Sitting in his burgundy Ford Taurus, I used to ask my dad what his father was like. Blasting the heat on the way to school on a winter morning, dipping across the bridge on Kendale Road on our way to school, I yearned for any scrap of information about the grandfather I’d never met.
Here is how my dad told it when I was young: His parents separated when he was two. He was five years old the last time he saw his dad.
For a time, his dad would call my grandmother’s house and say he was coming over. Promising that they would play ball. Swearing they would spend time together. My father’s father would show up late, or—far more frequently—not at all. I think about my four-year-old father a lot. Waiting on the porch with his baseball glove. Sitting on the stoop in the cowboy hat and striped t-shirt I’ve seen him wear in pictures. In my mind, he is squinting into the sunlight for a hint of his father’s car coming around the corner. Or rather, never coming around the corner. My father would lower his voice when told me his father died not too long after. Maybe I don’t have the details right. There was no hat. There was no stoop.
But I had it on good authority from my grandmother that my father’s father was a drunk. Unreliable. Good-for-nothing. So, when I got sober, I set down this inheritance from a mysterious stranger. Alcohol use disorder looms on both sides of my family. That’s what we call it now. Then? It was being a drunk. Later, we would have called it alcoholism. Today, we call it substance use disorder. That’s the polite term for it. But it shapeshifts. In my father’s family, it looked like disappearance. It sounded like broken plates, slamming screen doors, and then nothing. It smelled like fresh-cut grass and the leather of a baseball glove but did not smell like the exhaust of a car coming around the corner. It flickered like fireflies as everything went dark. The children of parents with substance use disorder are four times more likely to develop a problem with alcohol. Science bears out the inherited link. It is not inescapable, and in my grandfather’s case, addiction took the shape of vanishing out of one family and magically appearing in another with new promises and trusting faces. Fidelity fresh out of the box, but likely just as flimsy as the last batch.
When I quit drinking it was because I was tired of hurting myself with the contortions of managing drinking that I did not want to manage. Managing it was humiliating. I wanted it wild and loose. From the outside, no one would have thought I had a problem. From the inside, there was a rot I needed to dig out by hand. My drinking was a wounded animal—something feral and damaged—I tried leaving by the side of the road, only to find it back on my porch. I wanted to let the darkness take it. But it kept returning to me until I agreed to perform surgery on its beating heart and stitch it back together by hand. Only then did it wander off, limping toward the canyon, but healing all the same. An inheritance I hadn’t been able to resist but had clawed my way out of at thirty-seven.
In college, I’d found my activist community: first campaigning to protect the oceans and then the forests, faraway places I knew I hadn’t personally ruined, yet loved and felt obligated by their beauty and possibility to act. At first, every cause became my own. Eventually, my activism became less cut and paste and more deliberate.
In 2004, I was a junior in college and living in a shotgun-style apartment in San Francisco. With my roommates, I watched the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina on a bunny-ear TV someone had found in an untouched time capsule of a storage closet in the back of the apartment. One of my roommates was from New Orleans, and as we watched the water rise, in horror, on our red Ikea couch, something shifted. The way it all intersected so disastrously: race, class, climate, and the corporations that rushed in to profit from the suffering they had so casually fueled. I felt so hopeless as we watched the water climb. I felt such grief as the aftermath was revealed by the receding waters.
My grief was propulsive. It illuminated in me a willingness to risk myself that I hadn’t seen before. I had always gone along, followed in my family’s footsteps, taken what was handed to me without questioning. Seeing New Orleans submerged, I understood that by virtue of living under American capitalism, this destruction would also be a part of my legacy unless I dug my heels in. Unless I drew a line in the sand, it would be another deadly hand-me-down of someone else’s making.
My drinking was, likewise, an inherited problem. “Not my fault,” I wanted to say, “not my problem. So why should I be the one to quit?” All the same, I began to scrub out the intergenerational stain that had left my father fatherless and produced carnage across my family tree. When I finally quit drinking, my son was not quite two. He will not remember my drinking unless I relapse in the future. He will not have memories of my white-knuckling rules that barely kept the darkness at bay. I knew, the morning of my final hangover, that if I did not quit then, I might never. Watching my gray face in the mirror, I knew I was done. Defeated. A few weeks later over coffee, I said to my friend, “This ends with me, and it ends now.” I imagined my father at two years old, at five years old. I imagine him now. How it all could have been different.
My drinking had not been out of control but did feel painfully familiar, a family story told so many times it was as though I remembered myself. Though I’d wait until my son was asleep before drinking, I spent too many mornings hungover in his room as it grew light. Sitting in the winter morning chill, watching him play before breakfast, snug in my nightgown and robe and slippers, I watched him learning to listen to his body, surprised by sensations I would have taken for granted. Watched him pull himself up on the purple velvet ottoman for the first time. Watched the shock of mango puree across his gaping mouth. He delighted in every detail of the world.
