Trigger Warning: drug abuse, mental health
How do you hold space for others, when you haven’t been able to create that space for yourself?
It was Friday night at 11:39 p.m. when my sister called me to ask if I had spoken to my dad recently. As taken aback as I was by this question, considering my sister has always had the closest relationship with my dad and talks to him every day, I responded, “No, why?”
She quickly replied and shared that my dad’s girlfriend had called her crying. My dad hadn’t been home in two days and she didn’t know where he was. My sister tried calling him multiple times but couldn’t get an answer, and he wasn’t responding to his girlfriend either. There was a pause on the phone. She then told me that she was concerned because our dad had been using cocaine—again. I instantly went to a place of panic and fear. A feeling I’ve grown all too familiar with since my childhood. I offered to call my dad even though I assumed he wouldn’t answer.
I called and there was no response, but to my surprise, he called me back about 10 minutes later. He was clearly high out of his mind. I could hear it in his voice. And as I listened to him try to force this normal conversation and pretend as if everything was okay, my skin crawled. I was instantly triggered and sent on a flashback to my childhood.
My dad has always gone through these cycles of using cocaine throughout my life: when my grandmother passed, when my mom passed, when he got divorced, whenever he was out of work, but my sister and I hadn’t seen him use cocaine to the point of not coming home since we were kids. When I was 10 years old, I moved in with my father after my mom passed away. At first, things were fine, but it quickly escalated to a point where my dad was getting high consistently and wouldn’t come home for days, leaving my sister and me at home alone. On some days when he would come home, he would be high as a kite. Yet, he would still look me in the eye and try to carry on a conversation as if I didn’t know. That side of my father felt so foreign, but yet so familiar to me. Foreign in the sense that, the father I know and love at his core, is so far from that part of him that is addicted. But familiar in the sense that, that was the part of him that I knew the most.
The pain it felt to look at him in the eye when he was coming down from the high of snorting cocaine was insurmountable. When he wasn’t high, he was drunk. And I couldn’t bear to spend another night in my room, quiet, as I listened to him throw up everything he had inside of him. So, I made the decision to move in with my grandma, a place where I felt safe. A place where I felt I could exist without silencing my feelings in an effort to not hurt his. Because it‘s amazing how you can have so many conversations and yet still feel unheard.
It has always been very clear to me that my dad feels bad about that part of himself. And I know some may say, he couldn’t have felt that bad because he didn’t quit using. But that’s the thing with addiction sometimes. You feel so bad and low that you don’t know where else to run or how to get out. You don’t know how else to escape your pain. And that has been the most difficult for me. To love someone so deeply and see so much good in them that you just want them to see it for themselves.
It has been difficult the past couple years as I’ve worked directly with individuals struggling with addiction and assisted them with healing and transformation that I haven’t been able to provide to my own father. But that’s the irony of it all. I work as a mental health therapist and have to come to grips with the reality that it is not my role to facilitate change in the lives of my family as if they were my clients.
As I reflected on my experience of flashbacks, crying spells, numbness, and repressed memories from my childhood, I was faced with the fact that there are many parts of my life that I have not yet processed. Parts of my story that are yet to be fully pried open with the intent of release. I struggle sometimes with the reality that I sit in a room and create space for others to tell their story, yet I haven’t fully told my own. It’s been heavy and confusing to be in such a battle with myself about beginning therapy again. To be scared of what might come up, what I might have to re-experience, and more importantly what it might take for me to heal once I release all that I have been holding. But I know that it’s worth it. Because I’ve seen the restoration that is possible when you get the help that you need.
To hold space for others, when I haven’t even created that space for myself has been a feat. A feat that I am not particularly proud of because it takes self-nurturing to be able to pour fully into somebody else’s cup. I have witnessed firsthand the courage it takes for my clients to sit in front of me and share their struggles and the power that can be held in a room when a person becomes a storyteller. And so, this is the start. The start of me not only holding stories but telling my own. In all its nuances, lows, and highs. A time for me to challenge myself to care for my own mental health in the way that I care for others.
This is a charge to anyone reading this who struggles with their mental health or knows they may simply need a release, but are scared to take the first step. I feel you. I see you. But let’s take it together. Because I promise that on the other side of our deepest vulnerabilities, is our biggest release.
Amina N. is a writer based in Houston, TX.