How Drinking Killed My Father — and a Part of Me

Years after he passed, dating an alcoholic made me sober in a way I never knew I needed

Photo: SDI Productions/Getty Images

II met my partner on Instagram in the summer of 2018, after stumbling onto her profile through a friend I made via #CentralAmericanTwitter. A single comment led to a slide into the DMs, and for nearly eight months we chatted back and forth while living on opposite coasts. We seemed perfectly matched, but remained well-aware that distance had a way of creating an illusion of the ideal. So that winter, we decided to actually meet — in person. Looking back now, I know it was fate. But at the time, the idea of flying cross-country to take a chance on love seemed insane.

When I arrived at her doorstep in the middle of January, after walking through Soho in the freezing cold, it was the warmth of our connection that calmed my nerves. Being together was magical, but as it got later into the night, there seemed to be something she needed to tell me. Sitting cross-legged on the edge of her bed, she looked at me directly and said, “I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I’ve been sober for two-and-a-half years.”

Up to that point, the vibe of the night had been fun and flirty — but with this reveal, the energy shifted. Her tone remained even, although later she’d confess to hoping this wouldn’t prove a dealbreaker for the potential “us.”

There, inside her charming studio, we found ourselves at a crossroads. She moved cautiously, despite my attempt to sound comforting, my assurances that I could never judge her for something many people struggled with. And while her commitment to her well-being is one of the many impressive aspects of who she is, it was that she understood something about my past — something I had yet to reckon with on my own — that concerned her most.

Al-Anon is for the loved ones of alcoholics; Alcoholics Anonymous is designed to help the alcoholic achieve sobriety and stay sober. The stigma of going to either is a challenge for communities of color. It’s riddled with shame.

In the weeks leading up to us having “the talk” about her sobriety, we’d spent one particular evening in an hours-long phone session, and casually bantered over the endless similarities shared by our immigrant parents. While uproariously laughing at each of our pitch-perfect impressions, she inevitably asked me about my father.

My brain scrambled — like when you hit the rewind button on a cassette tape while it’s still playing.

TThe bloodcurdling scream cuts like a machete through the cloak of night; suddenly, I’m wide awake. I scan my room in a panic for what might have fallen from a shelf. Nothing is amiss. The door to my bedroom is fully closed, but through the space where it doesn’t connect to the floor, I can see the living room lights are on. There, a separate set of shadows move wildly about. My dilated pupils focus on the alarm clock. It’s 11:45 p.m.

I sit up, compelled by the noise, and muster up the courage to open the door. The scene that unfolds is chaotic: My mother laid out on the fancy massage table, the one that converts into a chair and hugs the wall near the main window of the living room. By her side is a Washington State Patrolman, desperately trying to ask her a question. Her inconsolable sobs raise each hair on the back of my neck. I sink into the loveseat next to me, in a futile attempt to get my bearings. The Christmas lights are off; the fluorescents hurt my eyes. The front door is open, letting in the blistering cold while another officer stands in the entryway like a sentinel. We make eye contact, and within moments I learn why my mother is wailing in grief. My father hasn’t made it home. There’s been a terrible accident.

It’s December 4, 1998.

I’m 16 years old.

I’I’ve replayed that moment of my life so much, the uneven tape winds have damaged the cassette. The soundscape has faded. I remember the funeral being open casket and well-attended. My eulogy was a glorified rant where I railed against consumerism — after all, having immigrant parents meant witnessing the heaviness of manual labor crush their spirits. My father was a cable installer; he died on his way home from work. The irony of the cable company executives’ presence at the ceremony was not lost on me.

There was also a family squabble over the choice to cremate the body, and confusion about the accident itself. By the time I took a knee in front of the mahogany-stained coffin, all I knew about the crash was the possibility that a drunk driver was involved. My father was not a drinker, and the pain I felt wouldn’t allow me to process any other details with clarity, so I buried any desire to know more deep inside my grief. I refused to read the report in the local paper, opting to cling to the part that stuck as tightly as I could. A drunk driver was involved. I shed no tears, gritted my teeth, and promised the spirit of my father that I would never drink.

I wore my chosen sobriety like a badge of honor and took pride in the way my friends had come to rely on me as their go-to designated driver. But my eagerness to make sure others wouldn’t drive drunk was simply a socially commendable garment I had draped over the agony of my loss. I didn’t realize the impact that my father’s passing had on my attitude toward other people. I held a grudge against the world and was jealous of everyone whose fathers were still alive. I developed panic-induced anxiety rooted in my fear of abandonment.

