Magazine article U.S. Catholic

My Father, Our Father: It Can Take a Lifetime to Step Past a History of Hurt, but 12 Steps Is a Good Way to Start

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

My Father, Our Father: It Can Take a Lifetime to Step Past a History of Hurt, but 12 Steps Is a Good Way to Start

Article excerpt

When my young son asks me what God looks like, I want to tell him what he will probably only understand much later, that for children especially, God looks like the people in whom they vest their trust. God can be merciful or terrible.

I learned this through my relationship with my father, who died 11 years ago at the age of 72. Our relationship was always complicated. Early on it was Dad who taught me to write my name and to read simple books. He introduced me to the pleasures of walking in the woods. And he had a way of making the ordinary fun. In the fall he would rake up enormous piles of leaves for us to jump into, piles that we would burn afterwards in great billowy bonfires.


By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, however, my father was also drinking most of a bottle of vodka every night. In a haze of cigarette smoke and through a process I could not understand, the Dad I adored was being sucked away from me like a genie. The bottle I came to hate, in its habitual perch next to the kitchen sink, was for many years a barometer for the rest of us. The lower the level of the liquid in the bottle, the more trouble we could expect from Dad.

One terrible Saturday afternoon when I was a preteen, my pet parakeet got out of its cage. My father, who was already drunk, tried to chase the bird back in with a broom, breaking its leg and wing. Pathetically, I tried to repair my bird's leg with first aid tape, but he died soon afterwards. My favorite color was turquoise, and for years I dreamed and daydreamed of a bird of that color beaten down in flight, of crashing my car into a highway embankment, of escape.

That's when I gave up on God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. While I continued to attend Mass until I left college, mostly to avoid antagonizing my father, "merciful" and "paternal" no longer went together in my mind. I lived the truth of what I heard a priest say recently, that unless a child finds a little bit of God in her father, she will not find a father in God. Neither could I bear to think of God as a bird, even in symbolic terms.

Years passed. My father went in and out of rehab, but he always started drinking again, often on the day of his discharge. Then, when I was 27 and just back from three years in England, I found out that my father was doing most of his drinking away from home and so was driving drunk. How long would it be before he killed someone?

On one of the most difficult days of my life, I went to court and signed my father over for forced confinement. I hated the idea of caging him, but I just couldn't stand by and watch my father take someone innocent down with him. He was sent to a state-run psychiatric facility and forcibly detoxed.

For several months after, he received follow-up treatment at a private psychiatric hospital, where doctors figured out that he was manic-depressive as well as alcoholic. The doctors suggested that perhaps my father had unknowingly been self-medicating with alcohol for his mental illness. They immediately began treating him with lithium.

Dad was 60 then and, while he lived another 12 years, he never drank again. For the first few years of his sobriety, he was vengeful and difficult to be around. My parents divorced during that time. Initially, my father also refused to believe that I had been the one to put him in "lock-up."

With the grace of God and the help of a 12-step program, however, Dad eventually put the bitterness behind him and rooted himself in a new community. …

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