Separation Ritual

Appeared in Common Boundary, June/July 1998.

What I want is a funeral, a separation ritual, a communal acknowledgment of my mourning.  But my grief is stuck, bewitched, in my father’s paradox: the simultaneity of his presence and absence; the chronicity of his particular illness in a world where people change, join AA, make amends, and show remorse.

Wayne Scott Favicon black and whiteThere’s something about looking into the face of an alcoholic: the map of creases that testify to the soul’s tension; the redness and puffiness that expand the lines of worry, evidence of the flow of chemicals that soothe the body.  Under the fluorescent lights of the family therapist’s office, my father’s face looks different to me: older, robbed of arrogance, broken down, terribly alone in the world.  The symbolism of our family is reversed.  It is he, finally, who is the subject of clinical inquiry; the patient; the one who has “the problem.”

I have neither seen nor talked to him in three months, since my brother Michael’s wedding reception.  He had arrived and insisted on bringing his own alcoholic beverages, violating the hall’s policy.  To the embarrassment of his three sons and ex-wife, he argued with a security guard in front of a hundred guests.  This display of drunkenness humiliated us all.  If, as family therapists suggest, families are emotional mobiles, different objects connected by the same delicate balance of sticks and strings, the dip he took that day interrupted the serene orbiting of our relationships.  It jostled all of us.

My two brothers and I had never agreed on the impact of his drinking.  We accused each other of denial and exaggeration, of avoiding the problem and “hypersensitivity.”  As he grappled with the extent of my father’s drinking, Michael hid how much my father’s behavior bothered him.  Rick admitted the problem, but denied that he felt anger.  I alternated between exaggerated rage and guilt about my failings as a son.  Although I had cut off all contact by my early twenties, feeling our relationship was hopeless, as his namesake I could not forget him.  I was consumed by ambivalent guilt:  Had I done everything that I could?  My mother alone had the luxury of a formal divorce.

When I became a family therapist, I encountered prejudice from my colleagues about being cut off from my father.  One of the great theorists of the field, Murray Bowen, believed that cut-offs were extreme and psychologically unhealthy.  According to Bowen, they represented a false independence that precluded refashioning one’s identity, on one’s own terms, within the troublesome relationship.  After I began doing family of origin work with adult survivors of incest and their families, I towed the party line.  I encouraged unsettling disclosures in families more interested in armoring themselves with secrets.  Yet still I wondered about emotional cut-offs.  Did any of these theorists have an alcoholic parent, someone they almost never saw sober?  I remember asking a clinical supervisor, in a veiled way about myself, whether cut-offs were ever acceptable.  “Almost never,” she answered adamantly.  “Only if the parent is physically dangerous.  Severing ties like that disempowers the person who cuts off.”

Wayne Scott Favicon black and whiteThe family therapist is tough.  She has four large men crowded in her office, closer to each other than we have ever been, without our mother, wives or girlfriends to ease our connections.  We are sweating with anticipation, wondering, after months of preparation, what we are doing here.  My brother Rick is pretending to be calm.  Michael is glaring at me.  His eyes say:  It’s your fault I’m here.  We have been arguing lately whether therapy really helps anyone.  A ceiling fan whirls above our heads, chopping up light and shadows, scattering them on the four walls of the office.  Although rehabilitation is the overt intention of the session, I have no rosy fantasies.  I am wondering, as perhaps my brothers are, why exactly are we here, if not to change him?  What are we about to lose?

Unruffled, her legs crossed, the therapist sits across from him, confronting every rationalization he uses to cloak his drinking.  Her interrogations seem mundane, oddly out of sync with the import of this occasion.  “At what point in the morning do you have you first drink?” she asks him.  Lunchtime.  “How many DUI’s have you had?”  None.  Rick counters that, since we were children, he has kept a cooler full of beer in the back seat of his car.  My father nods helplessly.  After a lifetime of silences, lies and complicity—childhood survival strategies—I am astounded by the uncomplicated way we are speaking to him.

