My dad's body was found in the backyard of my childhood home on Sunday. The neighbor boy, a child I remember from my teen years who is now probably a full grown man, found him. And I received the phone call from my mother that I've known was coming for pretty much my entire life: Dad's dead. He disappeared on a bender on Saturday and they found his body the next day. It was too late to do anything.
My dad (technically my step-dad, but the man who raised me since I was three) was what is referred to as a "dual diagnosis" addict, which means that he suffered from depression in addition to addiction. Dual diagnosis is rough because the treatment is even more difficult than some other addicts. If you give them pills to help with the depression, then you are giving them another opportunity for substance abuse; if you don't, the depression leads to more abuse. It's a no-win situation as far as I've seen.
My dad's dying of overdose or alcohol poisoning, whether accidental or intentional, was never a matter of "if" it would happen. This has always been a matter of when it would happen. I've known this is how it would end for years. Knowing this doesn't necessarily make it any easier to face the truth, but it also makes the grief different from what I've experienced before. There's no denial. I know who and what my dad was, and I knew this would be the way it happened. There's even a sense of relief that this cycle of rage and pity and guilt that I've felt toward him over the decades can finally stop.
Honestly, the main thing I was worried about was coming in to work today.
The students are gone; it's only adults left. I could have easily taken time off and tied up my end of the year stuff later, but I didn't want to. I needed to be here. I needed work to keep me busy, and I needed my colleagues to remind me that this school family is just as much a part of my life as any of my other family.
I also needed to be honest.
I told them what my dad was and the circumstances regarding his death. I've always tried to be as honest as possible with my students about what it's like to grow up as the daughter of an addict because I know so many of them live with even worse. It's one of the reasons students know they can trust me with their dark stuff; because they know I have dark stuff of my own. But it's about ten times harder to be that open with adults in regular conversation. I didn't just want my coworkers to know that my dad died; I wanted them to know why. Why I was still at work, and not overcome by unstoppable grief. Why it's more of a surprise for them to hear that this man they've never met is dead than it was for me.
The problem with addiction is that we don't talk about it nearly enough in every day life. Celebrity overdoses make headlines, associating the addict narrative with excess and glamorous tragedy. That overshadows the reality of addicts in our every day lives. So much of living with an addict is the cover up: the not telling friends and family and coworkers because somehow the shame will reflect back on you. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn't cause my dad to be what he was. No amount of love or pity, hope or hate could have stopped him from his own self-destruction. And now that he's dead, I certainly shouldn't feel the need to protect him or pretend that his life was any different than it was.
After I told my fellow teachers, no less than three different people on our very small staff reached out to me to share their experience with a friend or family member who is an addict. Conversations that we've never had before, and never would have had if I hadn't been open with them.
And then it always takes me back to our kids. How so often we try to "save" our students from the harsh realities of the world that they already know better than we do. How we try to protect them, but what we really end up doing is silencing their voices when they need to share the stories of their everyday horrors as much as I needed to share mine today. I read those stories in their writings; writing allows for catharsis in a way that might be more difficult in other classes. But sometimes, even more than sharing their own stories, kids need to hear our stories. The gritty ones. The ones that aren't always safe for school.
We teachers are human, too. Sometimes our best lessons for our students isn't teaching or advice at all; it's our own human experience. How powerful of a role model can I be for students if they know where I came from and how I grew up? How much better is that than pretending I'm just someone to look up to because that's my job?
When school starts again in August, I won't hide what happened from my students. I'll continue to be honest, to show them the messiness that contributes to who I am as a person, a teacher, a daughter, a wife, and a friend. We all have something messy, something dark and scary and shameful in our lives. If we were all a little more open about sharing those things in the safe environment of school, maybe it would help our kids battle the demons at home a little better.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.