There is a song we often sing in my community
‘Be gentle with yourself, my friend, my friend/ Be gentle with yourself my friend’
My father has been an alcoholic absentee parent for most of my life but I have always denied any lack of ‘normalcy’ in my life. I have, in fact, gone to great lengths to prove that my childhood and teenage was replete with the simple joys and simpler sorrows as any other boy’s in the neighborhood. Once those phases of life had passed, I promptly got into the rhythm of making my own family, my own tribe – like ‘normal’ people do. Additionally, I also did not consume alcohol, except rarely, with much caution, socially.
This rhythm of illusory normalcy was only disrupted recently. Twice in fact. First, when I, proactively, chose to meet a therapist and, secondly, when my old father needed my caregiving, love and trust. Love and trust – things which should have been pretty easy to provide, had my narrative of a normal childhood and teenage been true.
As I began working through my own selfhood with a trusted therapist and, simultaneously, took care of my aging father, it dawned on me that I wasn’t wrong about being normal. It was merely the case that my normal was not synonymous with cheery vacation pictures hanging on the walls of my classmates. It was also apparent that gratitude or respect, in singular terms, were not the only feelings I associated with my aged father. Anger and guilt would pervade and create a composite with the more tender feelings. They would make a concoction of feelings which was as confusing as trying to understand the reality of my childhood and teenage. The extraction and unveiling is exhausting but very rewarding. This is a post about these unravelings that promptly contradict the simpler narrative of ‘normalcy’ I had created for myself.
While the majority of the available literature focuses on alcoholism and its implications on the dependents in their childhood, there is a dearth of resources citing scenarios where a once-dependent child becomes the caretaker of the now dependent parent; when the roles are reversed.
Taking Care of the Other
I discovered that abandonment was my most dreaded fear. Resultantly, I had made life choices that ensured I never risk abandonment. This was stemming from the unconscious belief that my father who chose alcohol over his own son was signalling my unimportance in the hierarchy of things.
When it was my chance to make a choice about whether I could continue providing care to my father or I would choose to take care of only myself, it was this insight that helped. I decided that one of the ways I would like to deal with my truth is through not prosecuting my father. However, I promised myself that I would draw strict boundaries. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stretch myself trying to please my aged father in a way that would leave me overburdened.
The re-connection would be measured carefully against the importance of self care.
Taking Care of Oneself
The notion that self care precludes caregiving to another was busted as I delved deeper into my own psyche. It also made bogus the notion that only a weepy apology from him could have prompted my caregiving. It became apparent to me that part of drawing boundaries was to not expect anything from a man in the evening of his life and rather consider it transactional. This was my self care.
The mixed bag of giving support to an ex-alcoholic parent led to some discoveries about my own emotional truths. Studies reiterate that kids from alcoholic families have trouble with authority and assertiveness. It is important to acknowledge this and let it pass, as one does with thoughts during a session of meditation. Alcohol, the most popular and easily available substance from homes to colleges (see the chapter on ‘Consciousness’ in Psych 5: An Introductory Psychology Book), becomes an important object (almost gaining anthropomorphic importance) in the lives of these children. I had done myself a favor by gaining awareness about this and creating hard boundaries between myself and alcohol.
In conclusion, the combined experiences of therapy and caregiving has really guided me in the process of being gentle with myself.