Role Reversal: What I've Learned from Parenting my Father
I used to wear my childhood like armor, thick but beautiful; a second skin. I never went anywhere without it. Indestructible, tough. It’s surface defined was who I was in simple terms. I was resilient, conditioned, knowing. I’ve been through a lot, I would tell people throughout my early 20s. A quiet smirk forming underneath my lips. The armour only making the chip on my shoulder more noticeable.
My parents, divorced, both struggle with mental illness. The role of devoted daughter to the ‘crazy’ parents was an identity I felt really comfortable in most of my life. My dad is an addict; his poison is primarily alcohol but he’s dabbled in everything from anti-depressants to sleeping pills. Without any support other than his mother (my grandmother) and his sister (my aunt), I had to step up and be his primary caretaker when I was 16.
Throughout my late teens, he was in and out of rehab, the Twelve Steps not even making a dent in the depths of his pain. When I was in college, he was worse than ever. My junior year, for example, I went home to take him to a 30-day program after he fell and smashed his face during a bender. The fear of losing him made me devote myself to his recovery intensely. I didn’t need to figure out who I was or what I like to do because I was the daughter of an alcoholic; I was a caretaker, a martyr, a good person.
He got sober after I found him bleeding out on the floor, the cirrhosis finally taking hold. The words from the doctors got through to him: if you drink, you will die. He’s been sober for over 200 days now and he’s enrolled in an intensive mental health program. I have faith that he will maintain his sobriety.
Through hard work, therapy, and deliberate choices about how I want to spend my life, I am untangled from most of the roles I inherited from my childhood: devoted daughter, tortured sister, doting girlfriend. The masks were many and convincing. My dad is sober now; I left my boyfriend of 10 years after we mutually decided that our lives were no longer going in the same direction; my brother and I have settled into a stable but distant relationship. While it was a time of major transition in arguably every arena of my life, I felt truly free for first time.
But, this freedom of responsibility has drenched me in vulnerability. Who am I without those labels? The armour was not only defining, it was protecting. Protecting me from myself. Now that I’m free I’m wading in an ocean, exposed.
Now what’s left? Just me.
As cliche as it sounds, it’s been a scary but emboldening time. Choices can be challenging to make, but I am fortunate that I have the space and time to relearn and redefine who I am -- from what I like to do, to how I see myself, to how I relate to others. I have made new friends and let go of some old habits. I can focus on my career, on having fun, on travel.
For a brief time, I thought that in my dad’s sobriety and by breaking off of an imminent engagement with my boyfriend, I was abandoning some self-assigned post. I felt I was scoffing at my duty and purpose. At some level, it was nice to be needed by these men I cared about in my life. But, soon after I started living by my own rules, I knew I couldn’t go back. I had to move forward and face myself.
I still am a devoted daughter and tortured sister; and I am learning to love another man again. But, I’ve learned to shed the armor and tuck those roles into the quiet folds of my being.
I was at a party a few weeks ago and a man from Chile asked me, quite flippantly, “Who are you?” I started telling him what I did for a living. He talked over me and stopped me mid-sentence. He asked again, “Who are you?” I was stunned, a little embarrassed. “Uhhh,” I said, “I don’t know.” But then the embarrassment faded and I smiled deeply through the soaking wet vulnerability. I felt the sun shining. My identity is still blooming, I thought. It's learning to peek through the hardened ground.