My father was a writer, an alcoholic and a sociopath. I never wanted to be like him when I grew up.
So, of course, I became him.
I was raised by two tortured artists, but my mother was successful. She was an artist and we lived solely on her income.
When Reagan became president, we became expatriates. Two artists and a child on the run. We rented a flat above a Laundromat in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a small town that had become a refuge for artists, writers, students and drunks.
Day after day, I watched my parents guzzle the afternoons away at the American Legion with professors on sabbatical and fledgling creative’s, who my father impressed with his news of his impending syndication back in the states. Dad became known as the successful American writer working on his highly anticipated first novel.
It was all very bohemian.
Days turned into weeks turned into months of drunken philosophizing, dreaming and talking. Talking about writing, painting and creating. Toasting Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Kerouac. Not one word was written, not one paintbrush dampened.
Six months and one rejection letter later, we fled San Miguel, my father’s tail between his legs. He’d made a grave error – he bragged of syndication before actually being syndicated.
By the time we ended up living on the outskirts of a small fishing village called Ajijic, he was in full-flight from reality. His feet didn’t hit the floor without a beer in the morning and he didn’t get back into bed until long after he blacked out and did unthinkable things to my mother and me.
The clack of inked metal on paper sometimes made him euphoric, but by the end of the night he’d destroy all the day’s work in a drunken rage – either by tearing up the pages or rewriting them into indecipherable dribble.
And we all paid for his failures in blood. His brought peace, though. He’d throw up blood and then go to the hospital for a few days. I secretly longed for him to die.
But I still believed if he got syndicated, we’d all live happily ever after.
And I still believed if he stopped drinking, we’d all live happily ever after.
The last time he tried to kill my mother, we fled. We ran for our lives up slick cobblestone streets, threw our prepacked suitcases into the Volvo and headed north. After a brief and painful reconciliation, my mother and I ended up in Reno, Nevada – finally free from his insanity.
I wrote my first poem about my father after we left him. It was a love poem written by an 8-year-old little girl who loved and feared and missed her monster of a father. I excelled in English. I wrote poetry obsessively through high school, college and after college.
But I wasn’t a writer.
I fell in love with alcohol in the eighth grade. It washed away the pains of my childhood. It numbed the constant bullying. It drowned out the deafening noise in my head.
High school was all about drugs; it wasn’t until college that my drinking took off. I was an actress by then. We thespians played hard and drank harder. We were bohemian. We were bacchanalian.
After graduation, the schoolwork and rehearsals went away. My friends moved on to New York, Los Angeles, regional theatre, summer stock. I moved on to waiting tables at a brewery. I was meant for greatness. I bragged about my past glories. I was going to be the most famous actress the world had ever seen, if I could only get off the barstool.
But I wasn’t an alcoholic.
By the time I turned 23, I was so bloated my feet practically swished. I had chronic bronchitis and bladder infections. My kidneys were starting to act up.
And then it happened – I drank myself right into my father’s mind. Running away to a third world country made perfect sense. My impulses and rages scared those around me. I abused my boyfriends.
I feared his blood was pumping through my veins. I feared I was my father’s daughter. I feared I was becoming him.
And then a miracle happened – I admitted I was an alcoholic and got sober.
I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my acting dream. I still wrote poetry though, and my poems were getting good. I tried to get a few of them published and felt the same sting of rejection my father did, but I didn’t have to drink it away.
And it didn’t really matter. After all, I was an actress, not a writer.
But I came to hate acting the more I healed from drinking – so I quit. I focused on my recovery and kept writing poetry – just for fun.
Then I got the call that my father died. His heart and liver were failing from decades of drinking, but the lung cancer finally took him out. He and Hemingway were 62 when they died.
I happened to quit smoking 6 months before he passed, but it had a negative affect on me. My head became loud again and now I couldn’t drink it away. I was having anxiety attacks and deep depressions followed by periods of restlessness and uncontrollable hyperactivity.
But I wasn’t mentally ill.
A few months after I eulogized him in front of the 12 people we could scrape up for a funeral, I entered a one-act playwriting competition and penned a play in a manic haze.
I won the competition.
Playwriting took the place of poetry. I fell into it comfortably. I went back to school and went on an antidepressant for the anxiety attacks. I buzzed with productivity, directing, writing and producing plays. I excelled in school. I learned the craft of essay writing and the discipline it took to sit at the writing desk day in and day out until completion.
I was a writer.
Nine months after I earned my MA in Playwriting, I ended up on a 72-hour hold in a mental hospital.
I was also mentally ill.
Thankfully, I wasn’t a sociopath like my father, I was bipolar and I knew I’d get better. I’d always been a survivor, but I realized that life was about so much more than just surviving.
I was going to do what he could never do – I was going to heal.
A month out of the mental hospital, I landed my first paid writing gig as a screenwriter.
Screenwriting took the place of playwriting and I was a screenwriter for a few years, but it wasn’t for me. The close calls were painful; the producers infuriating; the lack of fruition frustrating.
I decided to take a break from writing and took a bookkeeping job. Ends up they needed a copywriter.
Copywriting then took the place of screenwriting and I realized that all roads led to writing. I wasn’t forcing myself into my father’s dream. This was something bigger than me.
But the journey doesn’t end there or here. I’ve become a mental health blogger and I love it. The satisfaction of helping others with my experience has turned what was once a liability into an asset. My dark past has become my greatest strength.
I get to do what my father never could – I get to be a writer because I’m sober and sane. I don’t write to spite my father, please him or be him. I write because I can’t not write.
I can learn from his painful life – that there’s a big difference between wanting to write, talking about writing and actually writing. Focusing on rejection and being tortured will get me nowhere. Plodding along and not taking the “no thank you” letters personally will eventually get me somewhere. And I only have control over the plodding, not the outcome.
I am my father’s daughter, but I am not my father.