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When Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall came to my city to perform his one-man show Hammy and the Kids a few years ago, I jumped to buy a ticket. Not just because I was a fan of KITH as a kid and McDonald’s show was about his time with them, but because it was also about his alcoholic father. As it happens, my dad is an alcoholic, too. So I figured I’d find McDonald’s performance hilariously relatable, no matter how dark. But I really had no idea what a giant effect the show was about to have on me.
McDonald, of course, delivered. The show was honest while still being silly and funny. But as it went on, he described some of the difficulties he’d experienced as the adult child of an alcoholic. He talked about his time in therapy, struggling with his passive aggressive behavior. He described how in the KITH office, he couldn’t ask for what he needed and he’d boil with resentment instead. When it came to something as simple as wanting a window closed, he’d put his desire on someone else, saying, “Hey, you wanna close that?” Which I found hysterical, because I had just said those same words the day before. As I watched and laughed, I lowered my guard, and then the realization slowly came to me: McDonald sounded a lot like me. For a while, I’d been catching myself doing similar things, and despite my awareness of my habits, I couldn’t seem to stop them.
McDonald’s father, however, did not sound like my dad. His was vicious and sometimes violent; mine was mostly absent and easily irritated. But then McDonald acted out his final confrontation with his dad, when his father recognized he was wrong but still couldn’t apologize or admit it. That’s what my dad does. Seeing myself in McDonald and a bit of my dad in his was a giant revelation. I’d never before connected growing up in an alcoholic home to my difficulties and character defects as an adult. Suddenly, everything came together. Was this something I needed help with, too?
After growing up with a brain that often felt like a foreign invader reacting to things before I could fully grasp them, it was like someone finally handed me a map to understanding myself. I’m glad I was sitting in the dark and that the show was a comedy, because I openly bawled through the end of it, and no one heard me over the audience laughter.
I grew up an only child with a mom just trying to hold everything together and a dad who was a functional alcoholic. He was often-absent, easily irritated, and inconsistent. He still held down a job, but often wouldn’t come home until after I’d gone to bed. We lived in the same house, but sometimes I’d go weeks only seeing him on weekends. Sometimes, I’d imagine he had a secret family somewhere else because that felt preferable to the reality. When he was home, I had the distinct sense he was two different people. One version was my loving dad who spent time with me and made me laugh, the other was a monster who snapped at every move I made. I never knew which one would be walking in the front door every evening. I didn’t know what might set him off, either, so I compensated by taking up as little space as possible. The goal was complete invisibility. If there had been a competition for making yourself unseen and unheard, I’d have been Michael Phelps. (Even now, standing out brings up a bit of inexplicable terror that I have to fight.)
Until I was well into my teens, I had never talked to anyone—not my extended family, not my best friend—about my family life because I was ashamed. Secretly, I believed my father’s drinking was my fault, and I’d internalized this so deeply that I didn’t even realize I thought it. But underneath, I felt that if I’d been better, more perfect, more charming, more lovable, then maybe my dad wouldn’t need to drink.
It wasn’t as if I’d blocked this out in my adult life, but I had been more than happy to never think about that time again. Sure, I had walked on eggshells at home, afraid of setting my dad off, but he’d never hit us or touched anyone inappropriately. So as an adult, I minimized the detrimental effects of living with his disease and insisted it wasn’t that bad. My biggest concern growing up had been avoiding becoming an alcoholic myself, and I’d dodged that by not drinking at all.
When I moved out, I was finally free. Except that I wa