I feared handing over this radioactive inheritance to my son and stealing that delight from his eyes. I had been treating my drinking as a foregone conclusion, rather than the excruciating poison that had infested the fruit of my family tree. What was now his tree. I wanted for him what I felt like I hadn’t had: a choice. I wanted to tell him honestly, “Your life is your own.” Addiction will not be a bright fiber woven throughout his childhood that snags on the rest of his life. There is a glimmer of an open door. I have shattered the heirloom on the mantle that, too often, others couldn’t bear to look at, let alone name.
There is despair in knowing what comes next. Seeing the future—or having enough data to extrapolate it—is not all it’s cracked up to be. Despite our collective efforts, climate change is here. It breathes down my child’s neck while he is sleeping. It is pawing at the stoop even though the porch light is out. I must admit, as I am no longer numbing myself and dulling the edges of the world, I feel I have failed to do my part in my larger work in the world.
But there is still a dream of reversing it, mitigating it, and collectively enduring it. That might still be possible. We can, very possibly, relieve the attendant suffering. We might, if the stars aligned, choose to fall toward one another in the face of it. This is the precarious grief of my generation. We did not act boldly, swiftly, or strategically enough. Or we were up against a large enough monster that nothing could have defeated it. It needed to be buried, and we barely kept it at bay. This is not to say that there have not been victories. Or that there is no beauty or hope or possibility. We simply have not treated climate change as the intergenerational curse that it is. We have left it, again and again, for the next generation. We have chosen comfort and familiarity and numbness over a reckoning that might have spared our children. This does not mean that we give up or succumb to despair. My child grinds his teeth in his sleep, and I tell him that I am doing my best. We can still seek forgiveness for passing on this poisoned inheritance.
My father was five the last time he saw his father. My grandfather died of cancer when my father was twelve. Or thirteen. That’s what he told me when I was a child. I couldn’t remember which. Over the years, good-for-nothing became goddamn-son-of-a-bitch.
Here is what my father told me last year: The doctor in the mental hospital begged my father’s father, “Just give that poor woman a divorce.” The poor woman being my grandmother. He was a drunk and mentally ill in a time when no one could or would help him. I always thought he’d skipped town. What else could explain why he hadn’t seen my father in eight years when he died? Where else could he have been but in the wind? I pictured him hopping trains. Instead, my grandfather died of a brain tumor in 1965—by which time he was, according to his obituary, someone else’s beloved husband—in the same town where my grandmother and my father still lived. My father was thirteen. His father’s disappearance had been a choice. He is buried three miles from my childhood home.
I had a note for this essay, “I feel like I’ve failed him.” I’m not sure whether I was talking about my father or my son. I’m not sure it makes a difference. I picture them both on the porch: my son with his sweaty popsicle, my father with his baseball glove.
The incalculable loss of a changing climate is one we only glimpse of out of the corners of our eyes, as our attention is gobbled up by the small, daily emergencies. We ignore it because we have run out of milk or need a fresh tire. Or, far more worthy, the quotidian joys of a cup of coffee with a friend or the hummingbird that sits outside my window. If we had more time, I would tell you about its green back, shaped like the leaf of the bottlebrush tree. I would tell you about its black beak, snapping at tiny bugs with its quick tongue. And finally, I would tell you about its flashing red head, showing off as it fluffs its feathers. The way it stops me in my tracks every time. The way I willingly give my awareness over to it, even when I am running late for school pickup.
Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher writes, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” But some days, I am too aware that we are running out of time.
Climate grief is an anticipatory grief: the piano hanging over us, twisting on a fraying thread. It is the grief of knowing that any individual or even small collective action would be too small. It is the grief of waiting for the powers that be to wield that power responsibly, of begging for our lives. It is the grief of remembering that we soldier on, collectively, in the face of that horror, because to abdicate our responsibility is worse. Climate grief is the grief of “I told you so,” the grief of disappearing rhinoceroses, and the grief of communities under water, the inheritance of their history and culture swept out to sea.
My father is from the generation that cries at the end of Field of Dreams. There is something in it about fathers and sons and unhealed grief that comes from an era without restorative justice, without trauma-informed anything. The only thing my father’s father left him was a missing piece for the wind to whistle through. He is still the little boy waiting to play catch. My father now keeps my first arrest citation for direct action framed in the closet of his home. Despite my failure as an activist, my father tells people that I am his hero. I do not correct him.
Mary Oliver writes: “Listen / this was his life. / I bury it in the earth. / I sweep the closets. / I leave the house […] But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.” Drinking is like that: an iron thing. Once I was done, once I had healed it, instead of trying to reason with it, I could drop it to the bottom of a lake. I could let it be as lonely and miserable as it always wanted me to be. The grief I feel on behalf of my child feels like those moments when he is sad about something and won’t tell me what. The way I feel when I think his hot chocolate is cool enough and he burns his tongue taking a giant gulp. He is so small, still. I want to throw my body across his. The instinct reminds me of my insignificance. Putting my body on the line has not yielded results yet.
