Every night before bed, Dad would fill up a cup with water, and another with only ice. He would take it to his room, and close the door behind him, leaving Mom and I alone for the rest of the night watching “Friends.”
Part of this ritual was the sound that came from Dad’s room: an aluminum can opening. Hiss… Pop. I assumed it was soda. Dad did have a sweet tooth. Hearing that meant he was turned in for the night, and we would more than likely not see him until the next day.
Dad would wake up really early for work. From my bedroom, I could hear him make his coffee, start up his truck, and drive off. From my window, I could see him passing by the next street over.
When he came home from work, the afternoon proceeded as usual – he would be on his ham radio, talking to his friends sometimes in morse code. Dot, dash. Dot, dash. He would open his metal lighter, which made a clink sound. I could hear him inhale as he lit his cigarette, and exhale a puff of smoke, relaxing after a long day.
At some point, we started to hear his truck leave the house without any notice. The odd part was that he was only gone for about 20 minutes. Like clockwork, he would go off on his own to the local store and return with only a few things: some candy and another pack, or two, or three, of cigarettes. It seemed strange that he went to the store everyday for just a few things. I never saw any soda cans.
Mom would tell me to tell Dad that dinner was ready. Instead of getting up to tell him, I yelled for him from where I was seated doing my homework.
We ate dinner together, mostly in silence, or with very little conversation. Dad often became irritated by whatever the topic, especially if we laughed, and Mom would freeze. Forks scraped the plates like nails on a chalkboard. Water, and that uneasy feeling, were swallowed forcefully. Knives cut into steaks and the thick tension in the air.
When the evening came, the same nightly routine would repeat: one cup of water, one cup of ice, and off to his room. Hiss… Pop.
One night, Mom knocked on his door to talk to him. She was upset about something. Though muffled, I knew they were arguing.
“You need to stop drinking,” she said.
“I’m not drinking,” he said.
He slammed the door in her face. She was left disheartened and discouraged.
“Dad’s drinking?” I asked.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“When did that start?”
“Since the beginning. How do you think my pinky broke?”
My heart sank. In all honesty, I had never noticed. It felt sadder this time to see her walk alone upstairs to her room. She would cry herself to sleep.
I knew my father could get angry, but it had mostly subsided after my eldest sister passed away. In fact, he was so nice to me. I was often told that my childhood was different than the ones my sisters had. He seemed to be a lot more mellow in general. Not once did I see him get violent. In fact, he was described as funny and charismatic by others. Behind closed doors, he mostly kept to himself, had his own bedroom, and his own circle of distant friends. I never saw him stumble or heard him slur his words.
Looking back, I see now that “mellow” just meant robotic. Numbed. Disconnected. In front of others, he painted a different picture. He pushed away his painful memories. He became angry if anyone brought them up. Honestly, I was surprised he even opened up to me in the last years of his life.
As an adult, I learned several things about Dad:
He was divorced before marrying Mom.
He cut off all communication with his children from his first marriage, and we were not allowed to ask, “Why?”
He shared with me that he was a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
He had been deployed to Vietnam several times, and spoke little of his experiences. He said there were some things that could not be spoken of.
He had little friends, because most of them had either died from war or died from old age.
His third child, my mother’s first, died in a car accident.
His only close adult friend died of a stroke.
His other child, me, had cancer.
How else was he supposed to cope? “Mental Health” did not exist during his time growing up. In fact, it was frowned upon. The Military taught him to suck it up and move on. Get the mission done, because your feelings do not matter.
Those quick trips to the store? I later found out they were booze runs.
Dad had been drinking my whole life and I never knew. He was functional. He drove his truck in a straight line. He kept his career. He paid the bills on time. And kept his alcohol hidden in plain sight.
That is the sneaky thing about functional alcoholics – they hide their tracks (and their flasks) well. When he picked me up from school, I sat in the passenger’s seat, not knowing that his booze was right behind me. Sometimes I sat on the pull out bed in his room, which I later found was where he hid his liquor.
This continued. Everyday was the same.
Truck leaving. Truck coming home.
Clink. Inhale. Exhale.
Dad goes to the store.
Dad goes to his room.
Dot, dash. Dot, dash.
Water is swallowed.
Tension is thick.
Dad is irritated.
Mom is hurt.
Dad gets ready for bed.
One cup of water.
One cup of ice.
Nobody could stop him.
He refused help.
One day, Mom finally left.
I was glad she did.
My heart ached for Dad’s unresolved pain, and Mom’s, all at the same time.
Natalie Frazier, LMFT Associate
Natalie's work is primarily focused on Couples and Individual Adults. She is experienced in grief and loss counseling, traumas (sexual and life-threatening), marital relations (including communication skills and infidelity), and emotion regulation (such as anger management and depression). She seeks to be an ally to all communities.