Albuquerque, 1986: Anicca
For the third installment of The Recovery Sessions, we’ve asked the children of those practicing a long-term or progressive recovery to share their experiences. We wanted to know, how has having a parent who has struggled with substance abuse addiction impacted you? And, more importantly, how has their recovery work impacted you? The first installment in this series is by Anicca, who shares her account of how her father’s recovery affected their relationship.
How do I say, or to whom do I say it, that I am missing Albuquerque in early spring? I find myself overcome with longing, or perhaps nostalgia? I’m told, in Portuguese, the language of the immigrant people where I now live, that there is a word, “saudade” which means this—a desire to go home accompanied by physical pain for what has been lost to time or place. Because Portuguese is not a language that lives inside me, I instead have only what longer stretches of language can describe. The feelings come into my body as small flashes of memory being ignited; small doors unexpectedly opened, revealing snapshots into rooms long abandoned.
More acutely, the feeling is this: it’s Albuquerque in 1986. 1986 was when my dad lived in an apartment off Vassar street where I would stay sometimes when I came to visit. He was cleaning carpets for a living or being an exterminator, maybe. He lived alone. That was the year he took me to a holiday parade and I rode on his shoulders and was later on the news. My dad likes to tell this story to me and still laughs about how surprised I was.
But mostly, like any person learning the ropes of parenting, he tried to give me a routine. He’d take me to a few places with regularity when I visited. Of course, as a child I was unaware of his efforts, or how hard he had to work to be a good dad for those weekends. I missed his grief at losing his dream of a family with my mother. I saw only a world centered on me in a way I didn’t get at home. First, we’d go to the zoo and visit the sea lions, the giraffes and the reptile barn. Then, the duck pond to throw 39-cents-a-loaf wonder bread from Dolly’s bakery on San Mateo to the hungry and greedy flocks at the university pond. We’d stop by a coffee shop called the Purple Hippo, near the university campus where I was allowed to order either a small cup of banana ice cream or a slice of cheesecake, a thing of pleasure and decadence. I went to my first movie in Albuquerque with my dad, E.T., and made it through the whole thing, beginning my life-long love of movies, something my dad and I still share. Sometimes he would take me to a pool, at the Highland High School to teach me to swim. We’d drive around in his white 1979 long bed Datsun pick-up, which later became mine when I turned 16. There was an “easy does it” sticker on the steel bumper and he let me put a few kid’s stickers on the navy blue dashboard that over time melted in the hot New Mexico sunshine and became indecipherable blurs, remaining there until the truck was retired finally around 1998.
1986 was when my dad was newly sober and though I didn’t understand it then, he was raw. He’d have bursts of frustration and anger that scared me and made me think he didn’t love me, that it was my fault. But he’d also take me to meetings where I remember all kind people, who would light up seeing a child, and sometimes give me candy. It was clear to me, even as a child, these people cared about him and were glad to see us.
These visits were special in part was because I lived with my mom. Raising me together was, I think, a big challenge for both of them and there were tactical errors on both sides. Nonetheless, every few months we would make the trip north for me to spend time with my dad. It might have been easier on him to just give me up and not ever see me, (my mom might have had moments when she preferred that) but he didn’t, and I’m glad. He has stayed sober now, over 30 years. He’s been married to my step-mom, all but a few years of that time and they have a family, a nice house, a full life with all its heartbreaks and joys, and now, grandchildren, who are makers of joy.
My father’s recovery has had an impact on me in a number of ways, and I resist thinking what my life, our lives would be like if he hadn’t found sobriety, early on, and stayed with it. My father’s sober stability provided a foundation for me, at first materially—because he worked and assisted my mother as my primary parent—but later, as I became an adult, his spiritual growth work informed my own. The divides that were created in my early childhood were deep ones. My mother separated from him because of his drinking, and I can see now that, in many ways those fractures weren’t remedied until my mother died and I came to know my father not just as a figurehead, a person from her stories, but instead as a human being with flaws, with struggles, with anger, with an ego, with heart. Sobriety doesn’t wash all of these things away as it turns out, but rather, provides a space for my dad to continually “polish the mirror” and in turn, provide a model for me to do so.
I spent years working my own 12-steps in Al-anon and it was often my father that I turned to, to understand some of the principles of recovery, principles of self-discovery and forgiveness. I have been attending AA meetings with my dad my whole life and when I’m in town, going to a meeting with him now, is one of the best things we share. The Purple Hippo may be gone, but we’re still here, working towards our better selves, one day at a time. My father has modeled for me, by taking me into those spaces, what a community of people seeking spiritual growth can look like. Those spaces are filled with hope, with persistence, with humor and I feel incredibly fortunate to bear witness that. I have learned, more than anything, that spiritual growth takes time, attention, and humility. My dad isn’t perfect, some of his character flaws will never be smoothed out, and he loves me anyway. I too will never be perfect; I am impatient, I am quick to judge, and I have to continually learn to take my time, to slow down at work, in my relationships, with my family. So, I call my dad when I need to be reminded that “90 percent of my problems can be solved with a cheeseburger and a nap,” or that “easy does it.” Self-care, self-love, these are the real keys for me, and are things I continue to work to cultivate in my own lived experience. I am grateful. Our lives have changed.
But still, there is that other me, and when I remember Albuquerque, I remember the time before. The time when it was still just me in my dad’s life and his sobriety was new and he struggled to learn how to live, “happy, joyous and free” one day at a time. I remember the light, or more accurately, I wake up in the middle of the night in the winter in New England and the image of it fills the screen of my eyes. Albuquerque light can be harsh, as if it is shearing away shadows, as if it lives against white stucco walls and peeling adobe, kicking up dust. In early spring, everything is dry, and the elm trees are still bare, cottonwoods are just thinking about how they’ll unfurl their leaves. The nights are chilly and the winds from the west are poised to unleash their reign of sand and discontent. The long boulevards of Central and Lomas stretch out in the cold early mornings from valley to mountain if you catch them just right, if it’s early enough, if you have an old, 1979 pickup truck in which you can glide across the small city undetected. There is a deep quiet to this, a place that exists in memory where the spring of 1986 is a silent movie, that unfolds slowly, that might be lost forever in time.
But, unlike that time, I no longer doubt my dad loves me, that it is my fault. In fact, we tell each other we love each other all of the time. It is another way that so many things have changed. I’m almost as old now as he was then, terrified he’d be a bad father or that he’d lose me to his drinking. A young man for all intents and purposes. He was probably lonely during that time—another thing my childhood didn’t allow me vision of. I was, then, only filled with wonder, at the 24-hour diner Frontier pancakes, at his love of black coffee, the smell of his aftershave and his rough hands, lifting me up to see this new life.