Written By: Mark Smith
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My dad’s mother was only 14 years old when she gave birth to him. He was born in the then poverty stricken Appalachian community of Butler, Pennsylvania. His childhood was a very sad story. When he graduated from high school he could not afford the required white dress shirt, he was not taught proper dental hygiene and he lost all of his teeth in his early twenties, his step-father was physically abusive and his mother had serious mental health issues which landed her in a psychiatric hospital. Since his half siblings were younger and his mother did not protect him – Sam Smith was a sad and isolated loner who really did not feel as if he had a family. My dad made money setting bowling pins up all night at the local bowling alley. When he joined the Air Force after high school Uncle Sam became his father, his mother and his salvation. Although he was passive, depressed, and highly addictive, he served as my mother’s ticket out of her unhappy childhood home. As I have looked at their wedding pictures I was amazed that either of them could have possibly have believed that their marriage could have worked or that they could build a happy family on the tenuous ground of their terrible unhappy lives to that point. I guess that is a myth that most star crossed young lovers need to believe.
Since my poor father had never been emotionally connected to anyone in his life, he did not have the skills to be a married man. He wrapped himself in his emotionally medicating addictions of Bridge playing, gambling, TV, sports, food, etc. My mother was on her own to raise 7 children. I remember getting my piggy bank out of the closet and presenting it to her as her cried on the phone as my dad explained losing his paycheck, I think at the dog track. My mother, who started out the marriage sort of like Doris Day – singing, making fudge, carrying a lot of joy, became angry, bitter and full of rage through the years.
I remember having a hunger for my father as I was growing up. I have only one memory of going somewhere with him by myself – he took me with him as he gave blood once. I enjoyed some sugar cookies; some orange juice and some much needed attention in exchange for his blood that special day. When I was 11 my dad had gotten involved in our lives by serving as the announcer at our Little League baseball games. I was so in awe of that. Later that year I broke into the shed that stored the Little League equipment, rigged up the PA system and then proceeded to pretend to announce a baseball game. How’s that for trying to connect with dad? Since I also swiped a lot of baseball gear, the Military Police didn’t see my crime as a cry to connect with my dad as I was placed on base probation for 6 months.
During my dad’s tour in Vietnam although I barely remembered him, in my mind my dad was some type of super hero. He had a cool uniform with metals and I saw him as this powerful figure that must be extremely important in the world. He actually was a depressed and ineffectual man who volunteered to go to Vietnam in order to escape from the wrath of his critical and domineering wife and his swarm of needy children.
Sad stories don’t always have sad endings. Given all the dysfunction of my childhood I really should be a depressed, relationally broken, bitter and emotionally disconnected fellow. I am so thankful for being blessed with my involvement in recovery (defined as being aware of your issues and effectively working on resolving them) and therapy when I was still in my late twenties. I am an extremely blessed and happy man these days due to the healing work that I have been able to do.
Coming from a flawed and dysfunctional family actually isn’t all bad – there are some silver linings in the clouds of all the pain and sadness. I want to share how my history of having a dad (and mom) who was not able to meet my needs has actually served as a potential positive in some areas. #1 Counterdependent Drive – When one generation can’t carry their full measure of responsibility for whatever reason, the next generation tends to over compensate. Most of my siblings and I have been extremely successful financially. We know first hand what it was like to be poor and we determined that it wasn’t going to happen to us. With recovery work I have been moderately successful at breaking the cycle of disconnectedness with my own children rather than allowing Workaholism to rob them of a father. #2 Faith in God – God has been so good to me. He has been a Father to me when I did not have a father. As I sit here and write at the beach on this cold spring day I continue to be stunned by His handiwork and His presence. #3 A strong, responsible and stable partner - I have a great wife. Since I felt so unsupported by my parents growing up I instinctively gravitated towards a strong, giving woman with rock solid character. While childhood dysfunction creates challenges to any marriage, therapy and recovery work smoothes out the edges and you get to keep the good stuff while repairing the not so good stuff. #4 A determination to be a good father – To me, if you provide your children with a healthier and happier childhood then the one you yourself experienced then you are a hero who should be congratulated. Recovery work has definitely made that a reality in our family.
I was fortunately blessed enough to make peace with my father before he died. It wasn’t the A#1 type of peace where he was able to hear my pain, humbly apologize and then begin to love me and my children the way we needed to be loved. The sad truth is that due to his continued addictive self-absorption, he barely knew the names of my children. It would have been great if he could have changed, but bless his heart – he just was not capable of that. It was the secondary type of peace that comes form understanding where you father came from, what his limitations were and just why he could not be the type of dad that you needed. This peace was not arrived at easily. It took a lot of painful emotional work. I wish each of you insight, the ability to forgive and the ability to truly feel your pain as you struggle to make peace with your flawed but no doubt well meaning parents and perhaps more importantly with your journey to create for yourself a healthy and happy life and family in the here and now.
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