Since my father’s death was out of my control, I began to seek that control — to devastating effect. I struggled to accept my relationships and circumstances for what they were, instead of what I wanted them to be. Friends labeled me as “moody” while I played the victim, using abstention as a way to justify toxic coping mechanisms. Judging others for their abuse of alcohol, despite the fact that I was not emotionally sober.

TThe first time I consumed alcohol, I was 28. I’d reconnected with a former classmate during my 10-year high school reunion. We began dating, but within a few weeks, she confronted me, saying she felt judged by my abstinence. It stung. I desperately wanted to make it work with her, even though she drank regularly and heavily. In my desire to impress her, I caved. In the beginning, I tried my best to keep up with her, only to realize it was impossible. I immediately toned it down, while she pressed on. The relationship became tumultuous, and we broke up in dramatic fashion.

By then, the cassette had busted wide open, the tape completely unraveled. I had become blind to how comfortable I was with emotional chaos. The relationship with my family had become strained. Whether in romance or friendships, I seemed to be drawn to alcoholics. Some friends — who erred on the side of alcohol abuse—were relieved I had finally joined “their side.” I was at best a moderate social drinker, but the live-wire dynamic of those connections were not coincidental, and ultimately, the fallout took its toll. It would be years before I would admit I was locked in a harmful loop.

When I met my now-partner and I explained all of this to her, she offered empathy. When the discussion pivoted toward her previous struggles with alcohol and how Alcoholics Anonymous was a part of her recovery, I offered the same. But when I began to exhibit patterns of behavior linked to the trauma surrounding the loss of my father — emotional withholding, the impulse to “fix it all,” being a control freak — and she suggested I consider Al-Anon, I refused. I didn’t care what other people did or didn’t do with their lives. Besides, there wasn’t anything wrong with me. I wasn’t the one with the drinking problem.

MMonths later, I attended my first Al-Anon meeting in an Upper West Side church. Sitting on a black plastic chair inside a nondescript room full of welcoming strangers wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon. But hearing them describe experiences similar to my own cracked open the seal of my bottled-up emotions. For the first time in my life, I felt seen, heard, and understood.

I witnessed the usefulness of it: the group setting, the steps, the sharing. All of the fear I had built around the idea of going because it would mean admitting something was wrong or broken within me — faded away. I could choose to just listen. Or express myself if needed. Over the course of the following year, making the time to attend meetings became instrumental in restoring balance to my life.

Trusting my partner’s intuition — that it would be beneficial for me — helped our relationship to blossom. I stopped hiding behind my denial, and was encouraged to establish healthy boundaries with others, but not emotional walls. Al-Anon is for the family and loved ones of alcoholics, whether they be dead or alive, actively drinking or not. By contrast, Alcoholics Anonymous is designed to help the alcoholic achieve sobriety and stay sober. Often referred to as a family disease, the stigma of going to either is a challenge for communities of color. It’s riddled with shame.

These are not the only tools available for getting well. But they are effective. My partner and I making a commitment to participate in our respective programs provided us with the common language we needed to build our relationship constructively. I realized that while I had the privilege to opt out of drinking, it didn’t mean I was incapable of harm. It also deepened my understanding of my partner’s struggle — her life depends on sobriety.

TThis last year, for the anniversary of my father’s passing, I made arrangements to obtain his death certificate along with the complete report from the Washington State Coroner’s office. I also searched the archives of the Tri-City Herald and located their coverage of the crash. Then I dug deep. As a teenager, I had received mixed messages about what happened that fateful night. And rather than seek the truth, I ran from it, for 21 years. I picked up the busted cassette, delicately spooled the tape back together, and affixed the case with new screws. Then, I popped it into the tape deck, and hit play.

The night of the crash the roads were perfectly clear. On the way home from a late service call, my father had been driving while intoxicated, and caused the collision when he rear-ended another vehicle on the interstate. His van rolled, and he was pinned underneath it. When the emergency personnel arrived he could talk, but when the van was moved and the pressure was released he lapsed into cardio-respiratory arrest. He was immediately rushed to the hospital, and attempts were made to stabilize him, but it was too late.

My father was the drunk driver. I read the report cover to cover and wept. I wondered how long he’d managed to keep his drinking a secret? I took a long time to get to this point, but I was finally ready for the truth. I wanted to heal.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.

Nawat descendant Salvi writer living in SOHO | words & photos featured in Basic Brown Nerds, PAPER, GEN Mag, & LEVEL https://msha.ke/pursuingarete

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