Difficult Lessons by
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I have written several Retrospect stories about my mother, but not about my father. While I wholeheartedly admired my mother, my relationship with my father was more complicated.

My relationship with my father was complicated.

My memories of my father from my early childhood are very positive. As an adult, every time I called him on Father’s Day, he would tell the story about how my birth made him a father (I’m the oldest of four children). He had a special nickname for me, which he didn’t have for my siblings. Although, like most fathers of his generation, he saw his primary responsibility as breadwinner, I have lots of fond memories of him.

Then, during my teens, he started drinking excessively. He would get angry with me and my siblings more easily, and when he was angry, he would demean us and say negative things about us. There was never any physical abuse, but I would characterize some of his interactions with us as verbal abuse.

While I was in college, his drinking continued to get worse. The summer between my junior and senior years, I remained at my college, ostensibly to do research for my senior thesis, but also to avoid my father. One weekend during my senior year, I went home with my boyfriend to tell my parents that we had decided to get married. During that entire weekend, I don’t remember my father being sober once. (My boyfriend was very understanding and supportive of me in this situation.)

A year or so after I graduated from college, my father entered an alcohol treatment program. His journey toward sobriety was not easy; I don’t think it is for any alcoholic. But he persevered and when he died at the age of 72, he had been sober for more than 20 years.

Even after he stopped drinking, my feelings toward my father were complicated. I loved him because he was my father, but I didn’t like him very much. This changed gradually over the years as I saw his ongoing effort to stay sober, which I know was partly because of a desire not to hurt his family any more. Before he died, I think my admiration for what he had accomplished overcame my resentment for what he had put us through.

Since he died, I have thought a lot about how he influenced my life. Some of it is negative; books about adult children of alcoholics talk about how we tend to be emotionally guarded and distrustful of people. I and all my siblings had marriages that ended in divorce. But having dealt with this situation has also made me stronger. I seem to be more able than most people to deal with difficult interpersonal situations. And very few things scare me. Maybe most importantly, he taught me that people are imperfect and that there is both good and bad in everyone.

Profile photo of Kathy Porter Kathy Porter


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Kathy, thank you for this honest story about your complicated relationship with your father. (If you read my story The Milk Bottle you will see that mine with my father was also complicated.) I never knew about your father’s drinking when we were in college – not the kind of thing you go around telling people – and I’m not sure I would have known how to be supportive if I had known. Glad that you can now see at least some ways that he influenced you for the good.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Thanks, Suzy. When I was in college, I don’t know that even I knew how to deal with it. I didn’t talk to people about it because my strategy at that point was just not to think about it. It is only after he died that I have been able to think back over the whole of my life with him and separate it out into the good and the bad.

  2. Thanx Kathy for your well written and honest personal story. Indeed alcoholism can horribly affect families so it’s good to hear your father took the right steps and was sober those last decades.

    My uncle Milt was divorced when his kids Kathy and Rick were quite young. Sadly Rick was severely disturbed and was institutionalized with a possible diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia.

    I’m close to my cousin Kathy who’s told me her mother was an alcoholic and her brother Rick’s diagnosis may well have been fetal alcohol syndrome, a family tragedy indeed.

  3. Typo – fetal alcohol syndrome

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Thanks, Dana. I knew what you meant. I think there are many families that don’t fit the happy family model. It sounds as if your cousin’s family was dealing with a lot of challenges all at once. Thankfully, I had many positive influences in my family that helped me deal with my father’s alcoholism.

  4. Marian says:

    Kathy, you had a lot of ups and downs with your father, but I can sense your admiration of all his efforts to get and stay sober. You are completely entitled to those complex feelings, and I admire that you could write this story in such an understanding way.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Thank you for sharing this personal journey of your relationship with your father. It must have been terribly painful but I’m glad you were able to have closure and come to peace with it.

  6. This was a brave and meaningful and very well crafted essay. Your loving and forgiving heart shows through, as does your effort to find meaning and insight in difficult waters,. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Susan Bennet says:

    He taught me that people are imperfect and that there is both good and bad in everyone: that is a triumphant lesson, Kathy, and I see that this wisdom has served you well as an adult. Children’s emotions are another thing. Longfellow wrote, “A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.” With understanding comes forgiveness.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Kathy, you’ve had a lot to process, and a lot of time to think through it all – the ups and downs with your father. I’m sure it was not easy for you, but thank you for this honest and complex portrayal of the situation. And good that he went to rehab and got sober so the final 20+ years of his life improved for you and him.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    A difficult story, but not uncommon. Alcohol has affected some of my family members as well. Both smoking and drinking were even more common back then (though not opioid overdoses). The encouraging part is that he managed to stay sober so long (many don’t) and you were able to get a fuller picture of him in the end. That doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt. Thanks for sharing this story.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Thanks, Khati. I’m sorry your family has been affected also. I wrote the story with the benefit of a lifetime of hindsight. I don’t think I would have been able to see all that when I was younger.

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