Tag Archives: Alcoholism

The Echoes of Careless Words


My father, who was absent throughout most of my life, was a difficult and destructive man, and I was probably better off without him in my life for the most part. Still, like most neglected children whose parents ignore them, or don’t respond to their calls or letters, or don’t show up for visits and only call when drunk, I dearly wanted his love and acceptance. I wanted proof from him that I was worthy of love and support, and I did everything I could to entice him to visit me and help me feel that I mattered to him. Yesterday I learned through his own writing that what I feared most was true: I didn’t really matter to him. He didn’t miss me. He told lies about me and sullied my character in describing me to others so that he could justify his lack of concern for me to himself.

My father could be an awful person.

Although he died over two decades ago, I had never gone through the last small box of his papers until yesterday. I thought all that I had left unread were some newspaper clippings and some of his medical records—he had serious health problems throughout his short life for which I had always had great sympathy. I had often used the obvious pain of his disabilities as an explanation for why he self-medicated so frequently with alcohol and drugs. I thought it explained his withdrawn and angry personality. Yesterday I decided I would sort through these last few papers as part of the winnowing I’m doing of all my books, papers and other long-stored bits of memorabilia—why keep duplicate medical records and clippings, I figured? Sadly, among the medical chart notes I found a copy of a letter that I don’t think my father would ever have wanted me to see—at least, I hope he wouldn’t.

In the letter I found, my father wrote of his relationship with me to one of his doctors. He painted a distorted portrait of me, softened the truth about himself, and betrayed a coldness toward me and made ugly and wrongheaded assumptions about my relationships and behaviors that would chill the heart of any child.

Throughout my childhood I tried to prove myself worthy of his love and attention through letters, presents, cards, visits and earnest efforts to make him want to see me. I tried to be clever and witty, which he valued more highly than anything, but that inspired him to tease me about my erudition in insulting ways. He said he believed in thinking independently, but when I held an opinion that he didn’t share, he made mean assumptions about me and decided I was no longer worthy of his concern. When I finally allowed myself to show him five minutes of frustration and anger when I was 21, he turned his back on me and walked away while we were talking, then refused to see, talk to or write to me for four years. I found out later that he even refused to read the film reviews and humor pieces I wrote for Bay Area newspapers during that time. He would not take my calls nor see me when I went to his home to try to talk with him. He lied about me to his friends. And now, all these years later, I had to come upon these lies in written form, and see proof of his disdain for my efforts to contact him and to find ways for us to reconcile.

My father was abusive to the people to whom he owed the most in the world, and his volatility and arrogance caused him to behave in an ugly fashion to many lovely human beings. Though he was usually negligent rather than abusive toward me, finding his cold, self-serving and misanthropic thoughts in written form felt like a hard kick to the stomach. His letters of later years showed his depressive, self-absorbed, self-victimizing thoughts deepening and his beliefs about me becoming even more skewed and unreal. I know there was a large amount of mental illness involved in his warped views about our relationship (and indeed about ALL his relationships with family members and former partners, several of whom he physically battered).

I hope that the ugly letter that I found yesterday isn’t a true indication of his feelings for me in the long term. But since he left this horrible letter among his papers, all I have proof of now is that he was willing to harden his heart against me no matter how much love, kindness and openness I offered to him. All I can say with certainty is that he refused to show love, support or kindness to his only child, realized that about himself, and still didn’t think that my health or happiness mattered enough for him to send me a postcard or make a call for months, sometimes two years, sometimes four years at a time.

I understand now that his deadness of heart toward me wasn’t because I was unworthy of love, but as a child I felt that his love was entirely conditional. It had to be earned over and over. No matter how many songs I sang or drawings I made or letters I wrote to woo him, I would always be found wanting. I now have proof that my own parent thought me so unimportant that he felt moved to write a pompous letter to a doctor he hardly knew about his lack of concern over the four-year estrangement he imposed on me. In his letter, he showed no remorse, only surprise at his lack of feeling over having abandoned our relationship. I imagined during that time and during the decades since that he was at least suffering from our estrangement, as I was, that he was missing me as I missed him, that he thought of me and loved me, as I loved him. Sadly, it appears I meant very little to him for years at a time, perhaps for all time.

I have tried to piece together his mental lapses, his violent temper, his substance abuse and attacks on all the important women in his life. I see that he was mentally ill. All signs point to his having a classic case of borderline personality disorder. But when those with mental illness write of their ugly thoughts with such dispassionate lucidity that their pathological heartlessness is described with the emotionlessness and precision of a mathematical formula, it curdles the blood. That man was my daddy. I was his only child. How could I mean so little to him?

