Imagine for a minute you’re a nervous 17-year-old high school kid. You’re the president of a club, and you’ll be giving a speech at the club’s annual banquet. Not only that, but a state representative whom you admire is going to be there listening to your speech.
Your heart is pounding, your hands are sweaty and you are visibly shaking. Several times you felt like throwing up and wanted to leave. What if your dad showed up and embarrassed you in front of everyone who meant something to you? What if he stumbled into the room completely wasted, reeking of alcohol, and ruined everything?
Everyone already knew your family was poor and the farm was run down, but did they know your father was a drunk? Did they know your father was emotionally abusive and blamed you for everything? Did they know, despite how much you tried to help him, he still said you weren’t good enough?
Hi, I’m Rose, and my father is an alcoholic.
There are countless stories through the years of my dad struggling with alcohol abuse. He had multiple DUIs and even more arrests, leaving us, his family, to feel the repercussions. It took me years to come to terms with this, and even longer to heal.
I wanted to help him no matter the cost to me, but I couldn’t figure out how to break through to him. At the time, I didn’t understand how emotionally abusive alcohol could make a person. It took him hitting me once to fully realize how bad it had gotten.
He’s still my father and I love him, but I deserved better than that.
I moved away to college and began a new journey surrounded by new people, experiences and the difficulties of peer pressure and societal expectations. I luckily found amazing friends and surrounded myself with positivity. The world became a little brighter and, somehow, it was therapeutic to share the challenges I faced.
I didn’t invite my father when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, but he was probably in jail at the time anyway. I lost track over the years. I was satisfied walking across the stage with my mom, brothers and a few good friends cheering for me.
A year later I had joined the Air Force and thought enough time had passed that I could let my guard down a little, and there was no way another human could possibly be as bad as my father. The naïve farm kid from Wisconsin was wrong.
Only a couple weeks after I got to my first base, I drove a group of intoxicated people I thought were friends back to the dorms. One of them was aggressive and assaulted me. It wasn’t long before people assumed the worst of me because, naturally, the party guy was so charismatic that he would never harm anyone. I was moved off-base for my safety.
To keep busy and focus on positive things in my life, I jumped at the opportunity to join Airmen Against Drunk Driving. I got elected to the council, personally volunteered several hundred hours and coordinated well over 1,000 hours after I revamped the program as an airman first class. My main thought was that if I couldn’t help my own father, maybe I could help someone else.
At the same time, I had to come to terms with my mom having cancer. I focused on what I could control — I got into fitness and made some quality friends. Over time, I began making decisions based on my values and didn’t compromise what was important to me.
When my mom was placed in hospice care, I went back to my hometown so I could make good memories with my family. One afternoon, I drove by the farm I grew up on and saw my dad’s red pickup parked at a local sawmill where he worked after he was forced to sell the farm. I’m not sure what compelled me, but I pulled into the parking lot.
My heart raced like it did back in high school, unsure if I wanted to see my dad or not. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in years. He emerged through the doorway, and we sat down across from each other in a conference room. It didn’t take long before he blamed my brothers and me again for everything, and I remember feeling disappointment, sadness and anger all at once.
It was in that moment I knew he didn’t truly want help. I couldn’t continue to let it weigh me down, so I walked out, figuratively and literally. The interaction still occasionally plays out in my head like a movie, as if a scene was ending in my life and the emotional abuse was finally over.
As I drove away, I looked in my rearview mirror to see my dad standing in the parking lot, alone.
He is still my father, and I still love him.
At my core, I hope he figures out for himself that he is an alcoholic and needs help, but he must truly mean it — not just say what people want to hear. I can’t make that decision for him, and I cannot afford to waste away trying and hoping to make it happen.
I have my own job to do, Airmen to lead and life to live, but if my father finally decides to make a change for real, I’ll be here.