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Recovery and Reconciliation

After the childhood he had, he vowed never to talk to his father again. And he almost didn’t.

By Grant Phillips, Plymouth, Minnesota

As appeared in

Father’s day cards from Grant–zero. Birthday cards from Grant–zero. The silence is deafening.” I didn’t even have to look at the postcard from my dad to tell my therapist what it said. The words were seared in my memory. Dad was always finding fault. Keeping score.

There was no change in my therapist’s calm expression. “If you could say anything to your father, what would it be?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Whatever I said would only be found lacking.

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“The key to sobriety is honesty,” he said. “Not just about your drinking. About your relationships.”

I sighed. My recovery sponsor had been telling me the same thing lately.

My therapist asked again. “If you were going to die tonight, Grant, what would you say to your dad?”

My father was a Navy fighter pilot. Pilots are notorious control freaks. Throw in a hefty dose of military discipline, and that made the man impossi ble to live with. Thank God he was often away on deployment when I was a kid.

Otherwise in our house, it was all “Yes sir” and “No sir.” He laid down strict rules and didn’t hesitate to enforce them. My sister coped, but I chafed at all the restrictions. A minor infraction like snacking between meals would get me sent to my room for the night.

The punishment increased exponentially for more serious offenses. As a teenager, I was grounded for months on end.

Much as I hated his rules, I hated his cold, distant demeanor more. Dad had exacting standards, and he was quick to point out how we didn’t meet them.

He was the hardest on Mom. He complained about her permissiveness, her spending, her housekeeping, even the kooky Lucille Ball sense of humor that made her so much fun to be around.

She had to be hospitalized for her nerves a number of times, and I was sure it was all Dad’s fault. As soon as I finished high school, I left home and didn’t look back.

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Mom’s funeral was the last time I saw Dad. He knew nothing about me, and that’s the way I wanted it. He’d phone from San Diego once a month with military precision, always at 5:00 p.m. (1700 hours, he’d say) on a Sunday. It was the same stilted small talk every time–the weather, sports, the news.

I knew he only called me out of duty, not out of any real feeling. Certainly not out of love. That, I had always tried to convince myself, was not part of our equation.

I built a good life in Arlington, Virginia. I had a solid job, a beautiful family, a nice house. But inside I was miserable, and I didn’t know why.

I turned to the bottle to mask the pain. My drinking got out of control. I wrecked five cars. I flew into fits of rage. When I saw my kids pull away from me, fear in their eyes–the way I used to react to my dad–I knew I had to get help.

I joined a recovery program, faithfully went to meetings. Each day it became easier for me to say, “My name is Grant. I’m an alcoholic.” With my sponsor’s guidance, I worked the 12 steps.

I’d come a long way over the years. But lately I’d gotten stuck, on the eighth step: becoming willing to make amends to everyone I’d harmed with my drinking. I’d made a list and divided it into three categories: “Immediately,” “When the opportunity arises” and “When hell freezes over.”

Dad was the lone entry in the last category. My sponsor and my friends in recovery said that wasn’t how the program worked. I ignored them. They didn’t know my father!