Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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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.”
He comes to believe that a Power greater than himself can restore him to sanity.
My father would tell you that he has obsessive-compulsive disorder, that he has always had it, and maybe he has. But I’d also say he is a man of ritual. I’d say he is superstitious.
He loves the numbers three and seven and hates the number six. He says that three and seven are divine numbers, and six is satanic. He’s been known to refuse to dial phone numbers that contain a triple six. Our phone number when I was growing up ended in 777. I think this made him feel closer to God.
When my father was young, he was afraid that his house would catch on fire. The basement, where his bedroom was, had baseboard heaters. Every night before bed my grandfather would tell him to make sure that nothing was touching the heaters, because it could cause a fire. And every night, starting when he was eight or nine years old, my father would walk the perimeter of the basement three times (note the number), to make sure nothing was touching the heaters. I imagine him in his pajamas, making one, two, three laps around the room. I think that, to him, this practice was a kind of prayer.
After five days at the detox facility my father moved to a rural North Carolina addiction-treatment center called Hope Valley, where he would spend four weeks. There he was allowed more than three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, and a light jacket. Still no mouthwash, though.
Since then, he has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings almost every night. He calls himself a “double dipper,” because he’s got more than one addiction. He’s also been seeing a counselor and taking long walks on which he looks for pennies.
He told me recently about his obsession with pennies. (I was surprised I had never heard any of this before.) He said he finds at least one a day, and when he finds a nickel or a dime, he’s “covered” for the next five or ten days. He prefers pennies, though, because he’s trying to practice taking life “one day at a time.”
My father thinks these pennies are a sign from God. He told me the story of a man who, every time he found a penny, would kneel and say a prayer. Why? Because it says on the coin, In God We Trust. My father told me that he carries three pennies in his pocket every day. He said he used to have a silver pocket cross, but he lost it, so he replaced it with three pennies to represent the Holy Trinity.
These rituals used to annoy me, but now I’m just glad to have him back. Almost every time he calls, he mentions the Serenity Prayer and asks if I’ve heard it. Every time, I say, “Yes, Dad, I have.” And then he proceeds to recite it for me anyway: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . .”
The Big Book, the official AA manual, lists and describes each of the Twelve Steps. My father talks constantly about it. He studies it. He’s even asked me to buy him highlighters. It bothers him that the Big Book refers to God as a “Higher Power,” because it’s too ambiguous. I point out that it’s not fair to exclude nonbelievers and members of different religions from the program, and he agrees but says, “I know who my Higher Power is. Always have, always will.”
When I was young, my father was very religious. Early each morning, after getting dressed for work, he would have his “quiet time” sitting in his forest-green leather recliner with his Bible in his lap, the room dark except for the lamp on the table to his left. Each morning I’d climb the stairs, peek around the corner, and see him sitting there — eyes closed, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer. The only sound was the tick of the pendulum clock behind him. Nothing was more comforting to me than to see my father so peaceful and calm in his starched work uniform.
Now he says he’s starting to have his quiet time again. Hearing my father talk about God makes me uncomfortable. I can’t tell him this, though. If I question the validity of his beliefs, I fear it will jeopardize his recovery.
He makes a decision to turn his will and his life over to the care of God as he understands Him.
Before my father entered treatment, he had been living in an extended-stay motel for four years. He got free rent in exchange for working as the motel’s maintenance man. One day my father got a call from the motel manager. She was concerned about an occupant who was behind on the rent and not answering the phone, and she wanted my father to meet her outside the woman’s room. He did and found the door unlocked but the chain attached. Through the crack he could see the woman’s legs hanging off the edge of the bed. My father got his bolt cutters and cut the chain. The woman was lying facedown. He rolled her over and brushed aside her long, dark hair. Her face was purple. There was a suicide note. My father called 911, and the operator asked if he’d be willing to perform CPR. My father knew CPR, but he also knew that this woman was too far gone for it to do any good. Her limbs were stiff.
The ambulance arrived, and the police. My father was questioned as he watched the investigators collect evidence. They filled a gallon zip-lock bag with empty prescription bottles. All opiates, he heard them say.
He asked the police if he could leave to use the restroom, and an officer said yes. My father didn’t have to use the restroom. He just needed to slam a beer or two, he said.
“I will never forget her face,” he told me. “That could have been me, but God had different plans.”
