Pouring out

Andrew Atkins

Author’s note:

My dad was an alcoholic. He died in November. I’ve always experienced a maelstrom of emotions. This isn’t easy to write about, to share, to read. But by sharing the trauma and pain I’ve felt, I hope you can learn something — not about me, but yourselves. 

Part two: Pouring out

I woke up crying and came howling down the stairs. 

“What’s the matter?” my grandma asked. She shut the Bible in her lap and got up from her recliner. 

“I want my mom,” I said, sucking snot back into my nose between great rolling sobs. 

I had a nightmare. Somehow, my mom had been shrunken down in a van to the size of a toy. I picked it up to play with it. When I set it down and it became normal-sized again, she was dead. 

I think I was in first grade. Nightmares like this were becoming normal. My parents were separated at this point — my dad was an alcoholic and it was absolutely unsafe for his children to live with him.

The instability was tearing me apart. My family walked two steps behind me, holding their breath for my next tantrum and piecing me back together when I did explode. In turn, I walked behind them, trying my best to help, too. 

We were walking in a circle, picking up the pieces of each other. 

In one moment, I would be defiant, loud and fighting every word my mom, grandma or sister tried to say to me. In the next, I would crumple into a ball, silent and crying. I didn’t know what was happening — with me or my family. 

The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom highlights these tendencies among physically and emotionally abused or neglected children: tantrums, difficulty trusting and an inability to concentrate, among many more.

My grades were OK — great, actually — but I struggled with self-control. 

Because of a court order, my dad got to see me every other weekend and Wednesdays.

While he passed out drunk on the couch, I would proceed to burn myself on the stove and knock myself unconscious falling out of trees. Eventually, my mom stopped letting him watch me.

I wasn’t safe with my own dad. 

So things went like this: My parents got divorced, my dad lost the house and then he moved to Arizona. My mom and I moved in with my grandma and then with her new boyfriend — now fiance. I still wasn’t OK. 

On one of the first visits over to his house, I must’ve done something wrong. I got in trouble. I couldn’t fit entirely under the bed, so I laid down on the bedroom floor, half under the mattress and the sheer curtains draped over me. 

They came to talk to me, and I ran outside and climbed a tree as high as I could in the backyard. I made them promise not to hit me before I came down, even though neither of these people had ever raised a hand toward me. 

I was so conditioned to run and hide for my own safety that it would be years before I could fully comprehend that not every interaction that made me upset was one that jeopardized my safety. 

The last time I saw my dad, we went to Geauga Lake. He was about to move to Arizona, but I don’t think anybody told me that. Or maybe he told me one of his lies — he’d see me in a few days. 

The phone calls didn’t come. 

Next time: Reintroducing myself to my own father.

Andrew Atkins is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].