Forgiving Her Alcoholic Father Helped Her Feel Whole

Her father was trying to make amends, but could she forgive him for his emotional abuse during her childhood?

Posted in , Aug 25, 2020

Jill Suttie; photo courtesy Jill Suttie

The phone rang in my of­fice. I was preparing for an evening talk at the university where I worked.

My heart sank when I heard the call­er’s voice. It was my father.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Dad asked.

“Sure, but I can’t talk long,” I said. This was my usual tactic with Dad: set a limit, keep it short.

“This won’t take long,” he said. “My therapist told me I should call each of my daughters and ask them a question. So I want to ask you.”

My heart sank even further. What could this be about? And why was he doing this to me right in the middle of my workday?

“Did you feel that I loved you as a child?” he said.

I was 34 years old, married and work­ing at the University of San Francisco while earning a doctorate in psycholo­gy. I had been an independent adult for nearly 16 years. I’d even lived abroad. My husband, Don, and I planned to have children soon.

Yet my father still had the power to stop me in my tracks.

My father was an alcoholic and had been since my childhood. Growing up with him had been a nightmare for my mother, my two older sisters and me. We lived in fear of his drunken rages. He berated and humiliated us, meting out harsh punishments seemingly at random. Even as an adult, I feared his abuse and suffered from the emotional scars he’d inflicted.

For years, I had lived in Santa Bar­bara, far away from my dad. But poor job opportunities and a broken rela­tionship convinced me to move back to the Bay Area, nearer to my father, where I eventually found a job, met my husband and started graduate school.

Meanwhile, my father had fallen apart. He and Mom divorced, and he lived by himself in a trailer park. Late­ly he had begun reaching out to me in ways that were, frankly, surprising. And unwanted.

I didn’t know how to answer his question. I knew what I wanted to say. But could I say it?

“No,” I said in a burst of honesty. “Maybe I knew it in an abstract way, but I didn’t feel it.”

Dad was silent. He seemed stunned. He ended up mumbling something about having to go, then hung up. I sat there afterward, shaking. But it was a relief to have finally spoken the truth.

I told Don about the call when I got home. My husband was the opposite of Dad. Upbeat, loving, stable, articulate about his feelings. He loved me and supported my work and my efforts to heal from the damage of my childhood.

“Do you think your dad will get back in touch?” Don said.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I said. But in my heart, I knew those words weren’t entirely true. My feelings about Dad were more complicated than I let on.

Against all odds, he had started at­tending Alcoholics Anonymous and was making a sincere attempt to stop drinking. Although he expressed scorn for AA’s emphasis on surrender to a higher power, he did find the meetings helpful. Talking with other alcoholics showed him how damaging alcoholism was to relationships and made him feel less alone.

He was working AA’s 12 steps with the help of a therapist, and I was pretty sure that’s why he’d called with his question.

Everything I had learned as a psychologist told me I couldn’t bury problems and expect them just to disappear. But I also felt deeply wary of my father. Nor was I keen on unearthing decades of fear and resentment just to help him feel better.

How typical of Dad to barge into my workday with a bombshell question like that! Even in the midst of recovery, his focus remained firmly on himself. What did he expect, that I would for­get about the past and pretend that it didn’t matter?

There was so much to forgive—most important, how my father made me feel inferior and unlovable. In third grade, when I broke my arm while roller-skating, he yelled at me for crying and discouraged Mom from taking me to the hospital.

At school open houses, he dismissed teachers’ compliments by telling them I was lazy. He drank and embarrassed me in front of my friends, threatening me and calling me names. I never felt safe in his presence. I thought he hated me.

As a teenager, I bitterly resisted his efforts to restrict and control me. I fought back when he insulted me. I called him the Ogre and made fun of him with my friends. The day I moved out for college felt like the happiest day of my life.

For 15 years, I tried to put Dad and the trauma of my childhood behind me. Then Mom called me one day to say that Dad had filed for divorce and was moving out. I was surprised. I had always thought she would be the one to leave their marriage. But I was glad because now I could visit her without seeing him.

Dad also called to share the news. He read me a new copy of his will in which he’d added spiteful language about my mother. I seethed but said nothing.

