(Excerpted from Mind on Fire by Philip Muls)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been furious with my father because of his drinking. There’s just nothing good to be said about his addiction to alcohol; there’s only a wave of rage deep inside me for his tragic fallibility.
For the longest time, I’ve hated him for what he has done to this family. I’ve always found it incredibly disappointing that he decided to give in to alcohol at a time when we needed him most.
As a fourth-year medical student, I know, of course, that alcoholism is a disease of the brain as well as a physical dependency, yet I still cannot comprehend how my father allowed his control over the bottle to become so completely and utterly impaired.
I know what it means to have strength of will. I strictly monitor what I eat and drink because that makes me feel powerful and in control. It seems to me that drinking alcohol does exactly the opposite. It makes you lose control of your mental and bodily functions. I fail to understand why somebody would do that to themselves. Especially for someone like him, who is used to managing scores of people on the job, it’s quite ironic that the one person he cannot seem to manage is himself.
I remember when his drinking got completely out of control, about five years ago now. It was right when my personal struggles with anorexia nervosa deepened and descended on the family like a black cloud of misery. It had started innocently enough, with my refusing to eat high-fat foods because I wanted to be as slim as some of my friends. But before I knew it, I lost myself in a compulsive controlling of my calorie intake as a way to keep in check my lingering insecurities and my pressure to be perfect.
At the lowest point, I had to be admitted into an emergency room and be force-fed by tube because my body mass index had dropped below fifteen. I can still picture a thin, emaciated version of myself lying in that hospital bed, staring at the doctor holding a clipboard with my name on it: Winter Baer. I will never forget how intensely I hated giving up control over my food intake to that doctor person in his white lab coat.
Possibly that is why I decided to become a doctor myself, to never again lose control like that.
In any case, my parents stood by my side for many years until I finally pulled through. But then something broke in my dad. I realize it’s been a heavy burden watching his daughter trying to self-destruct, but surely a man like him should be strong enough to make it through an episode like that. Especially my dad, the superhero of my younger years. Superheroes do not start drinking when times get tough.
And yet, strangely enough, my father seemed to give up on any attempt to hold back on the booze at the very moment that I started to gain ground on the anorexia. He had always been a steady drinker, but now all restraint went out of the window. He literally drank from dawn to dusk.
Sometimes when I saw him at eight in the morning, I could tell he’d been at it already. His eyes looked watery and red, and I could almost sense his pounding headache caused by his permanent hangover.
His poison of choice was white wine, always white wine. And he did not even try to hide it; he just said the urge to drink was stronger than he was. He couldn’t stop. I remember the tears in his eyes when he told my mother those exact words: “I am unable to stop, Laura. Help me.” I despised that weakness in him.
While my relationship with my father deteriorated, all of this made my bond with my mother stronger over the years. I always admired how she dealt simultaneously with his condition and mine with dignity and optimism. They almost divorced at some point, although my mother always refused to talk about it. I did not ask.
Fast forward to last Friday, when I arrived home from college for spring break and my father came up to my room to say hello. It had been ages since he had come to my room because I’d made it clear a long time ago that my room was my sanctuary and I would not be disturbed there under any circumstances.
After some uneasy small talk, my father announced that he was ready to give up drinking completely. He said he’d been sober for three months and he had every intention to stay that way. My skeptical look must have startled him because it brought a pained expression to his face. I don’t know what kind of reaction he had expected from me. What you see is what you get—that’s me.
Of course I wanted to believe him, more than anything. But his track record wasn’t good. The odds were seriously against him. As a doctor-to-be, I had become rather cynical when it came to promises by addicts. But he certainly seemed sincere, as if he had made a life-changing decision and he wanted me to know about it. And I had to admit that he looked good, more fit and healthy than I’d seen him in a long time.
Still, he had shown good intentions before. And that did not keep him from relapsing on all previous occasions. And yet, something felt different this time, more authentic.
When he left my room, I started to explore the concept of a sober dad, and I had to admit I liked it. It would be a game-changer for all of us. In fact, it would be the best news ever. I don’t care about the money he brings in with his high-level job and his traveling all around the globe. I don’t need to live in this grand mansion on the lake. I just want my dad back.
I decided I was prepared to give him my love and support on the off-chance that he could make it this time. I was so scared that he would disappoint us again.
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