During his twenty-eight-day stay at Hope Valley, my father learned of a group home on the property. After completing treatment, some residents were allowed to stay on at the home rent-free in exchange for working at the treatment center.
With only a couple of days of treatment left, my father was invited to live in the group home. He would be a maintenance man again. He would have a job and be able to keep going to meetings. He called me the afternoon he moved his one suitcase across the yard. He was so excited. My father, who is obsessed with cleanliness, now had five roommates. When I asked how he felt about that, he said, “I don’t understand why it’s so hard to wipe up your beard trimmings.”
Later my father found out that the opening for him at the group home had become available because there had been a death. He remembered having seen the body brought out in a bag. The dead man, Tom, had gone out and scored some heroin and shot up in the bathroom and overdosed and died with the needle still in his arm.
My father heard that Tom’s family was coming to retrieve his belongings, so he cleaned Tom’s room, washed Tom’s clothes and sheets, and made his bed. He didn’t complain about the beard trimmings in the sink or the piss on the toilet seat. My father even replaced the tile in the bathroom because Tom’s death had left a stain, and he didn’t want the family to see that.
“That could have been me,” my father said, “but God had different plans.”
He makes a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself.
My sister has always been closer to our mother, and I’ve always been closer to our father. As children we were often put to bed early, at six or seven o’clock, so our parents could fight. We would hear yelling and pots and pans banging or objects being thrown. One night my sister and I got out of bed and stood at the end of the hallway, our toes sinking into the brown shag carpet. Hardly any lights were on. The clock was ticking. Our parents were standing by the front door. Our father was in his underwear, and there were tiny cuts all over his body. Our mother told us later that he had punched her in the face, knocking off her glasses. Unable to see without them, she’d reached out blindly, pulled a framed picture off the wall, and smashed it over his head.
My sister and I went into the living room, crying. Our mother said, “Come on, girls. We’re leaving.” My sister ran to my mother, but I ran to my father and hugged his leg fiercely. I refused to leave him.
The next morning I saw that the picture my mother had broken over my father’s head was a framed portrait of my sister and me, with our blond hair and blue eyes, smiling gaptoothed grins, wearing red frilly dresses and black patent-leather shoes.
My father doesn’t remember this. He doesn’t remember a lot of things.
He doesn’t remember dragging me, as an eighth-grader, down the hallway by my ankles after I’d told him I was depressed and wanted to go to counseling. He doesn’t remember the specifics of our vicious fights or how he would always pick on me — the one he was closer to — instead of my sister. He does remember, though, when he switched from beer to vodka and how he’d mix it with grapefruit juice in styrofoam cups to hide his drinking. He thought we didn’t notice. “Vodka makes me a son of a bitch,” he says.
After my parents divorced, my father remarried, and my sister and I lived with him and his new wife until we left for college. Then came the years of estrangement, approximately 2007 to 2015, during which our father lost his house, his job, his car. At the height of his opiate addiction, he used my sister’s and my Social Security numbers to take out about fifty thousand dollars’ worth of loans in each of our names. He never paid the banks back, and to this day I cannot get approved for a credit card. Whenever anyone checks my credit, I have to explain that my father did this, not me.
My father gave my phone number as his reference on the loans, even though he’d stopped calling. For years I got calls from debt collectors looking for him. I could have changed my number — my sister changed hers — but I kept it because I hoped my father would phone me someday and apologize. I could have had him arrested for fraud, but then he would have been prosecuted, and I couldn’t do that to him. I couldn’t reconcile these two versions of my father: the one who peddled my Social Security number to get money for drugs, and the one whose shoulders I’d begged to ride on as a little girl — except back then I couldn’t pronounce shoulders, so I’d say, “Daddy, can I ride on your soldiers?”
Sometimes I wish I could hate him. My father didn’t come to my wedding. He didn’t even know I’d gotten married until right before he went into rehab. When he asked if he could write me a letter, I had to tell him my new last name. That’s when I realized just how little he knew about me.
My father tells me that the Ninth Step is making amends to the people he’s hurt. He’s not there yet. He’s only on the Fourth. I’ve got a while to wait, and the waiting isn’t easy. We’re taking it one day at a time, looking for signs.
Recently he called and said, “I found a penny, so I know it’s going to be a good day.”
Megan Denton Ray