About a year later, not long after Don and I had married, Dad called again. To my astonishment, he was crying. “I’m miserable, Jill,” he said. I could tell he’d been drinking. I wanted to hang up, but something in his voice kept me listening.

“I miss your mother,” he said. “Do you think she would take me back?”

I took a gamble. “No, Dad. You need help, not Mom,” I said. “You should see a therapist.”

I assumed he would dismiss the idea. But he surprised me. He found a thera­pist, who promptly told him he was an alcoholic and recommended he attend AA. Dad tried a meeting and found it uncomfortable. “The higher power talk is annoying,” he told me during one of his phone calls. “But the people there seem okay.”

For some months, I didn’t hear from him much. I was busy with my own life and not focused on him. It was around then that he called me with his bomb­shell question.

I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Soon after the call, I moved to a new job that was closer to where my father lived, and he started inviting me to lunch. I was nervous the first time we met. Would he drink? Insult me or embarrass me? But he was like a different person. Sober. Polite. Someone I could talk to.

I was glad to have a sober father in my life. But all it took was one flash of the old Dad to make me want to cut him off again. “Stop jack­ing me around,” he barked once after Don and I offered to help him with flooding in his mobile home. Our offense? Not return­ing one of his phone calls fast enough.

I knew that making amends was an essen­tial part of recovery, the ninth step. But Dad’s program didn’t seem to take into account how I might react. I felt guilty if I didn’t go along, but I was still angry at him and tense whenever we were together.

Partly to overcome this, and partly just to keep our lunches from falling into awkward silence, I began asking Dad about his past. He told me his parents had been harsh and unlov­ing. Though he had fought in World War II and returned home to earn a history degree at Stanford University, his mother tried to talk my mom out of marrying him when he proposed. She thought my mom could do better.

“I’ll never forget that,” Dad said.

He also told me stories that gave me insight into his character. As a senior in high school, he tried to prevent a fel­low student, a Japanese-American boy, from being sent away to an internment camp.

Later, working as a high school teacher in California’s Central Valley, he lost his job after teaching students about the history of racial discrimina­tion in their town. He ended up leaving education and working for an insur­ance company. Disappointment and boredom in that job contributed to his drinking.

Don and I had two children, and Dad was delighted to meet them, though I had to intervene a few times when his old disciplinarian ways resurfaced. Yet the more I learned about him, the more willing I was to allow him into my world. Dad had had a difficult life, but he was trying—albeit imperfectly—to be a better person. I could let go of my image of him as “all bad.” I even began to like him.

When my mom died, I did not expect my dad to comfort me. But he attended her memorial and even shed tears. After my sisters and I sorted through Mom’s things, he helped me take the items we didn’t keep to Goodwill.

“I don’t want to give away Mom’s piano, but I don’t have room for it,” I told Dad.

“I’ll store it,” he offered.

A few months later, still grieving for Mom, I broke down in tears during one of his visits. Dad took me in his arms and held me. It felt strange but good.

“Would you mind if I had someone else bury me after I’m gone?” he asked. “I would hate to have you cry over me like that.”

“No!” I said. “I’d need that time to say goodbye.”

That was when I realized that I cared about my dad more than I’d thought. Al­though he was frustratingly obtuse at times, he was trying to soothe my pain and make things easier for me. He could never make up for my lost childhood. But Dad was doing what he could do now—showing me love when I needed it.

I began to forgive him then. And not just for his sake. Forgiving him helped me open my heart and feel whole. For­giving wasn’teasy, and there were of­ten setbacks—but it was worth it.

My father died at age 85, long after we’d recon­ciled. When my sisters and I cleaned out his house, I found a note on the back of an envelope written in his nearly il­legible scrawl. It was a to-do list that he must have made a few days before he died. It included remind­ers to take his pills, call his doctor and undertake other mundane activities.

At the bottom of his list, Dad had written these words: Call Jill. Tell her not to worry.

Adapted from an April 8, 2019, story in Greater Good magazine, a publication of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jill Suttie is a psychologist, musician and a staff writer and contributing editor for Greater Good Magazine at the University of California, Berkeley.

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