Before I open my eyes from a sleep that feels like never happened, I feel a familiar pit in my belly. It expands as my mind files through the events of the night before. I try to recall every word I said. Every person I spoke to. Last night was my first date with Andy. One Old Fashioned before he got to the bar — good for nerves. Three while we got to know each other. A pickleback to show him I could hang. It didn’t feel like too many at the time. As I shuffle through the blurry replay, I find the moment. As we walked to get food after the bar, I ran across the street, leaving him behind on the other side. I made a huge, proud leap over a puddle at the curb only to have my triumph shot down by the look of worry and unease on his face when he reached me. I knew the car was coming when I started running but ignored the light anyway. It was dark. The car got close — really close. “Someone had too much to drink.”
Now, lying in bed, I try to count how many drinks he had to qualify his intoxication too. He probably doesn't remember, I tell myself. But there’s no getting around it. I’ll be stuck with this feeling all day, and any recall of the memory will always grow that toxic sick feeling, dread, in the space below my ribs. Flashbacks pop into my mind that create a physical reaction. They make me talk out loud to myself: “Ugh. It’s okay. It won’t happen again.” Is that really true? A few isolated incidents create guilt, but recurring incidents can create shame. What I don’t say out loud is the question that my shame always asks: “Am I just like my dad?”
The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt keeps us striving to improve, to make better choices in the future. Shame, which is highly correlated with addiction, has the opposite effect. It makes us feel small and worthless, leading us to attack in anger or shrink away in self-pity. In shame, our desperation often leads to looking for facts, for science to provide a cause, a reason that this continues to happen. Why am I this way?
In the case of my own shame question, scientific evidence doesn’t help with an answer. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcohol use disorder.
I worry, knowing that my dad is an alcoholic and the handful of memories I do have of him are of him being drunk. I remember his presence filling my mom, brother and I with anxiety when he entered the house each night. I could feel us hold a collective breath while he stumbled in, waiting to see if his booze-soaked words would shout in our direction.
But I was always interested in his life, which felt so secretive. His nickname, “Stickman,” made me curious as a child, although now it seems simple: he was tall and thin, unlike my own build that I’d yet to grow into. What we did share were our brown eyes and “beak” nose, as his second wife would call it.
Even though his presence made me uneasy, I wanted to play daddy’s girl, or any role that would make me mean something to him. But I could almost taste his annoyance anytime we shared a room. Maybe he could taste my fear and unease despite my efforts. I can still see his muddy steel-toe boots standing at the door, him screaming at my mom, always threatening to leave. Still, I hoped one day he would decide he wanted to be a parent — my parent.
I have a scar below my right knee. I must have been five or six when I knelt on an arrow from his bow — one of his coveted weapons. I cried; he yelled, “Stop being a baby.” Although I never felt like one, I was a baby.
One summer night, when I was thirteen, my four-year-old brother and I looked at each other with pure, childlike fear as my dad did donuts in a parking lot while waiting for my step-mom to come out of a big-box Midwestern store, the kind with a parking lot big enough for such activities. He eventually stopped, not because of our concern, but because a police car pulled up with its lights and sirens blaring behind the car. By the time my step-mom came out, he was in handcuffs. It wasn’t just the donuts; his license had been suspended for drunk driving time and time again. He disregarded the consequence and thought the rules didn’t apply to him.
His drinking made him dangerous and unpredictable.
But my mom likes to drink too. And her AA experience only comes from being by his side. So I wonder, am I like her, or do I drink like him? Which blood runs deeper? What else is his and not hers?
Today, I can only make assumptions based on her half of the whole and the little I know of him. I’m 29 years old, and my mom and I haven’t lived in the same house for 11 years, or in the same state for seven. Still, our mannerisms look choreographed, our hands motioning identically as we talk. We put on our mascara with the same flippant gesture. I wonder, what gestures do he and I share? Does he think about that too?
What I don’t say out loud is the question that my shame always asks: “Am I just like my dad?”
I don’t know. I haven’t seen or heard from him in 13 years. After all, alcoholism is the leading cause of deadbeat parents.
The last time I witnessed my father’s gestures and heard his voice, I was 16. Because my mom never took joint custody away, he had to sign a form so I could go on my high school trip to Spain. He didn’t recognize me when he opened his apartment door. It had been three years since I’d seen him last — those pivotal three years when a child turns into a teen on her way to womanhood. I only knew he still lived in the apartment by the black pickup truck that used to be my grandfather’s in the parking space. I had driven my mom’s car. I didn’t have my own. He said, “You drive a nicer car than me. And you never come see me.” I had worked all summer to pay for that trip.
We didn’t know each other. He blamed me.
I never saw him again. I heard he moved to Tennessee.
One may argue that my dad has tried. A couple of AA meetings, a few sober moments. But he continued to drive without a license. He lost job after job, spent his kids’ birthdays in jail. He drank until he lost my mom, and then my step-mom. I hope that bringing awareness to my own drinking while I’m ruining dates and not families means I’m different.
When I recently hurt my wrist, I went to a new doctor. As she’s asking the patient family history questions, she’s interrupted by PAs delivering information about another patient. I don’t mind; his wound must be bigger than mine.
“Both of your parents alive?”
I think for a second and remember, I don’t know if that’s right. “Actually, my mom is, but I don’t know about my dad."
“So, you’re estranged?”
The word estranged makes a lump the size of the one on my wrist bubble up in my throat. It’s just the word, this doesn’t bother you, I coach myself through, shoving the familiar lump down into my belly to make it disappear.
“Yeah, I guess we are. Estranged.”
“But as far as you know your biological father is alive?”
“I don’t know much.”
“Have two drinks, not three or four. Women shouldn't have more than seven drinks in a week. Just saying,” she gives me a knowing side glance while typing in the boxes beneath the word “estranged” next to “father.”
Since then, I do stick to two drinks — or none.
I’ll always wonder what traits and genes he and I share. And I’ll always have questions. But thinking back on our last encounter helps me put this one to rest.
There will always be things I’ll feel guilty for. Things much bigger than ruining a date with a perfectly decent stranger by way of Old Fashioneds. But, instead of letting shame in, I’ll make the constant inquiry, how can I do better?
The cause for my guilt around drinking is clear: my actions. And my actions are mine alone. That’s what makes my dad and I different. He doesn’t take responsibility for his. No matter how little I know of him, I know that to be true. And in that way, at least for today, I can say with absolute certainty, “I’m not like my dad.”
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons/Jen
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Liz Presson is a freelance writer and business owner living Brooklyn. She has written for BUST Magazine, Fast Company, Inc., The Muse, Mashable, and others. She writes about sex and relationships, mental health, and elevating the voice of women in business and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @HeyElleCP or Instagram.