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Father's Day and Adult Children of Alcoholics

Three tips for handling all the feelings on Father's Day.

I think my dad likes Father’s Day a bit more now. It makes sense, because his family is now outside of his house, and we no longer bombard him with bad ties and loudly patterned “Best Dad Ever” T-shirts that land well outside of his sense of style. In fact, my father never did seem to relish any sort of celebrating. I remember we sprung a “Ain’t it Nifty, Jim is 50” birthday party on him, strewn with black crepe paper and balloons, and he commented later that he was basically mortified. His boomer viewpoint about his birthday fete? Parties are silly and expensive, and they deter anyone from doing what is most important on the weekend: yard work.

But there is one type of celebration my father always did embrace, his annual sobriety birthdays. My dad has been sober over forty years now. His chips are hidden away in a small wooden chest on his dresser, and it's possible that they might mean more to him than any badly wrapped tie or t-shirt. I can understand this because I am an alcoholic in recovery as well, and my sobriety chips saved my life. Collecting each chip allows me to have more birthdays and more mother’s days, and thus more “Best Mom Ever” mugs for me.

Not surprisingly, research shows that children of alcoholics suffer from mental health problems at a higher rate. As an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA), I have loads of stuff to work through. My ability to parent has been filtered by my father’s alcoholism. And, never one to do things easily, being an alcoholic in recovery adds further complications. Back in college, I remember my father tersely warning me that fifty percent of children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves. “Just stay away from the stuff, Dana,” he would lecture, and I would inwardly roll my eyes. I figured I was smarter than that.

Come to find out, my dad was right, once again.

So, my dad and me? There’s a lot going on there. Let’s face it, Father’s Day for an adult child of an alcoholic can be fraught with feelings. There might be guilt, layers of it, passed down from the parent to the child, and so on. There is resentment about a childhood that perhaps did not go as one would have liked. In my case, there was continued addiction and fear. There are so many tangled emotions here it might feel easier to avoid a day set aside to honor parenting. To secure healthy boundaries, that might be the best option for an ACOA, but in my case, taking time to celebrate Father’s Day with my dad is crucial. Here’s why:

1. Milestones have meaning, whether we like it or not.

When I got sober, I hung onto any sort of marker for the passage of the days. I made it to Friday. I made it through a friend’s wedding. I survived summer vacation. As much as sobriety milestones mark time and effort, so do normal ones. Birthdays, holidays, they are all significant, showing us how we do this thing called sober living now. A Father’s Day celebration can be key because it’s tethered to such a crucial relationship. Milestones don’t pay attention to how you’re feeling about your father. They come whether you’re ready or not, and whatever small ceremony you can offer up to commemorate it can restore.

2. Gratitude heals.

Father’s Day is a forced gratitude plan. Acceptance is key. Any trip down the card aisle at a Hallmark store will tell you, we are looking for the good (if not the cheesy) on this day. This past year, after a particularly difficult life experience, I found myself floundering for a reason behind it all. I remembered a friend telling me to “thank God for the good of it, but also for the bad of it” which led me to serenity. The easy “out” for Father’s Day is it is orchestrated for good, and therefore any reflection on the bad in the relationship is filtered through that first. Acknowledging pain, seeing the relationship with clear, realistic eyes, is crucial to healthy living, but starting at a point of fondness and gratitude is a great way to lead us more comfortably into healing.

3. We're still in school.

I am a former high school English teacher, so prepare yourself for the lecture. Life-long learning is the key to living well. And as an ACOA, I might think at some point that I have graduated from reflecting on my part in relationships. This is just the point where I need to keep my humility firmly in place and stay in school. All relationships are really just life-long lessons. My dad taught me a lot of things. He taught me how to clean a fish, how to start up a cold tractor, and how to get really angry about things outside of my control. When I stop learning how to deal with all of these things (mainly the last one), that’s when my ability to be a good human falters. I want to be a good human, so anytime I face some issues, I try to learn from them. Even the painful ones. Even the tough memories.

My dad and I are blessed to be in a solid relationship. Not all ACOA’s get to say the same, and I am grateful. Father's Day can be particularly difficult, so proper boundaries are needed to ensure that the day is not spent spiraling. The good thing about this coming Sunday is it’s kind of an “easy access” plan for all of us. A simple phone call or a silly card as a gesture of checking in, of acknowledging the relationship and the love that is there, is a great start.

My sober tool kit includes talking to an alcoholic every day. On Sunday, June 21, I will be calling my dad. Unfortunately, I can’t travel to see him, but he will still appreciate the call. We will talk about the weather, and how we are managing this summer with COVID-19. He’ll crack a joke about his homemade mask, and I’ll laugh. There are years and years of struggles, love, and failures in our past behind this phone call, but we will talk instead about how my boys are growing, and how we miss baseball. I will end the phone call with an “I love you, Dad,” and he will tell me, “I love you too, Dana,” and the years will slide away into freedom in recovery.