Sometimes, when I think I’ve got it all figured out, something comes up that feels like it’s setting me back a few steps. While I’ve done much to work on healing as an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA), I recognize that this work will likely continue in some form throughout my life – and I am okay with that. It has taken me nearly two weeks to write the post below. Every time I sit down to tackle it, new memories pop up and new emotions along with it. I’ve had to step back a time or two and just allow myself to open up to where this was taking me, but writing about it has been nothing short of therapeutic. As always, our stories may have differences, but I hope that by sharing some of mine it might build a connection with others.
I travel off and on for work and some of the locations I head to are what some might consider remote. Finding a nearby airport can be a challenge and two weeks ago was no exception. I was headed to a small town in southern Alabama, and the closest airport is about two hours away in Tallahassee, FL. I don’t mind driving the distances at all, in fact, I usually enjoy the time with the radio and no distractions. As I made the trek north of the airport, it wasn’t long before my mind started drifting to my therapy session the day before. We had touched a bit on my father and some of the traumatic events during the year leading up to his death nearly 24 years ago. Our conversation only scratched the surface, as much about that period isn’t exactly at the forefront of my memory. Moments into my reflection I was struck with the thought that it was a Tallahassee hospital when I last saw dad. Now it may not seem like there was much point in visiting that place, but staring down the two-lane highway in front of me, I was consumed with the need to put my eyes on it.
When my work day wound down I had some time to kill before heading back to the airport, and thanks to a bit of sleuthing on my smart phone, I found the hospital and set directions to head that way. At first, I questioned if I even had the right place, but as I approached the area the familiarity was strong. In fact, the visuals from my memory were stunningly clear as I reached the top of the road where the hospital came into view. On that day 24 years ago, I had received word from my grandmother that dad was sick again and had been admitted to a hospital in Tallahassee. I didn’t even know that was the city he was living in at the time. The last time I saw or spoke to him, I was barely 18 and living with him and my stepmother in Orlando, a few hours south of Tallahassee. We had parted ways under very unpleasant circumstances, and although only a handful of months had gone by, the wounds were still fresh and I didn’t want to be anywhere near either of them. The urgency in my grandmother’s voice gave me the sense that she didn’t know if he was going to survive this time, so with heavy hesitation clutching at my heart, I gave in to her prodding and made the drive up.
During the prior year, dad had started to develop some rather serious physical problems, much of which presented itself in the short period of time when I was living with him. He had always been young and healthy (as healthy as an alcoholic can be) as far as I had known, but then around the age of 42 things started to drastically shift. The substance abuse was finally catching up to him. The first outward sign of trouble was the day that he had a seizure while I was laying out by the swimming pool. It started with him walking out of the house clutching my stepmother’s black handbag close to his chest with both hands. Something looked very off and when I repeatedly asked what he was doing he wouldn’t respond. Instead, his eyes were darting around, he started to stagger and stumble, and my voice increased to shouting as an attempt to get his attention. My head immediately went to the thought that he must have taken something and this was the effect of whatever the drug of choice was that day. He dropped the bag and his body started to shake. In my escalated state of panic, I actually had the sense to jump from my chair and run over to push him so that his pending fall didn’t take him into the pool. I could barely collect a single thought after that as I watched him trembling and writhing on the ground with a sensation that I was seeing it all from a distance.
My stepmother finally came running out of the house to his side, but her shouts to call 911 weren’t registering with me. Instead, I sprinted out to the front yard and yelled for the neighbor watering his lawn across the street. All I could come up with in that moment was to grab the closest person nearby to come stop this. I was terrified, I felt like I was shutting down and somebody had to help. As the neighbor dropped the hose and started running in my direction, I again heard my stepmother screaming to call 911, but I still didn’t quite get it. The neighbor, a very kind man named Richard, without even knowing yet what was happening, grabbed gently onto my shoulders and calmly told me to call 911 before he ran to my dad’s aid. That’s when I finally went inside and picked up the phone. (Thank you, Richard.) My breathing was so erratic that I am surprised the 911 operator could even make out what I was saying through my shaking voice, but an instant relief washed over me when the emergency vehicles pulled into the driveway a very short time later.
That was the first time that I saw dad in a hospital. It was the time when the doctors ran tests and discovered that this hadn’t been a bad drug trip as I had suspected, this was the years of severe alcohol abuse leaving their mark on my father. One doctor described his shock at a scan of dad’s head, stating that there were sections of his brain that appeared damaged and in his words, “almost non-existent.” His description was followed by my immediate recollection of a project that I did in middle school on something called Wet Brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. (My fascination with the brain ran deep.) It’s a nasty condition that sometimes affects those with chronic alcohol use over an extended period of time and among a number of symptoms, it’s been known to result in what is described as holes in the brain. Now, I’m certainly no expert and couldn’t say definitively that this is what dad was suffering from, but there was no denying that the alcohol and drug abuse were finally taking their toll.
The seizures continued off and on from that point. Many times, I would try to catch them before they progressed. One doctor told us that placing an ice pack at the base of dad’s head when we started to notice “bizarre behavior” might help. Bizarre behavior from dad wasn’t exactly unusual, but there was a pretty distinct difference in him when a seizure was about to occur, so I always stood on alert, ready with a cold pack close by. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not so much. Then there was the day that dad confessed to me that he had started hearing voices speaking to him. The vivid and frightening description of what they spoke to him about is something best left for another day, but as much as he believed they were real, I knew it was all because of the damage to his brain. To make matters worse, the bloating and periods of internal bleeding soon followed. A number of hospital trips were made. He would get bad, doctors would treat him. He would get better for a while and things would go back to normal but we never knew how long his good days would last.
After parting ways on the messy terms I mentioned above, I found myself standing at the foot of his hospital bed in Tallahassee some months later. He was unconscious this time and so bloated that I wouldn’t have recognized him when I walked into the room if it hadn’t been for his strawberry blonde hair. A tube was sticking out of his abdomen, feeding into a vessel that was collecting the blood that was draining from his body because of the severe internal bleeding. It was a sickening sight and no one knew if he was going to pull through. It broke my heart and scared me all at the same time. Hours passed and I remember thinking – what good was I serving anyone by just sitting in that room watching the blood drip through that tube? Was he even going to wake up? What would we say to each other if he did? What would I do if he didn’t? He had abandoned me time and time again, and maybe I didn’t see any reason at all to stay, but didn’t I have an obligation? As a little girl, I had grown up with a sense that I had to take care of my parents, that I was able to make things better for them somehow, but here I was at 18 years old, a so-called “adult”, and I was lost in that room. So, I left. When faced with fight or flight, that day I chose flight.
Dad didn’t die in that hospital. He ultimately improved after a few more days and then went on about his usual life of drinking for a number of months after. While it’s possible that I needed to take that detour to the hospital two weeks ago because of residual guilt for when I originally walked out, the more that I have considered it the more that I believe I was simply looking for a connection to some of my memories. As an ACOA, these connections and the feelings they bring with them can be quite complicated, but the work to reconnect them has become so important to me. While the trip to the hospital two weeks ago didn’t start out with any obvious intention, the outcome now leads me to believe that somewhere this mind of mine knew exactly what it was trying to do. The brain is a strange and beautiful beast.