I walked away
The choice I made to save myself
There may come a time in which, to save yourself, you will have to walk away, and it will be the hardest thing you ever have to do.
When I was little, my uncle was one of the coolest people I knew. He was in his early 20’s when I was born, which is funny to think about now being older than he was at that time.
But from my earliest memories as 4-year-old me, next to my dad, he was probably my favorite person in the world as I knew it. He watched me while my parents worked. We played games (he taught me how to play hearts), we watched the Mighty Ducks and he even let me cut his hair once.
When we had family dinners on Sunday, I couldn’t wait for him to get there. He made me laugh and just brought so much joy to my little life.
One year, while we were on vacation the summer before my freshman year of high school, he was house sitting and taking care of our dog, Max. I could sense the energy in the room when we got home in seconds. Years before I had learned to read people’s reactions- when things were okay, when it felt unsafe, when something was wrong. In that moment, I knew he was gone.
If you’ve experienced true heartbreak, you know what I mean when I say I truly, physically felt my heart break. I learned later he left a note that he’d moved to Washington for rehab after my grandparents refused to take him in again.
That was the first time I really grasped what alcoholism was. My family, like many others, were ones to sweep difficult situations under the rug because it was easier to push through those difficult moments and just love each other and hope for better times. While their love is something that no one could ever deny, it didn’t create an environment to really understand what was going on or feel like you could talk about it. Sometimes we had bad days and when the bad days were over, it was easier to just forget them and be thankful that we had another day together.
The difference was that this time, one of us was gone and I didn’t know how to comprehend that. I felt abandoned. Devastated. Angry. How could he just leave? No warning. No goodbye. Did I not matter enough to stick around?
He came home twice after that. Once with a wife and a baby. I tried to stay connected with phone calls here and there, but he’d never managed to stay sober. Every phone call broke my heart. Either because he sounded well and I missed the way things used to be or because he was drunk and it hurt too much to know that there was nothing I could do.
At age 22, I made the decision to walk away. He called me drunk while I was at work. The mere sight of my phone ringing seeing his name brought me to tears and took the breath out of my lungs wondering which version of his was on the other line. One word out of his mouth and I knew he’d be drinking. And, when they’re drinking, there’s no point it trying to communicate. It’s like you’re just a punching bag for them to throw things at and hope it makes them feel better.
He was slurring insults at me about how horrible I was and the family was for not being there for his daughter. His wife was on the phone too- and I’m speculating because I don’t know her well, but I’ve come to be a pretty good judge, that she was drunk too. I asked them where Grace (their daughter) was and got no coherent response.
As I pretended nothing was wrong to those around me- I’d become an expert at this act-, with tears stinging my eyes and heart racing, I quietly told them I had to go. My phone rang repeatedly until I finally answered again with the parting words “I can’t do this anymore”. And I didn’t.
It’s been 8 years. What hurts the most is the empathy I have for his daughters (I learned of a second daughter years later, but that is going to have to be a story for another day) because of the life and family they could have had and deserve. For the suffering they have to endure knowing the person that should be there can’t be there the way they should. I can only hope that he wakes up one day and realizes the life he’s missing. And, that it’s never ever too late to change- your family will always be here when you are ready.
I miss him. I miss our family feeling whole. And, I wish more than anything in the world that I could be the person that could fix him, but I can’t. I’ve come to understand that the first step to saving myself was learning that the only person I have the power to save is me.