Father's Day reminds us of an important relationship in our lives. For many of us our lives were defined by our relationships with our parents. And for some of us, our relationship with our father shaped our lives.
In my case, this is certainly true. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I began to overcome the negative relationship I had with my father. He was an angry, raging alcoholic. From the time I was a young child I don't believe I ever saw him sober. Even today I can recall the pungent smell of wine that emanated from his pores.
He was what we call today a functioning alcoholic. He worked hard. But alcohol was always present. He drank a particularly sweet wine called Muscatel. He purchased it by the case from the state stores that operated in Oregon during the 1940s.
He taught me anger and rage. I watched as he would burst into explosive tirades, vitriolic fountains of anger that affected everyone around him. When he became frustrated, which was often, he would break things. If one of the farm animals angered him, he would beat or kill it. When he became angry at me or my brother he would hit us. I was so injured on some occasions that police would come to our house to talk to me. And their presence would sober him up. But in the early fifties domestic violence wasn't as large an issue in the eyes of the law so he was never arrested.
This treatment turned me into a very passive aggressive person. Because I was a skinny little kid my only defense against his strength to keep my feelings inside. When he punished me I wouldn’t respond. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of shedding tears. Today I believe that keeping one's feelings inside is self-destructive and leads to behavior problems.
This anger stayed with me through much of my life. From grade school on it was easy for me to vent the residual anger at my father on others. I settled arguments with my fists. Even though I wasn't physically imposing, my anger made me a person to contend with. When I was five years sober I realized I still had an issue with anger. Even though I hadn't attacked anyone physically in many years I realized that my anger was still with me. It usually popped up when I was frustrated or impatient. I would snap at people or say things I didn't mean. It sometimes came out in traffic if I felt that the person ahead of me wasn't driving the way I thought they should.
My father's anger was a legacy etched into my psyche, my nerve endings, my very being. His raging left an imprint upon me that took many years to overcome. I think much of my drinking and drugging stemmed from my inability to deal with my anger and frustration. Undoing the negative lessons our parents teach us is sometimes a lifelong project. In my case it took many years in prison cells, hours in therapy, and a lot of 12-step meetings for me to purge my anger.
Today I look at the relationship with my father from sober eyes. I’ve pretty much unlearned the anger he taught me. I’ve forgiven him for his legacy. In the 1980s I was able to go to his grave in Ohio and spend time there. In a small unkempt graveyard that sat behind an ancient wooden church I was able to speak words of forgiveness and regret, words that freed me to go on with my life.