Tag Archives: my dad

Drinking Lessons

I have a love hate relationship with alcohol that has been with me since I was five years old. My dad was a mean drunk. And I could’ve easily gone that direction in my life as well. I was a very angry young man in high school. And when I discovered drinking (underage, yes) I went after it with a passion. I liked how confident it made me feel. invincible. I was in love.

The summer after my high school graduation I was at a party that had kegs of beer. I remember it being a euphoric night. I was popular and well-liked in high school and the beer just made our joyous celebration that much more joyous. That was probably the last time I really enjoyed going beyond a light buzz. That night as I was drunk driving home I crashed my car trying to miss a deer stalled in the road. I’m very amazed that I’m sitting here, after the wreck that should’ve killed me. I suffered a minor concussion and a lost car and that was about it. But I woke up. I no longer thought alcohol was a great friend.

And it’s not that I didn’t drink after then, I drank a little bit and still enjoyed the feeling of being slightly buzzed. And I’m sure in college I also drank to excess and had a few wicked hangovers. But it was never the same after my wreck. I saw the physical danger of being drunk. It was about that time, during my second year in college that my dad got sick.

Now, the really amazing part of this new development was that my dad could no longer drink because of the meds he was put on. And as he sobered up from 20-30 years of constant drinking, he sort of became my dad for the first time. At 19 I was able to relate to him in a new way. And when he wasn’t drinking his old happy self came back. Sure, there was a ton of sadness, because he was dying of brain cancer, but we had time. I got my dad back, for about a year and a half before he died. And while it wasn’t the drinking that directly killed him, it was the drinking that had kept him hidden and distant from me for most of my formative childhood.

If I had some doubts about the coolness of alcohol up until that point, I got the message loud and clear. Drinking sort of fucked up your thinking. And continuous drinking changed the physical/chemical structure of the brain. It was a heavy price for ending the estrangement between my father and his kids, but it was the best (and worst) time I’d ever had with him. While he was dying. We reached for each other and sought time that we could be together for the first time in my life.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been drunk since my dad died. What’s the point? It’s an escape and I was too focused on capturing and recording my life (through writing and other creative projects) that I didn’t want to miss a minute of it being fogged up by drinking. That’s not to say I didn’t want to from time to time. But something held me back. Some internal governor was set and after two beers I was done. I still like the taste of some beers. But I usually have something I’m working on in my creative brain that I don’t want to lose to the buzz, so I just don’t drink that much. And as a preference I’d rather have sparkling water.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t continually been touched by alcohol. I just choose to stay conscious. I hope that I am facing my issues head on rather than trying to escape from them or block them out. I have issues. But I’d rather face them sober.

What’s your relationship to alcohol?

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image: beers, creative commons usage allowed

Here’s more about my journey with alcohol.

I’m Proud of You: The Dance of Fathers and Their Sons


I am fairly certain I never told my dad I was proud of him. There were lots of reasons for that. Last night when I was having a casual chat with my son about my new job, this conversation came out.

“this is a HUGE job… I know it doesn’t make sense to you at this moment, but this is the biggest job of my career so far”

“I’m so proud”

“you are?”

“XD” (this is the text icon for a smile so big your eyes are squinting shut)


It didn’t really strike me until this morning that my son had told me he was proud of me. I know there were a lot of factors in his declaration, but the moment really came home as I was thinking about my dad. And I’m pretty sure, due to the uncontrollable circumstances of his drinking that I never told my dad that I was proud of him. And maybe his dad had never said it to him or visa versa.

But last night my son gave me a gift. Without even thinking about it, at the speed of text, he said it. And backed it up with a super smily text icon. We moved on to discussions about what kind of computer I was going to get and how many monitors I would have on my desk, and other techie stuff. But the chord of joy was struck in me. My son is proud of me. And while my new job will lighten up the financial load a bit for all of us, his mom included, what I heard from my son was, “I am proud of you.”

What my dad didn’t ever understand is that if he would just sober up and take care of himself we would *all* be set.

In the last months of my father’s life we had some sober days to recover what we could of our relationship. He had left the home when I was six and turned into more of a bear and bastard as he married a new drinking partner. There was so much anger and sadness around my father that it was hard to maintain any relationship at all with him. But sons will be sons and I continued to try and have an impact on my dad’s life. I tried to show up at his house and dazzle him with my accomplishments. But nothing really worked.

I hoped when I won the district tennis championship in 7th grade that my dad would acknowledge me. Or when I got all a’s, or was accepted into the most prestigious prep school in the country… But he didn’t. In fact with the prep school announcement he actually raged at me in a drunken stupor late and night and kicked me. He seemed incoherent, but it was clear that he was unhappy about me escaping his circle of influence. But of course that was the goal of going thousands of miles away to school.

My escape didn’t last long. Over the first Spring break, when I didn’t come back to town, my father suffered his 3rd major heart attack. I was summoned to the dean’s office for a phone call. It was his new wife, slurring and crying telling me about him. He was okay. Still in intensive care, but he was going to make it. It was the worst phone call of my life. Ever.

My life spiraled into a series of bad decisions and depressions that lasted most of my young adult life. And during my sophomore year in college my dad died of cancer. More chaos. More sadness.

