I recently visited my father for the first time in eight years—the first time in my recovery. To say it was tough is an understatement. I knew that would be the case, which is why it took me five years of recovery to feel ready and strong enough to do it. Why was it tough? You might ask. Well, my father is an alcoholic—he has been my entire life. Some of us don’t have the luxury of waiting to feel ready to visit alcoholic family members, others may feel they’ll never be ready. I got through it, and stayed sober. This post explains how.

Despite being born in the US, I grew up in the UK because of my father’s alcoholism—staying in that family unit was too unsafe. I spent most of my formative years with the absence of a father figure. The Atlantic ocean just served as a reminder of how far apart we were.

The lure of my big American-Italian family was always in the back of my mind—cousins, aunts, uncles, and my father. When I was a teenager, I began visiting my family again. My father and I had a turbulent relationship right from being reunited; I was angry at the consequences of his behavior, and his continued drinking and drugging. We fought and bickered frequently. I was used as a pawn in his troubled relationship with his siblings. I often sought solace with my aunt, who showed me the love and warmth of an Italian mother—I was safe with her. I developed a strong bond with my cousins and I enjoyed spending the summers in New York with them.

But I always returned to the UK at the end of the summer, upset and confused—I would become depressed for several weeks.  I couldn’t bring those relationships with me and I didn’t have the ability to process the emotions I felt toward my father; anger, resentment, rage, and hurt. I had no outlet and I didn’t know how to express myself. I now realize that my hurt stemmed from feeling abandoned by my father; each visit was like I replayed that sense of abandonment.  Those feelings, emotions and senses were my deepest wound.

I turned to drugs and alcohol to escape that wound and all other difficult feelings and emotions. Except, I always needed more to have the same effect. But it was never enough. In the end I just sought oblivion. I had developed my own addiction, which stood in the way of any visits to America since 2009. It wasn’t until 2012 that I reached my own rock bottom and found recovery.

I have spent the last five years wanting to visit my family in New York, but not feeling ready for the flood of emotions that inevitably follow—especially without the anesthesia of alcohol and drugs. Visiting my father is like ripping the scab off my wound over-and-over again. It has taken years of therapy, step work, processing, and writing, to get to a place of less pain today. Although, I wonder if the pain will ever dissipate altogether. I discovered in the process of recovery that it wasn’t my father who abandoned me, it was his addiction. While that didn’t absolve him of responsibility for his absence in my life, it made it less personal, and a touch more palatable.

That worked enabled me to form a solid foundation in my recovery. Over the past five years, I have learned how to express myself, communicate more effectively, and developed coping strategies for life. I learned how to look after me. In doing so, I knew that if the opportunity to visit him arose, I would be able to stand strong in my recovery.

I was recently asked if seeing my sick alcoholic father would make me want to drink, given I am now five years sober. I explained that even though I have no desire to drink anymore, it is experiencing difficult emotions—especially around old wounds—that make me want to escape myself. I don’t think that desire to avoid difficult feelings and emotions ever goes away altogether—that is the core of my addiction. The difference today is that I have learned how to cope with the desire to escape.

The opportunity to visit did arise. I relocated to the west coast of America in January this year, making domestic travel easier. I saw that She Recovers was hosting a recovery event in New York and I took a leap of faith and booked it, figuring I could visit family beforehand. I was nervous, but I knew I could get through it.

Prior to the visit, I developed a strategy to keep myself strong in my recovery:

  1. I didn’t stay with my father, rather I stayed close-by in an environment I felt safe.
  2. I took the opportunity to reunite with my wider family, so the trip wasn’t entirely about him.
  3. I met him during the day, when I knew he would be more coherent. I picked a neutral place, where I felt safe. I didn’t have a car, but I knew I could get a Lyft or ride with a family member if I needed to leave early.
  4. I checked-in with recovery friends throughout the whole visit.
  5. I arranged to visit family before She Recovers NYC, so that I had something to look forward to.
  6. I had an escape strategy—to stay with a friend—if it became too much and I needed to get away earlier.
  7. I prayed. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in something that is beyond my control. I asked for the right words to be put in my mouth, to not get angry, to be compassionate, but most of all to look after me.
  8. I gave myself time to process the emotions; I slept when I needed to, I meditated, I practiced deep breathing.
  9. I wrote about my experiences as a means of processing and expression.
  10. I gave myself extra time when I came home. I know this will take a while to process, so I may be slower, feel overwhelmed more easily, and be tired. I tell myself that is okay and give myself the permission to feel that way for as long as it takes.

I made it and I had the best time at She Recovers NYC. I came away from New York with an entirely positive experience.

Recovery has shown me that the only person I have any control and any certainty over, is me. I decide how to live my life, how to interact with others, and how I let them treat me.  It has also shown me that addiction is a terrible disease and some of us never get the opportunity for recovery—thank god I did.

a woman in a blue shirt standing in front of trees.
By – Olivia Pennelle
Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery. She passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Read more
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