As the questions continue, my father becomes flustered.  He is sober and dressed up in a suit and his hands are shaking.  I try to remind myself: it really is a disease.  He agreed to come because his sons presented an ultimatum: we would not see him under any other conditions over the winter holiday.  Holidays are precious to him, times he needs to put on a show of family togetherness.  He gets something from having us nearby, but it has never been clear, through the haze of his alcoholism, what that something is.

The therapist turns to us and asks how his drinking has affected us.  This is the big moment.  Because I am traditionally the ring leader, the son perceived as the “trouble maker,” we had agreed beforehand for Michael to speak first.  With the therapist’s coaching, we are trying to “break old patterns.”  Michael sighs and speaks about recent events, our embarrassment at the wedding, and his voice breaks with emotion.  When it is my turn, I talk about the past, partly because, as the oldest son, I have the clearest memories of it.  Like the tallest tree in the backyard of our home, my roots go the deepest.

Wayne Scott Favicon black and whiteAll our lives, our father had been a “good drunk,” a man who became more affable under the influence.  Other friends who had alcoholic parents had been verbally assaulted or even beaten.  We were considered lucky because, inebriated, he was easy to ignore.  It was his sobriety—short-tempered, uneasy around people, withdrawn—that we hated.  Still I remember calling him from college and, finding him drunk, repeating information to him endlessly because he neither retained nor understood what I was saying.  He never remembered my subject major.  He was famous for forgetting birthdays and special occasions.

He was neither entirely absent from my life nor fully present.  He was, in the truest sense of the word, “vanishing:” in his own process of disappearing then reappearing, fading in and out of view; a mirage trembling on the sweating horizon.  And I, like a weary traveler, saw the mirage and, hungering, continued to be tricked, imagining what I wanted to see.  He shrouded himself in mystery, a mystery deepened by his alcoholism, then further complicated when he physically abandoned our family when I was fourteen.  My relationship to him pivoted on the notion that, somewhere, there was an answer waiting to be revealed.  He was abused as a child.  His own father abandoned him.  He was unloved.  The pat psychological formulas that, at least for me—a family therapist myself—assuaged and comforted, somehow filled the gaps.

Abandonment always hovered in the background.  As a young adult, cut off from my father, I still found myself reenacting the painful distancing of our relationship in friendships with other men.  The writer Edmund White once noted that “the unconscious …can’t distinguish between abandoning someone and being abandoned….  Even though I left you, it’s come to seem as though you left me.”  Every friendship with a man was riddled with the threat of this original abandonment: the emotional and spiritual departures of my father, the subtle ways he vanished, even though he was physically present.  I forgot to return calls to friends, neglected my brother’s birthdays, abruptly severed ties when I became disappointed, sabotaged friendships to men when they appeared to get too close.  I would wonder: Is my cutting-off my father keeping alive my own tendency to abandon?

I have an image of him, earlier in the weekend of my brother’s wedding at the rehearsal dinner.  He has retreated behind the bar where, like a bartender, he is mixing drinks for guests.  Even though my brothers and I are surrounded by relatives and friends, we are drawn to this place where he is alone.  It is our own loneliness we visit there, the force that unites us, father and sons.  We ask him questions:  How’s work?  How’s Grandmother?  Do you want to join us at the family’s table?  We hear his curt answers:  Good.  Fine.  No, I’m OK right here.  Afterwards, we sit in silence, keeping him company.

Wayne Scott Favicon black and whiteA family intervention is a standard therapeutic ritual when a relative has a drinking problem.  Everyone gets together and tells the alcoholic about the impact of his addiction, ending silences and complicities, then sometimes offering an ultimatum: Stop drinking or we’ll limit our contact with you.  After consulting my colleagues, I had found a reputable family therapist who specialized in addictions as a last-ditch effort to confront the problem.  The intervention had taken several months of planning: arguing with my brothers about an ultimatum we could tolerate, cajoling my father to attend, and, together with my brothers, presenting a unified front about his sons’ needs.