Sickened as I was to read how thoroughly abandoned I had been, the knowledge also frees me from trying to find something worthy and lovable in this man who caused me almost nothing but pain. For over 20 years I have taken comfort in learning of his kindnesses to strangers toward the end of his life, and of his willingness to spend what little he had to feed and clothe poor people who lived in the sad building in which he lived. He owed thousands of dollars to his brother, sister and ex-wives, none of them wealthy people, but he spent the few dollars he had to help those who had less than he did. I thought of his self-loathing and his desire to redeem himself by doing good to those who were worse off than he because he felt himself too debased to ask forgiveness from those whose lives he’d permanently scarred. But after reading about his willingness to sneer at me and at others in my family who sacrificed for him repeatedly, I think perhaps I gave him too much credit for the size of his irregularly beating heart. The pacemaker that kept him going for years was actually standing in for a heart that was more shriveled and more frigid than I ever knew.

I felt sympathy and love for him for so many years, and even if it was misplaced, it helped me to imagine and suffer when I thought of similar pain endured by others who were better people than my father. My compassion for my father’s miseries helped me to care more for others. But to feel more pain on his behalf now that I know how heartless he truly was would only be to harm myself. I will continue to keep my heart open to the sufferings of others and to show them compassion when they fail and make mistakes and inadvertently harm people. We all fall short, and we all deserve mercy. But it is no longer my job to elevate the father who repeatedly and sometimes violently dishonored our family, the father who brought shame and suffering and self-doubt to those in his orbit.

If you have among your possessions letters or diaries in which you or others share thoughts and feelings that would devastate those who come after you and find your words in years to come, please consider carefully whether you really want those words to be found and read by others, even if you are angry with them now. Words can reverberate through future decades and color others’ thoughts of you and beliefs about themselves for the rest of their lives. Those thoughtless words, shared in a moment of spite or weakness or frustration, can last forever and do great harm. Don’t let them poison the lives of others. I can never unsee the horrible words my father wrote about his relationship with me. And while I am strong enough after all these years to recognize that his abandonment and betrayal say ugly things about him and not about me, having to see his illness and carelessness in black and white afresh after all these years is sickening.

Please, if you have writings or other objects that would bring your loved ones great pain after you are gone, consider getting rid of them now, while you can. Finding such things among a dead loved one’s possessions can cause lifelong heartache and taint memories forever. Careless words can echo for lifetimes.

How Normal is “Normal” Drinking?


Image source: Washington Post/Wonkblog, “Paying the Tab” by Philip J. Cook

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes 9.8% of all U.S. deaths among adults aged 20 to 64 to excessive drinking, and alcohol is involved in 5% of all U.S. deaths of people under the age of 21. the U.S. alcohol-consumption average is 556 drinks per year (under 11 drinks per week, or 1-1/2 drinks per day), those figures are misleading. Almost 30% of the U.S. population never touches alcohol, and another 30% only drinks on special occasions—once every two weeks at most. That means the other 40% of the population is downing all that liquor.

While the number of alcohol-attributable deaths (AADs) in the U.S. is lower than rates across most of Europe and in much of Central and South America, it is significantly higher than the rate of AADs reported by the United Kingdom and Ireland, despite the high incidence of binge drinking in the UK. This is likely to reflect a difference in the definitions of “alcohol-related” deaths among nations. While rates of binge-drinking vary widely across the U.S., the overall prevalence of binge-drinking among U.S. adults in 2011 was 18.4%. Britain’s National Health Service estimates that over 50% of Britons binge-drink regularly, though official estimates are in the 28% range. In Ireland binge-drinking is a weekly event for 21.1% of the population, and 39% engage in it at least once a month according to official estimates, but underreporting of alcohol use is standard and expected in self-reported surveys. One would expect the number of AADs in these countries to similar to or greater than those in the U.S., but their definitions may vary from that of the CDC, which says, “These deaths were due to health effects from drinking too much over time, such as breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease, and health effects from consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, such as violence, alcohol poisoning, and motor vehicle crashes.”

While many people have a genetic predisposition to become alcoholics,  the amount of liquor people consume is strongly influenced by social situations and peer behavior: people tend to see their friends’ behavior as the norm and assume that consuming anything less than their most inebriated friends makes them moderate drinkers. According to the CDC, heavy drinking constitutes 8 or more drinks per week for women (just over one drink per day) and 15 or more drinks per week for men (just over two drinks per day). Binge drinking corresponds to four or more drinks on a single occasion for women (which is equal to just under one bottle of wine) or five or more drinks on a single occasion for men (just under a six-pack of beer). Even moderate drinking (one drink per day for women, two for men) significantly increases risk of breast cancer as well as liver, colon and esophageal cancers and cancers of the mouth and throat. Moderate alcohol use also aggravates mental health disorders (including depression) and increases injury risk. About 70% of drinking-related deaths involved men.

Researchers note that the data on alcohol consumption used to calculate alcohol-attributable deaths  were based on self-reporting, which means it’s quite likely that U.S. alcohol consumers underestimated their consumption. Britain’s National Health Service says that people around the world tend to underestimate their drinking by about 40-60%. Also missing from the estimates were data on the deaths of former drinkers. Since former drinkers may have stopped drinking because of alcohol-related health issues that ultimately cause their deaths, it is likely that their absence from the study artificially lowers the number of deaths caused by alcohol, which brings the number of U.S. deaths alcohol-related deaths to well above one out of ten adults and one out of twenty minors.