I received this letter from a father I met on a plane when I was visiting family. He asked me to share it if I thought it would help anyone. I changed the names and removed the date from the original letter.
Austin was as good a kid as you’re going to meet. He got good grades and was very involved in after school activities. He was a starting middle linebacker on the varsity his sophomore year and won “sixth man of the year” as a backup shooting guard on the basketball team.
He was a shyish kid with a disarming smile and flashes of quick wit. He didn’t have a lot of close friends so far as I could tell though it was clear he was well liked. He greeted adults sort of formally. He told me he thought it disrespectful to address an adult without Mr. or Mrs., sir or ma’am. I don’t know why I add that. It just seemed he had a good head on his shoulders.
He was just a normal 16 year old kid.
After basketball season in the spring of 2006. things began to change. He wouldn’t be home when he said he would be. At least once a week he wouldn’t come home at all. He seemed sort of sad and tired. I talked to him about it on more than one occasion but he assured me he was fine; said he was starting to stress about college applications. It seemed early for that to me.
He started seeing a young lady named Kate that summer and they were inseparable by fall. She was sort of a Goth looking girl but she was smart and polite. They drank a little bit at the house because I told them that if they were going to drink they ought to at least be responsible about it. Very occasionally Kate would say she felt tipsy and asked for a ride home. Again, I never thought twice about it.
Austins grades began slipping and I didn’t see Kate around as much anymore. He started to become withdrawn. I asked about Kate and he snapped back, “she left, like mom”! Austins mother had become addicted to pain medication after a back surgery and spiraled down so quickly that I was awarded full custody. He was 9 at the time and she passed away when he was 11. Liver failure.
I’m sure I wasn’t much help because I was devastated too. She was the love of my life from the time I met her in 7th grade. I didn’t know how to deal with the loss so I threw myself into my work which left Austin with his grandparents a lot of the time. He had never opened up about it so I saw this as an opportunity to have that discussion. He wasn’t having it.
I did a lot wrong as a father but not for lack of caring.
Austin started coming home buzzed or drunk almost every night. I honestly had no idea how to handle it. I hadn’t understood why his mother couldn’t stop and I found myself flailing again.
It’s hard to ask for help when you live in a town of fewer than 5000 people in northeast Michigan. Everyone knows everyone and I was afraid I would be considered at fault because of the situation with his mother.
Sheriff Vanderpelt drove Austin home at least 5 times before he finally arrested him for DWI. I went to pick him up but the Sheriff suggested I leave him there for the weekend. He thought Austin needed some help but didn’t have many suggestions. He had a cousin in Flint who quit by going to 12 step meetings, he told me. So I looked up 12 step meetings on the internet and found Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, but the closest meeting was 63 miles to the east in the basement of a middle school. It met every Wednesday and Friday night.
Austin lost his license because of the DWI and I couldn’t find a way to make that trek as I ran a one man landscaping and snowplowing company. If it snowed I had to plow.
I took him a couple of times when there was no snow in the forecast and he seemed to like it. He said he learned about his problem and that there were other people like him. People who would have cravings, plan to have a couple of drinks and then wake up with no memory of the previous night. They taught him it was a disease. I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible but I didn’t know anyone who got well from being a drunk so I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. I asked him, if this is a disease why don’t I know anyone else who has it? Because it’s anonymous so no one talks about it, he said. And what about mom? He went on, Maybe she had the disease too. She barely drank any alcohol, I told him. Maybe there are different kinds, he said. He seemed really upset and I was mad at myself for not supporting him. I wish I had apologized.
The snow started coming every day that January so I couldn’t take him anymore. He had a recording of one of the old guys who told his story at the meeting and he played it so much that he almost knew it by heart. He tried to get Kate to listen to it so she would understand, but she had a new boyfriend and wanted to be left alone. He was obsessed with that tape. I know he wanted to find more people like him but if I don’t plow snow, we don’t live inside. Michigan is no place to be homeless.
On Valentines Day we had a late season blizzard. I came home late that evening after plowing. I heard music coming from Austins room and felt a draft from the direction of his bedroom door. When I stepped into his room it was clear that something was very wrong. There was a nearly empty jug of red wine on the floor next to the stereo, the music was loud, and snow was blowing into his opened window. I’ll never be able to shake what I saw through his window. from the tree in which we built a treehouse and hung a tire swing- hung my son, frozen, snow on his face. I ran to the shed and got the hatchet, cut the rope and lay trying to warm him in the snow. Nothing has mattered to me since.
The only reason I tell my story is I failed because I didn’t understand. If hope you’ll share this with anyone it might help (please change the names because my town is very small). He just needed to know he wasn’t alone.
I have been attending online al-anon meetings regularly and attempting to put my life back together. I just had to get this out. I thought maybe this would help.
This letter was received by Thom Deem, Founder of Clean and Social, and Recovery Director at Pacific Crossroads Church in Los Angeles.