And even after all this, today, I am aware that I didn’t say how proud I was of my father, ever. I’d like to say it now. “My dad was an amazing doctor. His patients and staff loved him. And his success in medicine would be hard to replicate in any field. He took better care of his patients than he did his family, and certainly much better care than he took of himself. Dad, I am proud of you. You were amazing.”

My dad might have wanted to change, but he didn’t find the way to do it until the medical procedures prevented him from drinking at all.

As he was dying we had an opportunity to reconcile to some extent. He never really understood my English degree at the university. He was expecting a doctor or lawyer. Maybe both, he told me once, “A medical legal lawyer,” he said. “Then you would be set.”

What he didn’t ever understand is that if he would just sober up and take care of himself we would all be set. He didn’t take care of himself after the divorce and he slipped further away from being my dad. He made some offers over the course of my high school years. He would build a room for me over the garage. (But he didn’t, and it was an after thought on his brand new house. There was no room for me.)

And one day while I was in college, I brought him a particular short story to read. It had been published in the university literary magazine. He read it but I could tell it didn’t make sense to him. He smiled, sipped his Cutty Sark, and said it was “nice.”

I was never able to live up to my father’s dreams for me. He died before I even got a chance. And in the same sad way, I never got to tell him how amazing he was to me. Of course I’d be talking about my memories of him from 0 – 5 years old. Not a lot of time with my hero-dad.

Today I am not a hero to my son. I’m simply a dad who is present and caring. I am interested in every one of his activities as he grows and changes in the first weeks of 8th grade. And I can see what an amazing young man he is turning into. I wish my father had gotten the same opportunity to recognize and appreciate me. And perhaps I would’ve been able to appreciate him back.

We cried, laughed at “what might have been even” in the tragedy we all knew was right around the corner.

Instead he was cut loose from the family, as a result of his own decisions to maintain a drinking relationship rather than a human one. And as he descended further into hell, we all went with him, even as we were trying to escape the loss and vacuum his absence created. And when he died my two sisters and brother and I stood together and wept. He had become so fragile as he was dying. We could hardly remember the scathing rages that had terrorized our lives while he was living in the same house.

We are tied to our parents emotionally for our entire lives. The relationships we had or have with them form a lot of the information around how to be in a relationship at all. And as I forgave my father, after his death, I began to forgive myself for not being able to save him, or at least be awesome enough that he would quit drinking.

I know now that waiting for the other person to change is a dead-end street. My dad might have wanted to change, but he didn’t find the way to do it until the medical procedures prevented him from drinking at all. And then for a few short months of remission his children all rushed back to town and to his side to attempt our repairs with him. And we all did our best. We cried, laughed at “what might have been even” in the tragedy we all knew was right around the corner.

I’m excited to live through those times WITH my kids. And I will be 100% positive and 100% present for all of them, as long as I live.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Note: I have written the experience of losing my father, the death bed scenes, the aftermath of his death, my entire writing career. I will probably keep trying to capture the depth of the emotion of that loss for the rest of my writing life.

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image: father and son on enchanted rock, john mcelhenney, (cc) 2014

I Love You, Dad

Do you remember saying that to your father? I do.

me and my dad - i love you, dad

And tonight (by some trick of luck I have my kids a day early) my son said, as I turned out the light, “I love you, Dad.” I felt it. And for just a minute, I could imagine what I felt like when I was a kid and saying it to my dad.

There’s a big difference between my experience of my dad’s love and my son’s. My hope is that by being fully present and loving that he will grow to know he is loved deeply. I never quite got that from my dad. I never quite felt like he got me. And after my parent’s divorce when I was about 5, I never really had much time with my dad. Things were pretty serious from then on.

I make sure, on a regular basis, that my son and daughter KNOW that I get them. I dig into their games and play with them. I listen to their stories as if I was trying to discover something about them and they way they are making their strides though their young lives.

And I try and expose as much of my real life as possible as well. Last weekend, I performed with my band at a local club, and I made arrangements for them to come, even though it wasn’t my weekend. I want them to see me doing my passion AND working for a living. I want them to see me in the process of healing from this change in all our lives. I can demonstrate how I can remain loving towards their mother, even when things are different.

I let them know that I want her to be happy too. As happy as I am.

And they can see my happiness daily. Occasionally they even make remarks to let me know they see my joy. Of course, I am not shy about telling them. I am always celebrating little wins like tonight, where I greet the babysitter’s car by saying, “I get an extra night!”

As much as things have changed in their lives, my steadfast positivism has never changed. And sure, they have seen me in sad and quiet places before, they saw it even while I was still married to their mom, it’s part of MY path in life. But they can see my joy every time I engage with them. They may get tired of hearing me tell them how much I love them, or how happy I am that they are here with me, but I don’t think I can ever say it enough.

But tonight, something special happened, it came sailing back to me, out of the darkened room, unprompted. And it struck me like an arrow, a joyful arrow.

And in that split-second I was both a father and a son. And in that moment, I also felt the joy of my father’s love upon me. He might have left the planet 15 years ago, but his love is still within me. And each time I can really hear and connect with my own kids, my heart lights up with a little bit more healing of my 5-year-old self, my wounded little boy.

My son gave me a gift tonight in just offering up his affection. And in that moment I heard my dad saying the words to me, “I love you, Dad.”

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Note: The image is of me and my oh-so-serious dad.


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