Steps One Through Four
He admits he is powerless over his addictions — that his life has become unmanageable.
While my father was stationed in Germany and dating my mother, he wrote her a letter saying, “Someday I’d like to have twins with blond hair and blue eyes.” Twenty-seven years later, here I am, one of his identical blond-haired, blue-eyed twin girls. When my sister and I were born, we weighed a total of seven pounds and were the length of his forearm. The newborn hats at the hospital were too big for our heads, but our father figured out that he could cut the toes off a pair of his wool socks and use them for our hats instead. With the edges folded up slightly, they were a perfect fit.
This past Christmas my father went into rehab. My uncle Chip picked him up in Tennessee and dropped him off at a detox facility in North Carolina. My dad was allowed to pack only three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, and a light jacket for the chilly evenings. Also some select toiletries — but no mouthwash, because most mouthwash contains at least 22 percent alcohol. He would stay at the facility for five to seven days, depending on his progress.
Upon arrival my father was required to change out of his clothes. They gave him navy-blue scrubs to wear. Ever since he had been a medic in the Army, he’d dreamed of becoming Dr. Denton — he said it had “a nice ring to it.” So he’d often imagined himself wearing scrubs, but not like this.
My father was detoxing from a combination of opiates and alcohol. He looked like a skeleton, leathery yellow skin sagging from his bones. He had been drinking twelve to sixteen beers a night, as well as taking oxycodone, hydrocodone, and Suboxone.
On Thanksgiving, a month before my father went into rehab, Uncle Chip called him to see if he’d like to have lunch with all the family members who were in town for the holiday. None of us had seen him in eight years. We were surprised when he said yes.
We met at Cheddar’s that Friday. It was a shock to see my father walk through the door so thin and aged. I had once been a substance-abuse counselor at a methadone clinic, and when he took off his jacket, I looked for track marks on his arms. None. No meth scabs, either. While the other diners around us discussed holiday shopping and plans, we talked awkwardly about the weather. I folded and refolded my napkin under the table, hands shaking.
My father ordered a mushroom-Swiss burger and added salt without tasting it first. This, at least, hadn’t changed about him. The rest of us had salads. I was so nervous, at one point I thought I might need to go to the bathroom and be sick.
No one asked my father what he’d been doing all these years or why he’d stayed away for so long. Instead we tried to laugh and keep the conversation light. I introduced my father to my husband, whom he’d never met, and showed him photos of our wedding. As he heard about each milestone — a wedding, the birth of a child — the expression on his face grew pained. I think he was realizing how much he had missed.
After lunch we stood in the parking lot with my father and took turns hugging him. Some of us were crying, and he was, too. When he and I embraced, he said, “I’ll call you,” and I thought, Yeah, right.
But he did call me, to ask about methadone treatment. (I’d told him about my former job.) He was inquiring for a friend, he said. We talked for an hour before he announced that he had to go. He promised to call again in a few days.
A week went by, and I was still waiting for the phone to ring. This wasn’t the first time my father had made promises and then disappeared. Home alone on a Saturday night, I texted him: “I knew you wouldn’t call me.”
“Can I call you tonight?” he responded.
Suddenly panicked at the thought of getting my hopes up and having him disappear again, I wrote back, “No, you can’t. You cannot talk to me until you’re ready to be honest about what’s going on.” I figured this would be either the beginning or the end.
It turned out he was ready to be honest. The next day we talked, and my father — the same man who’d once called me Peanut and Courtie May Poobie — told me about the prescriptions for pain, the “wheelbarrows” of Percocet, the new laws that made it harder to obtain opioids legally, and how he had turned to buying it on the streets. My counseling experience kicked in: I asked whether he’d ever been an intravenous-drug user, if he crushed the pills and snorted them, if he got diarrhea during withdrawal. I asked how much he spent a day on his habit. Finally I asked if he’d be willing to get treatment. He said yes.
After he entered rehab, my father called me and admitted that he’d been an alcoholic since he was seventeen. He told me about his first blackout, how he’d awakened in his apartment after a night of drinking and “didn’t remember shit.” He’d looked out the window, seen his car, and realized that he must have driven himself home. He said he couldn’t count how many times he’d driven drunk while my sister and I had been in the car.
I remembered how, every morning when we were young, our father would take us to preschool in the dump truck he drove for his landscaping business. There was a hole in the floorboard on the passenger side. I would look through the hole, watching the pavement streak by and thinking that at any moment I might fall through. It was probably a tiny hole, but to a child it seemed huge.
In the afternoon, after our father picked us up from preschool, he’d make two stops. First we’d go to the worm store, an old Route 66 gas station where our father bought his bait for fishing at the lake. My sister and I would each get a Coke and a small bag of sour-cream-and-onion chips.
The second stop was at another gas station, closer to our house. Our father would go inside and buy the largest can of Budweiser they sold. He’d get back in the dump truck with his brown paper bag, pop open the can, and drink it all before we got home. I remember watching him hold the can, shift the gears, and turn the steering wheel all at once. I worried we would have an accident. One time he was driving down a windy, narrow road, steering with his knees, and I cried and said, “Stop it, Daddy. You’re scaring me.”
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