A week before the intervention, the therapist and I conferred to finalize the plans for our session.  She asked if his second wife, whom I barely knew, was coming.  While I had written her a letter and left a message on their answering machine, mysteriously she had not acknowledged my attempts.  I wondered if my father had blocked my efforts, or if his wife perceived me as some renegade meddler.  The family therapist was stern.  “I can almost guarantee,” she said, “the intervention will fail if his second wife does not show up.”  I wondered how to express what I was wanting from our meeting—which had nothing to do with rehabilitation.  She asked if I wanted to cancel the session.  Helplessly, I told her no.

Wayne Scott Favicon black and whiteAfter we tell him how his drinking has hurt us, we tell him that we, his three sons, cannot tolerate contact with him when he jeopardizes his life this way.  As the therapist discusses treatment options, my father looks ashamed.  His eyes look moist—the first real emotion I have seen in him.  Too quickly, he agrees to join the intensive outpatient addictions treatment program.  Yes, he will start the day after New Year’s.  Yes, he will come every night after work.  Yes, he wants to be a better father to his sons.  All of these statements are true; they are wishes he has.

The therapist adds, “Of course, it’s unlikely your sons will believe any of these assurances.  They’ve been disappointed too many times.  You’ll need to rebuild trust.”  Her familiarity with our situation reminds me how cliched we really are.

A week later, she calls me.  “He didn’t show up.  I don’t have enough of a relationship with him to intervene further.”  I think, neither do I.  Neither do any of us.

Long before we orchestrated our intervention, I realized that my father’s illness had too strong a hold on him, that he wasn’t going to follow through with any kind of treatment.  But I arranged it anyway.  I wanted to force the issue of his vanishing, to make him either clearly absent or clearly present.  I wanted his pain to go away, so that my own might follow.  I wanted to change our relationship, before it became the model for all my friendships.  It was I who wanted to stop abandoning the people closest to me.

Once I had a dream that I was mourning at the grave site of my friend Cal’s father, who died when Cal was twelve.  I was mourning as if he were my father.  The soil was fresh and brown, rich enough to grow flowers and grass.  The tombstone was crisp and new in the sunlight.  I was surrounded by mourners.

I awoke with a start, thinking, But my father’s not dead.

What I want is a funeral, a separation ritual, a communal acknowledgment of my mourning.  But my grief is stuck, bewitched, in my father’s paradox: the simultaneity of his presence and absence; the chronicity of his particular illness in a world where people change, join AA, make amends, and show remorse.

After a day to digest the therapist’s pronouncement, I summon my courage and call him.  “What happened?” I demand.  “What about your promise?”

He fumbles, offers some rationalizations.  It wasn’t the right time.  The cost was a concern.

I remind him about the ultimatum to sever regular contact.  I swallow and put my assumptions on the table.  “You’re saying the alcohol is more important than your relationship with me.”

There is a pause.  I know he is thinking about it.  Then he responds:  “Yes.  The alcohol is more important than you.”

Suddenly, after a lifetime of guessing, I have my answer.  Intuitively, I have always known, but now it is confirmed.

Wayne Scott Favicon black and whiteAfter our family intervention—which failed by all outward signs—I myself start to change.  In conducting workshops about men in therapy, an area of specialty, I notice that fewer male attendants react defensively to me, whereas before the intervention, I found myself in frequent conflict with workshop participants.  I become less angry when male clients show up late for sessions.

Eventually, I left my job counseling men affected by sexual violence, taking a break from the social work field altogether.  I enrolled in school to get a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  Freer from the ambivalent bond to my father, I could contemplate other unions.  After years of uncertainty and debate, my partner and I start planning a commitment ceremony.

My father and I are not, and will never be, cut off in the pathologized sense of the term.  My brothers have different degrees of relationship with him, reflective of their tolerance for his alcoholism.  Rick sees him occasionally, but always before lunch.  Michael takes more chances and has less planned visits.  Sometimes, my father is drunk; sometimes, he’s not.  As I’ve come to terms with my own way of handling him, my judgment of the ways they cope has subsided.  Actual contact, for me, is infrequent.  Although he lives close by, I send him letters a few times a year, allowing him to know me, hoping he might miss me.  We run into each other at family gatherings.  With each contact, I, like him, shiver in the simultaneity of presence and absence, fading then reappearing.  I waver in the lessons he has taught me, like a mirage that might someday become real.

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