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4 Life Lessons I Learned From My Alcoholic Father

Rachel Finn
Written by Rachel Finn

I grew up with an alcoholic father, and when I say alcoholic, he wasn't the beer-drinking, slurring kind — he was the obligatory-police-visits, hospital-visits, missing-persons-reports, suicidal-threats and the eroding-of-the-spirit alcoholic.

And while my childhood was often filled with anxiety and tension, there were nevertheless some beautiful times with my father. Looking back, what I can be most thankful for are the lessons I've carried with me:

1. The true tragedy of life is unrealized potential and extinguished talent.

We all come into this world with potential. However, somewhere along the line, we forget that anything is possible. Our experiences, and the meaning we give to them, start to create walls that, over time, block our creative visions.

Why is it so tragic when a young child dies? Because their possibilities have been cut short. We all acknowledge this as a tragedy in others, but we are indifferent to the wasting of our own talents.

My father was a genius: he got his pilot's license at age 21, he graduated with honors in architecture, he designed and built our family home, and his IQ was in the top 2 percentile range.

Sometime around age 40, his potential started to fade and idleness and apathy crept in. By then, he'd stopped seeing possibility and only saw problems.

As alcoholism took him further down the road of health ailments and mental illness, I saw that the second worst thing (after unrealized potential) is the extinguishing of talent. I saw fabulous skills and gifts erode until they were hardly recognizable.

The true tragedy of life is when we resign ourselves to the notion that this is all there is and all you’ll ever be. I ask you, since anything is possible, what is possible for you? And what talents have you been letting slip through your fingers?

2. Finding your purpose is paramount.

I watched my dad throw himself (compulsively, I may add) into many passions. Once, he started building a light aircraft in our basement (I can still smell the resin). Another time he bought an ex-racing yacht and, with meticulous precision, repaired the hull to the point that it became unsinkable.

What I often saw was his inability to transform those passions into a measurable result. The plane was never built and the yacht is still an ex-racing boat (and, unfortunately, still unsinkable).

What I started to witness in my father’s life, and what I also saw so clearly in my own, was an inability to get the distinction between a passion and a purpose. Passion implies compelling emotions; feelings drive passion. But I have compelling emotions (good AND bad) about many things in my life. What I often failed to see was my purpose. The why behind the what.

Had my dad given more time to his purpose — why he did what he did, why he wanted what he wanted — his passions may have resulted in a desired outcome. There was something he was always looking for, but because he'd never asked himself what that was, and why he wanted it, he wasn’t able to recognize it when it showed up.

Passion is expressed best with a purpose. What is the purpose behind your passions?

3. Sometimes you have to accept that you can never accept what is. And that leads to peace.

The time in my life I got clear on what I wouldn't accept, and what I was going to stand for, was when my life started to become peaceful. Like a line being drawn in the sand, a boundary can emerge that may have been invisible while you were so desperately, and profoundly, trying to accept the situation at hand.

I spent years trying to accept irrational and inappropriate behavior from my father. Along the way, I lost my values because I believed the “enlightened” and “right” thing to do was to accept it all.

Often a good sign that you don’t accept something is when you are finding it difficult trying to. That's when you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I stand for this?
  • Do I consent to this?
  • Do I approve and agree to this?

If you can’t, then don’t force yourself to accept that situation, instead accept that you don’t accept it.

4. Don’t wait to hit your rock bottom — it may never happen.

It’s a universal fallacy to believe that we'll all change when life gets really bad. For many of us, our lives never get bad enough to warrant change. Why? Because we learn to tolerate. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, you tolerate that soul-sucking job and lousy pay, the toxic relationships and your expanding waistline.

I was told many times that “Your father has to want to do it for himself. When he hits rock bottom, he'll make changes.”

What I wasn’t told was that many never do hit rock bottom. I’ll give it to humans because we are a resilient bunch. But while resilience is admirable, it can be the cause of a missing of aha moment, and prevent us from redirecting our lives.

My father used to tell me to take notice of the “older” couple in the corner of the restaurant getting though two bottles of wine during their meal. He’d so cynically (and ironically) point out that 15 years ago, they would have only gotten through half a bottle together. “That’s what tolerance is,” he’d say … and he was right; over time they’d leaned to tolerate more.

I ask you: where in your life are you tolerating? In what area of your life are you the frog in the pot? See where you can take action today, because you'll never know if you’ll be lucky enough to hit rock bottom.

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