Collateral Damage

When I was about 8 years old my father lost his job.  Unfortunately, it was part of a string of job losses which lead a once promising engineer-turned-business man onto the path to un-employability.

My father, among other mental health challenges, is an alcoholic. Not in the conventional, obvious “rock bottom” sense, but in the secretly drinks-to-the-point-of-passing-out every night kind. I doubt many people would be able to draw this conclusion about him looking at our upper middle class family. We had a nice house, cars, 2.5 kids, and university educations. We paid our taxes, had nice gardens, nutritious packed school lunches and clean clothes. But – nonetheless, it was true – my father is an alcoholic and has been largely emotionally absent from my life most days and physically absent most evenings. I suspect his substance use was a large part of what lead him to lose jobs; like most alcoholics, he lacks the ability to be truly empathetic and engaged with people and is therefore a liability in a team environment.

At the time of that job loss, my brother was about one year old. My mother had worked a series of mid-range jobs but her career had been hampered by acting as the primary caregiver in our house. We lived in a small town, so many of the more lucrative job opportunities would have meant sacrificing time at home to commute to a larger city center.

Rather than look for another job, my father decided that he was above answering to other people and that working for himself would be a much better use of his time. He opened a small business selling high-end video editing equipment to Canadian animators and small production companies. When I was older, my mother told me in a moment of frustration that the business only ever brought in enough profit to maintain my fathers alcohol and cigarette addictions. After about 10 years of picking at his business, my father started calling himself “semi-retired” and totally excused himself from contributing financially to the family. I heard him justify his decision once by stating that he brought in more income while we were little kids, so it was my mothers’ turn to bear the burden of supporting a family.

The job loss when we were kids was the beginning of my mother’s role changing to include both primary caregiver and primary earner titles for our family. Over the course of the following years, my mother became more and more career focused to make up the financial deficit. She took jobs that required commuting and put in the hours to maintain our lifestyle. This eventually lead to promotions and more senior positions that required her to travel for long periods in order to continue to increase her rate of earning.

If you asked me about my point-of-view of this period of my life, my overall impression was that I was very lonely, sad, and angry kid. Without my mother home, my brother and I spent most of our time outside of school with babysitters. When we were picked up in the evening, my mother often worked through the night (and my father was in no condition to drive) so the opportunity for rides to activities and friends did not exist. I remember giving up horseback riding, afterschool sports, braces, and other activities and expenses in an effort to help balance the family’s finances. Outwardly I started to morph into a sullen and resentful pre-teen.

At that time, I could easily grasp that the family was in flux and difficulty, but I don’t have any recollection that anyone had the time or energy to explain it to me. I recall my attempts to talk about my feelings being met with exclamations that I was being selfish, sensitive, dramatic, or miserable. There were comparisons of my life to much more dramatic cases of child suffering – starving children of Africa, child survivors of rape or physical abuse. The message was an all-too-clear: “stop your complaining and get some perspective, life isn’t that bad”. I suspect that my feelings of unhappiness magnified what I now suspect were my fathers’ feelings of deep self-loathing and frustrated my mother who didn’t have time for anything which wasn’t directly related to the family’s survival.

Looking back on this period, I can see the hints of ideas forming in my child’s mind that would challenge me for the rest of my life. I didn’t have the context or experience to understand what was happening and, without the guidance of my parents, the only explanation my immature reasoning could accept was that the bad things happening around me must have to do with my worth. I’ve struggled for decades with feelings of inadequacy; of being somehow not worthy of love, of compassion, of effort. I’ve also been haunted by the idea that any suffering that I’m experiencing is somehow not valid since there are much bigger issues in the world. These lessons have lead me into more situations than I’d like to admit where I accepted poor treatment or sacrificed my needs for the benefits or convenience of others. They nag at my thoughts telling me that I shouldn’t act as my own advocate or fight for a better seat at the table.

In hindsight, I understand that my parents simply didn’t have the bandwidth to give me what I needed. They were in survival mode and my self worth was an unfortunate casualty.

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