Watching someone you love struggle with addiction and mental health is not easy. For so many of us, we are born into this world and, despite how much we try, there are things we cannot change. As I reflect on my relationship with my dad, there are so many things I have learned that I wish I knew when I was younger; so many moments I wish I could have understood like I do now.
I know my story is not unique. I know others out there are dealing with similar situations. My hope is that through my story, people who have been dealt similar cards can take some of my learnings and apply them to their own situations. Because, as much as it can feel like it, we are not alone. There are people who have walked similar paths, dealt with similar circumstances, there is support available for you. I just wish I would’ve known this earlier in my journey.
The first time I noticed my dad was different from most other dads was on my graduation from Junior High. I remember sitting by the stage waiting for him after the ceremony in my big black gown, believing with my entire heart that he would walk through those doors any second. My mom was so patient with me. I can only imagine a part of her was just as hopeful that he would show up as I was, but it never happened. My mom did everything she could to make that day special for me, though. She always did.
My dad struggled with addiction and mental health issues since before I can remember. I can’t say what caused what, but eventually he was homeless and living on the streets. My mom was very compassionate, very sensitive and aware. After the divorce, she went out of her way to make sure that my sister and I still knew who our father was and had opportunities to get to know him. He came in and out of our lives in tandem with the ups and downs of his health. We helped him as much as we knew how.
When I was 15, I got a job working in the games department at the Boardwalk. I was so excited to be making my own money, not to mention working at an amusement park at the age of 15 was a dream come true. The Boardwalk was a bit different back then compared to now: a lot of homeless people would spend time wandering through the games and rides, passing time. It was a fun place to be so I don’t blame them, but I never thought I would see someone I knew.
I can remember the first night I saw my dad from across the Boardwalk while I was working my game. I wasn’t necessarily surprised but I definitely didn’t expect to see him there. I began seeing him more and more on my shifts. He would come up to me and want to talk and hear about my life; I was always so embarrassed. Looking back on it, I wish I acted differently but I didn’t know back then what I know today.
Having a father who is homeless and struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues is like being on a never-ending rollercoaster. Some days it seemed like everything is good and he is back in our lives, while other times it felt as though I don’t have a dad at all. Finding ways to deal with the ups and downs of all this was hard, to say the least, but I have slowly found my peace with the help of my therapist and my family and friends.
My biggest piece of advice for anyone out there with a similar story is to only do what you can handle. It is so easy to want to do everything in your power to fix the people you love, but sometimes that person is not ready for fixing. I tried time and time again to help my dad and build him a foundation he can fall back on, but he hasn’t always wanted that.
On the other hand, always do what you believe is right. I have gone out of my way to help my dad more times than I can count. I have left letters on his front door, sent him money when he calls, and navigated housing searches time and time again. Although I have to draw a line to keep myself healthy and sane, I also have no regrets looking back on our relationship. When I felt I could, I made huge sacrifices for him and his well being because, at the end of the day, he is my dad and I love him. He is an intelligent, caring, and thoughtful person and he deserves love and support just like the rest of us do. So finding the balance between what you can handle and what you believe is right is the best journey to embark on if my story resonates with yours.
Lastly, go to therapy. Lean on your support system. Don’t try to navigate this on your own, it is too hard. My mom had my sister and I in therapy from a very young age and that helped me figure this all out. It is truly a process of trial and error.
As I reflect on my journey with my dad, I am filled with so much gratitude for everything he has taught me. Because of him, I am a kinder, more gracious man. I approach every situation I am in with patience and make an effort to bring positivity to every interaction I have. When it comes down to it, no person is perfect. We all have our hurt but that does not mean we are less worthy of love. We are all worthy.
This story was collected in January of 2021 by Andrea Feltz, Community Engagement Manager