One of my early childhood memories from before my dad started drinking was standing with my feet on top of his. I was seven or eight years old, he would hold my hands and I would stand on his feet and hold on as he walked around the room. We were not really dancing, but it was fun and my sister and I would take turns. I think a lot of little girls do this with their daddies and it is a sweet memory I have of him.
When I was in college studying literature, I was very drawn to a particular poem:
My Papa’s Waltz
by Theodore Roethke
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
There are a lot of different opinions and interpretations about what this poem is describing. Some readers interpret it as the happy childhood memory of a young boy playfully dancing with his father in their kitchen, while his mother gazes on. Other readers believe that the dance is a metaphor for physical abuse by a drunk father. The first time I ever read this poem, I instantly believed it depicted abuse. However, I wonder if that is because my father became an abusive alcoholic (while my mother helplessly watched on). I always tell my students that this is the beauty of literature- the reader is able to interpret what they read in their own personal way. We all (sometimes subconsciously) are influenced by our own life experiences and as a child of an alcoholic, that was the lens I saw the world through. Yet, I got a feeling that this boy still loved his father, which was another part of the poem I could relate to, because I still love mine.
I know without a doubt that if my father was not an alcoholic, he would have been an awesome dad. Just like I know that if my exboyfriend did not suffer from the same addiction, he would have been a wonderful life partner. When I went to an Al-Anon meeting recently, someone used the phrase “detachment with love”. I realized that I unknowingly started doing this with my father years ago. I have his nasty emails blocked, his ringtone on my phone is “silent”, I immediately erase his toxic voicemails and I speak to him as minimally as possible, especially if I know he is drunk. When I see him, if he is sober, I chat with him, but I stopped letting him “in”…I try to no longer let his behavior negatively affect me. I accepted that I was not going to be able to change him, so I stopped trying to.
I am currently detaching with love from my exboyfriend. While I never felt responsible for my father, I did feel VERY responsible for my ex. By protecting him and enabling him, I was actually hurting us both, which I am able to see now that I have some space from the situation. I cannot protect him from the consequences of his choices and I do not want to continue to suffer because of his actions. By releasing those feelings of responsibility for him, I was able to start focusing on myself and my needs.
I love my father and I love my exboyfriend, but I hate their alcoholism. My father, the man who should be the one to protect me, physically hurt me and still verbally abuses me. My exboyfriend, the man I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, lied to my face and cheated on me, violating my trust.
I think I will always see the world as the child of an alcoholic and as someone who deeply loved and was in an eight year long romantic relationship with an alcoholic. It is just a part of who I am, woven into the essence of my being. However, I know that they both made their own choices, but that I also had the ability to make a choice for myself.
And my choice was to detach (with love) from both of them.