Growing up, it seemed like there wasn’t anything in the world that my father couldn’t do, and he was good at everything he tried. Like most young boys, I thought my father was the strongest and best example of what a man should be. I noticed that he was exceptionally skilled at two things in particular—fighting and drinking. My older brother inherited these skills long before I did, and I idolized him even more than my father.
One of my earliest memories is of waking up one morning at dawn to find my brother standing in the kitchen, shirtless and covered in blood. I barely recognized him. His blonde hair was saturated red with blood, like he had painted it in hair dye and neglected to wash the paste out. A pair of deep cuts on his hairline exposed what looked like his skull, and his face was obscured by the blood still flowing from his injuries.
He had been out drinking and got into a fight with a group of men. He was repeatedly struck with bottles and fists. His arms and legs were badly torn from injuries inflicted by a pit bull that joined the fight alongside his owner.
For most families, this scene would likely result in an ambulance ride and a police report. However, I’m confident that after getting patched up, his first call wasn’t to the local police.
I hoped that one day I could be strong and hardened like him. The two men I looked up to most didn’t seem to feel physical or emotional pain. Emotions were not something I ever recall talking about and from my childhood eyes, it wasn’t something a man was supposed to feel. Alcohol and drugs existed to suppress pain at the first hint of discomfort, and you could just kick the shit out of anyone who dared to see through it.
My father eventually succumbed to his disease and drank himself to death–I’ll expand more on that later. I know that he loved me and always did the best that he could, while simultaneously fighting his own demons. I don’t have a lot of contact with my older brother today. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t share details about our relationship or his struggles. I hope that if he reads this, he knows that I love him.
Avoiding emotional pain and discomfort
In my experience, almost everyone with a substance use disorder has experienced trauma. I don’t believe it’s the trauma itself that causes substance misuse, but the desire to avoid the pain caused by this trauma.
Avoidance of life’s painful emotions often manifests itself in unhealthy behaviors, causing more harm in the long run. I reached for drugs and alcohol as a solution to help me avoid certain emotions. Hiding my feelings with substances worked for me in the short term, but doing this would only create more harm in the long run.
Avoiding feeling my emotions by drowning them with drugs and alcohol set up a paradox in which my coping method only served to multiply my emotional pain in the long run. Misusing drugs and alcohol had its additional consequences that would wreak havoc on my life and those around me.
The death of my father
My father experienced more than his fair share of trauma early in his life, and he fought a long battle with drug and alcohol addiction. He was a good man, but he suffered from the same disease that I live with today.
Years of daily drinking and drug use took its toll on his body, and as a result of his risky behavior, he lived with hepatitis C for most of his adult life. A couple years before I was able to get sober he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is late-stage scarring of the liver caused by diseases such as hepatitis and chronic alcoholism. The liver damage from cirrhosis generally can’t be undone. His prognosis wasn’t good, and he accelerated his own deterioration by continuing to drink.
During the few short weeks leading up to his death, I wasn’t able to be there for him. I had recently entered treatment after another long run of intravenous heroin and cocaine use. In our last phone conversation, I yelled at him out of frustration, trying to shame him into stopping drinking. The irony of this conversation wouldn’t reveal itself until a couple years later. He hung up the phone on me and died before I had an opportunity to coherently speak with him again.
I have long avoided talking about the circumstances surrounding my father’s death and the effect it has had on me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my drug use accelerated after his death, and my relapses have coincided with his birthday. It’s important for me to no longer avoid this pain, and instead learn from it.
Accepting that pain is both necessary and good
No longer being able to shield my emotions with drugs and alcohol, my methods of avoidance have changed. My pain avoidance now manifests strongest in my friendships and romantic relationships. I struggle to face discomfort and tough conversations, often choosing to ignore them. This can come in the form of defiant refusal to engage, shutting down emotionally, or running away and cutting contact altogether.
In life, we will all inevitably face challenges and painful experiences. When we avoid the discomfort of these experiences, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow and develop the skills to handle life’s obstacles. All emotions—good and bad—are part of life, and it’s essential to accept that fact. The best part about getting sober is that you are finally able to feel your feelings, and the worst part about getting sober is that you are finally able to feel your feelings.
Author’s note: This post was originally published on February 22nd, 2018 for my Portland Press Herald column “Facing My Addiction”.