One of my meditation teachers gave me instruction once, in staying sober. He told me that after five years of sobriety, I would have an 80% chance of staying sober. “It doesn’t get better after that,” he said. Until five years, he explained, the work was to simply not drink, day by day. I thought about my father’s five-year-old self. How five years represented his entire relationship with his father who died across town while, for me, five years would give me a chance of beating the odds. I joked with my teacher, “Wait. You mean I don’t have to fix generations worth of trauma and addiction today?! I can just . . . not drink?” This seemed impossible. To set down some of the spinning plates. Not to fix it, but to feel it. There is lightness there, the absence of the iron thing I carried for too long.
I still feel helpless against the way storms and fires are intensifying. At the same time, there is a kinship in holding each other, collectively, as the sea rises. Climate change used to exist in the distant future. And then in the near future. And now it is here. The wolf, the ocean, the rage—our inheritance—is at our collective doorstep. It has come to collect. It did not begin with us, of course. No one of us brought this to pass. But it is our responsibility to release the curse. To break the spell. The first step is admitting there is a problem: to set down the bottle, even before we make amends. Sometimes, I regret my awareness. Without alcohol to numb me, I am without any armor in the onslaught of grief and horror. I have been arrested eight times now (although that faded first citation in my father’s closet is still a point of pride), pleading for action from those who could have set it in motion.
I was a child when I learned to make whiskey sours the way my grandmother liked them. I was a child when I mistook a gin and tonic in the car cup holder for a glass of Sprite. I was a child when I was offered sips of beer and wine, only to recoil. It is not my fault that all this was handed to me. Those in close proximity—first-degree relatives—are two to seven times more likely to develop problems with alcohol. The closer the proximity, the higher the risk.
It is not my work to blame myself. And it is not of interest to me to blame anyone else. My work is simply to sweep the floors and tidy the overturned chair of this house, to make it habitable for the next generation. In recovery, I discovered emotions that had gone buried for years: resentment, longing, regret, grief, rage. The pain of coming face to face with that was nearly enough to send me right back into my numb comfort. There is a difference between “not drinking” and sobriety. There is the daily ritual of working a program, twelve-step or otherwise. The nuance lies in recognizing the addictive nature of oneself, and consciously not replacing one addiction with another. It could easily have been so many other things: codependency, shopping, smoking clove cigarettes on rainy San Francisco nights, unavailable men, cocaine. I had to shed not just the drinking but anything that was a threat to my sobriety. In my inheritances, whether addiction or climate disaster, it is one day at a time.
There is a sense of loss I feel when I teach my son about the world. The things I teach my son about existing in the present: the ice, the animals, the drinking water, the towns still standing. Life as we know it and the things we have taken for granted could too easily become past tense. As we witness what we have done, there is an instinct to numb out or cling to old patterns and dependencies. Like any bereavement, climate grief can feel all-encompassing. Instead, what if we saw the grief as evidence of care, not as evidence of failure? I engage my recovery from climate grief (not a cold-turkey endeavor, like my drinking) as one rooted in small steps. There is evidence that this active hope may be an antidote.
In the spring of 2022, Wynn Alan Bruce died from self-immolation after setting himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court to protest inaction on the climate crisis. He was a Buddhist from Colorado. Despite my heartbreak, I got up the following morning and was arrested for occupying a Wells Fargo lobby for their investment in fossil fuels. This is how I hope: I come together with my community to do what I know how to do. Sometimes, people look at my work and receive the impression that I have no doubt. I do not doubt climate science or my community. But being high-performing while enduring grief should not be confused with being well-grounded in the face of that grief. My endurance does not mean that I don’t long for relief. The same way my high-functioning drinking did not mean I was undeserving of recovery.
Climate grief does not have to be the only inheritance. It could be just a transition or mutual aid or understanding our inherent interdependence instead. It is like the gray area drinking I grew up with: We could just as easily choose something else. But first we need to look into the maw of what it is we no longer want. We need to stop treating inheritance as fait accompli.
What more can grief be? An unfulfilled promise, a life cut short, a future that only lives in imagination. It can sound like, “Not goodbye, but see you later.” Too often, grief is private; mourning is seen as gauche. At too many funerals, I have heard about the embarrassment of the dead at the thought of people going to all that trouble. But we need to risk embarrassment for the sake of the collective. This moment requires a group rending of garments and a collective howling at what has been lost. We need a stake in the ground against oblivion and siloed death. I am certain the icebergs would not mind. I cannot imagine the tigers would be embarrassed.
I keep looking for the hummingbird out my window. I want an easy distraction. I want simple answers, the step-by-step path to guarantee that will allow me to avoid pain. I look for the hummingbird because I am not free until everyone is. I seek sustenance to continue because I am afraid of having to admit and explain that we tried. I do not want to tell him that it wasn’t enough. In the face of that possibility, I refuse to be done.
He is still sitting on the porch. I want to be on time.
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.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan