As a very small boy, I adored and idolized my father. He was stronger than Superman and just the best dad ever. I felt protected and safe with him. And all I ever wanted, as that small boy, was to grow up to be just like him.
Through the eyes of a child, the world appears as you would have it be, for a while.
When I was five years old my mom died and it wasn’t long until the sense of safety that my dad had provided turned to terror in his presence. He became a monster in my life. As I grew older my fear turned to a bitter resentment that soon became an even deeper hatred. I dealt with my
dis-ease in life with every form of self-destruction I could find. I acted out in a wide variety of ways; drugs, alcohol, theft, demoralizing deceit, repeated incarcerations and constant thoughts of suicide.
Eventually, I left my childhood home of Kentucky and opted for a life in Florida. After five years there, and now homeless, I found my way to the Twelve Steps. I fell in love with the whole concept of people helping people. For the first time in forever I felt a sense of hope and I wanted everything they had to offer.
I was told that if I pursued the spirituality of the program first, the rest of my recovery would just naturally follow. Some of the older gentleman, after knowing me for a bit, told me I was going to have to learn how to forgive my dad. I listened; a miracle in itself.
Three years into my recovery, I was starved for a deeper understanding and stronger connection with the God of my understanding. It was then that I found A Course in Miracles and my understanding of an unconditionally loving God and how to actually forgive my dad was starting to unfold for me.
I had felt safe with my life in Sarasota. I didn’t have to see my past. It was as if it didn’t even really exist, but I knew it did and I knew that I needed to face it on its own home turf. It was time to stand in the presence of my fear and give my recovery a chance to really work. I desperately needed to know that my healing process was real and that I was not conning myself, one more time.
At this point I was doing pretty well. I was clean and sober, had an apartment on the beach, a great job, was driving a new truck and living the bachelor’s dream. I felt like I had the world by the tail.
But it was time to get serious about my third step if I truly wanted a deeper connection with my Higher Power. I began to read the book, “The Junkie Priest”. The title does not depict what one would think the story is about, at least it didn’t for me. It’s about a priest who totally devoted his life to helping the women in the streets of New York City find the help they needed. He worked endless hours, with no regard whatsoever to what he may get in return.
I read that book as I watched the sunset every day for two weeks, crying most of the time I was reading. I was so inspired by this man’s life and his ability to give. I wanted desperately to give as he gave. Every time I read, it was followed with my third step prayer: “Father please take my will and my life and do with it what You would, that I may learn what You would have me learn, do what You would have me do and become what You would have me be.”
After two weeks of reading, crying and praying, my life went to hell in a hand basket. I lost the job, the truck that went with it, and the condo all in a week’s time. Had it not been for my friends in the Twelve Steps I would have been homeless again. Yet somehow, I knew the prayer was actually being answered and if I was indeed going to live His will, there were things I had to learn and do.
I found a new place to live, got a motorcycle (with the help of a friend), and a job. I had the motorcycle a week before I totaled it, lost the job as a result of not being able to get there and the place to live due to the inability to pay the weekly rent.
An inner gnawing began to pull at me, and intuitively I knew if I was ever going to know my recovery and my commitment to God were real, I had to go back to Kentucky and face the havoc I had wreaked in my drug and alcohol use. But more importantly, I was going to have to face the hatred and resentment that weighed so heavily on me with my dad.
For three years I had done everything my Twelve Step sponsor had suggested. He did not think it was a good idea for me to go back to Kentucky. He said, “Johnnie, you are setting yourself up to use again.” But this had to be my decision, I had to follow my gut.
So off to Kentucky I went, and all my past was there waiting for me. Legal fines had to be paid, people I had deceived and robbed had to be dealt with in a responsible way. In short, there were a ton of amends that had to be made.
At first, I lived with my sister, but eventually it all led me back to staying with my dad, in his trailer, where all the abuse had happened. It was an emotional roller-coaster for me. Everything provoked a memory and none of them were good. I felt like I had regressed to being that terrified little boy again.
I got a job, where I spent as much time as I possibly could, and I went to as many Twelve Step meetings as I could. I even started facilitating A Course in Miracles classes. Anything to avoid being in the presence of his anger, and his drunkenness.
But I knew that I had made a commitment to resolving my past and all the anger and hurt and fear I was carrying around with me. I started really paying attention to my reactions to him. I found myself almost sitting on the edge of my seat awaiting any sign of his approval, which amazed me that I even cared, given all the abuses my sisters and I had endured. I noticed it really ate at me that he had never told me he loved me, unless he was drunk, and he had never told me he was proud of me. He definitely never acknowledged the way he had treated us.
Occasionally, though, when he wasn’t drinking, I actually liked being with him. Sometimes we even laughed together. Just two grown men enjoying each other’s company. But those times were rare.
One night a series of events happened and I snapped on him. At this time he was fifty-eight. He had threatened to whip my a__ and I broke. I lunged at him screaming, “Go ahead, give me permission to break your f-in neck”. I scared him! He walked away and said, “I can’t do that now, I am too old.” I called him out on all that he had done to us kids when we were younger, all the pain he caused us and how absolutely terrified of him I had been. I told him how I still carried all that hurt and fear and anger and how hard it was to try to heal from it.
He just stood there and listened, without saying a word, while I unloaded what I had never said to him before. And then one lone tear started to roll down his cheek. I had in that moment penetrated his denial and left him wide open to look at the truth.
From that day forward my dad treated me with the utmost respect. There was yet another gift coming for me. One night he had gone to bed early and I was up late studying for my Course in Miracles class, which was such an appropriate time for the gift he was about to give. Out of nowhere he shouted from his bedroom, “Boy, what the hell are you doing in there?” I said, “I am studying for my class.” Followed only by silence. Then a couple of minutes later there he stood before me, sober, with a serious look in his eyes as he said, “Son, I do not think I have ever taken the time to tell you how proud I am of you and I don’t think I have ever told you that I love you, without being drunk.” Then the tears came, both of us, this spontaneous and real interaction between he and I. He turned to walk away and as he got to the hallway, he turned again and said, “Johnnie, I truly apologize for not being the father that you deserved.”
For that brief moment, everything he ever did was okay. I let it all go. I saw him as just a man. Still, there were many other thought processes that had to happen from me to truly forgive him. But that was the moment it all began.
After that night, my father and I became friends! I found myself understanding that he too had lived a life tormented by fear. He too was a frightened boy, afraid that he wasn’t going to be loved, and I made the decision to love him.
When my dad was drawing his last breath, I was sitting at the foot of his bed reading to him. He and I were okay with each other and we both knew it. Prior to forgiving him I had, without realizing it, thought of forgiveness as acquiring the ability to tolerate somebody. Today, I believe it goes much deeper than that and it is actually acquiring the ability to appreciate someone.
Today I realize, that one decision to go back to Kentucky was the single most life-changing decision I have ever made. Forgiving my father gave me a freedom that I had never dreamed was possible.