, more like black coffee and grit. And it made Dad sound entirely unlike his father, Stanley Sr., a shadowy figure we never saw much of or had pet names for, but who we knew was a smoker and a bad man.
Stanley Sr. once worked an assembly line in Schenectady, New York, but went out on disability while his three kids were young, a problem that could’ve been his lungs—he was a heavy smoker. His wife, Helen, found work as an LPN, and Stanley Sr. stayed home with the kids. When Dad was small, his father was all sweetness. But after Stanley Sr. couldn’t work, he became abusive: hitting, screaming. Dad, the oldest, got the worst of it. The family stayed together, though. Helen spoke of her decision to marry Stanley Sr. as if it were a piece of bad luck she’d come to accept, like cancer or car wrecks. Once, at a family gathering, she got a little tipsy, drifted into my mom’s room, and said of my dad: “He was my love child, you know. It could happen to anyone.”
Dad’s family later moved to a trailer in Underhill, Vermont, a home Mom visited only once, early in their marriage. She found almost no furniture, and car parts strewn along the carpet. A sadness seemed to cling to the surfaces of things, like smoke stains. Mom and Dad kept us away from Dad’s folks. But Dad stayed in touch with them off and on, as if drawn back into a story he hoped could end better. Honeyed, like when he was a boy.
When I was twelve or thirteen, Dad’s worry about overeating struck me as apocryphal because he wasn’t overweight. True, there were times I asked Mom how an entire package of Fig Newtons had vamoosed in the night, and Mom cringed, said, “Oh, I think a little mouse ate them.” I’d take a moment to think the worst of him since I knew there’d be no new treats until payday. But Newtons seemed angelic compared to cigarettes, especially since Newtons were too wholesome to even hiss the word “dessert.”
Dad loved to jog and stretch and considered himself to retain a great deal of valuable information about nutrition. So I didn’t understand why he said he was a foodaholic. I imagined “a foodaholic” as someone who loves burgers and shakes so much that once they start eating, they can’t stop. Like a recovering alcoholic, which Dad also was by then. He couldn’t drink even one drop of alcohol. But Dad still ate fast food: Each winter we went to Al’s French Frys for chilidogs, waffle fries, strawberry milkshakes, whatever we wanted, before picking out a Christmas tree beneath the twinkly lights of the gas station. He had no trouble pulling away from the curb those nights, leaving the diner’s neon sign in his rearview. I thought Dad must just really appreciate sitting in folding metal chairs at night, preaching about the food pyramid. Maybe he hadn’t been allowed that peculiarity as a kid, when he lived in the house made of smoke, with the bad dad who was always angry.
Though we kept away from Dad’s side of the family, one night, Helen appeared at our doorstep needing help: Stanley Sr. had punched her in the face, breaking her nose. Like Dad, Helen had recently quit drinking and joined A.A., and Stanley Sr. didn’t approve of those changes. Helen reasoned that our house was the best place to hide for a week. Stanley Sr. would never picture her here because of their estrangement from Dad.
I stayed with Margaret in her room that week, and Helen stayed in mine. Back then, my room was covered in horses: massive, life-sized posters I sent away for and uncurled along the walls, kissed goodnight. I imagine these horses must’ve been odd companions for Helen to wake to, in a strange place, wondering after her life. I barely saw her come and go. Her A.A. sponsor visited, and they went to meetings, talked about the next steps. In the end, Stanley Sr. never came to our home, and Helen returned to theirs, to her husband. Helen remained sober. But her husband had a hold on her, the same way he did Dad. The man inspired a craving for sickness.
Dad’s food obsession grew stranger after that, as if he were trying to go without sweetness altogether. One fall, at his insistence, Mom stopped putting salt or fat or spices of any kind in the soups he thought would make for healthy suppers. This meant our trimmed chicken and vegetables simmered in water, and only water, in the Crock-Pot all day. In the evening, we were meant to tuck in around the kitchen table and pretend this food was enchanting, filling, even though it tasted like the ring around the chicken’s bathwater. Dad’s fascination with bland living wasn’t science-based as far as I could tell; zero health professionals, including Mom, advised this diet.
The soups began to remind me of a book I’d read called Bunnicula, about a mysterious rabbit-cum-vampire that drains the family’s carrots dry, leaving the vegetables pale as ghosts. My family ate this ghost soup, then waited until dark to hunt for stashed Halloween candy, pretzels, or cheese, so we could become fully human. I’m not sure what made Mom, Margaret, and me act as though this food was normal. My only guess is we were hypnotized, tricked into thinking Dad was the healthy one, and we were sick.
