I am the daughter of an ex-addict. When US President Donald Trump maligned Hunter Biden – and by extension, his family – for his struggles with addiction, our commander-in-chief mocked the millions of American families who had been touched by the storm of substance abuse. In a sobering dose of irony, our president levelled this attack during National Recovery Month – this past September marked the 31st national celebration of the gains made by those living in recovery.
The president’s attack on Hunter Biden’s addiction during the first presidential debate, as well as his later disparaging comments on the issue, illustrates the need to continue speaking out about the fortitude required of addicts who choose the uncertain and often painful road to sobriety.
I was 11 years old when I found out that my father was addicted to alcohol. He had too much to drink at my elementary school graduation party. As I happily scarfed down hot dogs, chips and soda in celebration of my milestone, Dad popped the top off of one beer and then another. With his friends, he threw a party of his own and set off fireworks late into the night on my uncle’s residential street in Brooklyn. The next morning, my grandmother – his mother – sat my sister and me down for a talk that I will never forget.
“Daddy has a drinking problem and needs to get help.” I remember my mother standing by in the kitchen, grim-faced and silent, as my grandmother, a short and imposing woman, took the reins. Most of all, I remember the confusion. I had been unaware of Dad’s pattern – the string of events and outings that involved copious alcohol consumption, followed by poor decision-making. One such night had resulted in him wrapping his car around a telephone pole, an accident I was too young to remember.
At 11, I witnessed how addiction can ravage a family, like a wild animal ripping apart the flesh of its prey. Overnight, we became a statistic. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in eight children lived in households with at least one parent who battles alcohol or drug addiction.
In the months following grandma’s pronouncement, my family imploded. Mom and Dad split but continued to argue about everything and nothing. Suddenly, weekends were not just weekends – they were custody agreements. We were a working-class family, and our already low standard of living was cut in half to support Dad’s separate living arrangements. Mom began to date, and I had no idea what Dad was up to when we were not together. When he showed up for scheduled visits with my sister and me, I would secretly worry that I smelled alcohol on his breath.
Thanks to the stigmas around substance abuse, I believed that I was different, and worst of all, alone. When Mom suggested I attend Al-Anon family group meetings, I refused. Despite my desire to feel normal, it was hard enough to manage my own pain, let alone to have to bear witness to that of others.
Much of my memory during this time is a black hole. I was surprised when Dad recently texted me a picture of a letter I had written to him on behalf of our family, 26 years ago, when I was 14 years old:
Dear Dad, aka Husband, aka Son,
We all know that you have some sort of a problem, we know that we can’t tell you what to do anymore, but we all love you very much, and we want you to get some help.
And we want you to know that it’s not worth it to have something happen to you. Because:
We Love You
Ps. Don’t just do it for us, do it for yourself. We love you too much to have something bad happen to you! We’re worried about you.
I have no recollection of writing this plea. Thanks to therapy, I know now that a failed memory is the brain’s coping mechanism, a way to process trauma. I also do not know the extent to which my letter influenced Dad’s decision to pursue sobriety (it must have, as he kept it), but he soon enrolled in an in-patient rehabilitation facility two states away. He was there for one month and we visited him once, about halfway through the programme. Despite Mom’s anger and resentment, she dutifully shopped for his personal items, from shaving cream to mouthwash.
When we arrived, I remember accompanying Mom to the reception area, where she handed the bag of toiletries to a counsellor with a soft face and caring eyes – the perfect person to greet distraught families. I was struck by their careful examination of each item.
“Just checking to see if anything contains alcohol,” the counsellor had said. Mom nodded.
Anything containing traces of alcohol would have to be confiscated. I had never considered that alcoholics might chug mouthwash as a means to a fix.
Our family was relieved that Dad chose to treat his addiction, but that was when we faced another round of dire statistics: Once in rehab, the potential for Dad’s relapse was staggeringly high, between 40 and 60 percent. Furthermore, as I navigated my teen years, I became increasingly aware of the disease’s genetic component and privately worried about my potential to become a substance abuser. According to oral histories I had received, alcoholism and drug abuse had devastated each generation of my family, as far back as the late 1800s.
In sobriety, it was Dad’s turn to feel alone. His family was in tatters and he lost most of his friends and social life. Nights were filled with a hollow, lonely silence. During a conversation about his earliest days fighting addiction, he recalled sitting alone at a table in a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Brooklyn, coffee cup in hand, as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. He resented his newfound sobriety and it would be one of many Moments of isolation that nearly shattered his resolve. Dad admitted to feeling as though rehabilitation introduced him to nothing more than an island on which he was forced to be sober alone.
For many addicts and their families, recovery is a long and distressing road. Dad told me how it sometimes seems easier and less painful to stay addicted, and how the headlong plunge into loneliness is often all it takes to relapse.
Since the presidential debate, I have reflected heavily on the attitudes that still surround substance abuse. Dad and I do not see eye to eye politically, and I wonder how he feels about our president’s efforts to perpetuate the shame of addiction. In an act of self-preservation, I have decided to steer clear of that discussion. But it is a beautiful coincidence that Trump’s addiction-mockery arrived on the cusp of my father’s twenty-sixth year of sobriety. Like Hunter Biden, Dad has overcome his addiction. He has worked on it. And I am proud of him. He is now a mentor for those starting (and restarting) their commitment to abstinence, paying it forward with all of the love, care, and wisdom he received – and continues to receive – on his own journey. Our nation’s leader sorely underestimated the abundance of love that paves an addict’s path to recovery.
Working through addiction, as many times as it takes, is an extraordinary act of resilience and self-love. It is far more difficult to pursue sobriety – and to stay sober – than it is to stand on a stage and mock those who do. Trump might understand this if he, too, had the bravery to heal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.