When I was in high school, Dad kept a single bottle of beer on a bookshelf in the computer room. The bottle reminded me of a turkey vulture, talons curled over the edge. I knew Dad’s sobriety was crucial, that the bottle, if opened, might conjure some echo of Stanley Sr., the way the name “Stanley” repeated itself in our family tree. Dad was not one to punch, but he had a rage, even when sober, that kept me on eggshells. His dad had been one of his drinking buddies.
I did my homework in this computer room, glancing over my shoulder at the bottle as I typed my English papers, afraid I’d look back one day to see the shelf empty. Once, at a restaurant, we held our breaths as Dad ordered a nonalcoholic beer from the menu. He smirked a little as he drank, and the rest of us picked at our steaks, waiting to see who he might become next.
We got through the meal, and the same bottle remained in the computer room, mouth pinched tight. But I hated Dad for cracking the door to that time. I tossed the incident onto the growing pile of Scary Dad Shit: desperate trips to the shrink, outbursts over fingerprints or any mess, fights with Mom that ended with his throwing a dinner plate against their bedroom wall. One night, Mom called Dad’s A.A. sponsor, afraid Dad might start drinking again. The man offered a verbal shrug.
I grew so nervous I went snooping in Dad’s closet, wanting clues to his oddness. I found a journal tucked beneath a pile of sweaters, the entries describing his despair about every element of his life, especially us, his family. All was hopeless, a failure. He didn’t mention Stanley Sr., but the man’s abuse seemed to flourish in the margins of his story, influencing the shape of Dad’s life, of what kind of life was even possible. I tucked the journal back into Dad’s hiding place and told no one. But I wasn’t sure if Dad wanted to live.
About ten years after Dad’s suicide, I asked Mom why he’d finally sobered up. The process started when I was seven or eight, but stuck when Dad joined A.A. when I was ten or eleven. I wanted this story to be like the smoking: about his daughters. Or at least like the eating: an obsession with control. But it turned out Dad wanted to quit drinking because he got a friend in trouble, an older man he admired. Both men worked at the Post Office. Dad had served in the Army for several years, stationed in Germany during Vietnam. After discharge, he took a job as a letter carrier, also serving with the Vermont Air National Guard. The work buddy was also a drinking buddy.
One night, as Dad was about to drive home from the bar, his friend realized Dad was even drunker than he was, offered Dad a lift. The friend’s house was close to the bar, ours farther away, maybe twenty minutes. Dad got home safe, but the friend got a DUI on his drive home. His license was suspended after that. Most people thought the friend got caught because he took the scenic route to help my dad, who was so drunk he could’ve killed himself or anyone else in five counties.
Dad felt so guilty he cleaned out our savings to buy his friend this terrific bicycle. The bike made a brief appearance in our garage, the chrome so shiny Margaret coveted the bike for years after it left. I picture the bicycle as cherry red, though no one remembers the specifics of the bike, just the feeling: something wonderful leaving the house.
The friend rode his bicycle up and down the steep hills of Burlington until winter came. When the weather turned, Dad left early so he could pick the man up and drive him to the Post Office. This continued until the friend got his license back, maybe a year later. In the meantime, Dad started to drink only on the weekends.
“You know,” Mom said, “your dad’s father was pretty abusive. But your dad still wanted him. And he couldn’t stomach that he’d upset his friend because that man was like a father. A sweeter one than he actually had.” This story rang true because Dad killed himself months after his father passed. As if, once that man left the Earth, there was no point in sticking around.
I think of the bicycle story whenever I see this one photo I have of Dad’s father and me. The man sits in our backyard, holding an old Polaroid camera, watching me run, maybe two years old, across the lawn. Dad must’ve taken the photo. It’s late afternoon, summertime, our shadows long. I’m wearing a jumper. Mom said Stanley Sr. and Helen were on their best behavior on the rare occasions they saw us kids. Honeyed, like when Dad was small. Still, I wonder what would possess my dad to invite his bad dad home, allow him to take my photograph. Sometimes this photo makes me furious, but others I think there was nothing Dad could do. His father was a hypnotist. The man mumbled some words, and my dad’s life went up in smoke.
Photo courtesy of the author
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.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). – Ed.