I catch myself living my life in a constant state of “before.” Before my parents’ divorce, before covid took over the planet, before my dad died. Before I started my podcast, before I left my full-time job, before I learned about harm reduction. Before I committed to therapy and realized how much physical and emotional trauma I have actually survived.
I live in this state because that is what I think about most- what was it like before all of these things happened? I have a terrible memory as the result of trauma, and I often find that I really have to sit quietly and commit to putting myself back in a time and place to recall the sensations of a situation. As I have aged and developed further away from certain moments, I realize how important they truly were. Time gives us the perspective we are not prepared for in the present, I suppose.
I think of how, when I was a child, my parents would yell at each other for hours, back and forth, while I played with my American Girl dolls and listened to The Backstreet Boys, trying to block it out. My mom, neurotic and insecure, and my dad, boisterous and belligerent after too much scotch. When they finally made peace, we would go on some fun family adventure, exploring further upstate or trying a new restaurant. Maybe our favorite amusement park, Playland. For every sepia-toned memory tinged with tension and sadness, there’s a brighter snapshot of three of us, having Sunday dinner on the deck, listening to the evening sounds of summer and relishing our family time. For every respective personality flaw I have come to recognize in them, I think of the lessons they taught me and the creativity they fostered. I am trapped between love and hate, anxiety and comfort. Loyalty and despair. They finally divorced in 2009, when I was 23 and getting married myself. Now, when I stand on that deck, with its faded wood and long-abandoned grill, I am haunted by the remnants of a life that seems so far away. Before, when my mom would be constructing a new creative project out there, while my dad planted butterfly bushes in the dirt, and I ran around with our two dogs, innocent and free. Only a slight gnawing deep down inside that we were all on the cusp.
The onset of the pandemic has the been the scariest period in global history for most of us (perhaps excluding existing survivors of WWII, the Holocaust, and similar devastation). I don’t think there is anyone out there who doesn’t consider what life was like before all of this uncertainty. And I cannot fathom what it will be like to finally move around completely unmasked in the world again, if that ever comes to fruition. The moment that sticks to me the most is Thanksgiving 2020. When I confirmed to my brokenhearted dad that, indeed, we didn’t feel it was safe to gather. There would be no family dinner this year, and for the first time in my life I would not see my parents over a table full of turkey, lasagna, and stuffing. My dad wouldn’t be here to tease my husband for always forgetting to make gravy. That was a pivotal phone call, and the palpable disappointment in his voice should have made me change my mind. I know that it’s likely we all did the right thing for health and safety’s sake. But now, thinking of that day and how my parents spent it alone, in their separate homes, automatically brings tears to my eyes. It would be the last Thanksgiving of my father’s life- he would be gone in less than a month. Before, we would argue over the wishbone and he would “wrestle” me over the bigger half every year. Before, I would wake up at 5 a.m. to help him peel chestnuts for stuffing. Before, he would chuckle to find me re-watching every Thanksgiving episode of “Friends” after the parade. Before, we would laugh to the point of crying over a high-stakes family game of Jenga. 2019 was our last holiday all together, and perhaps the best one yet.
Before my dad died, I was one half of an unstoppable father-daughter duo. I had a true best friend, and felt completely understood. Before he died, I was frustrated and angry that this magical person suffered from an addiction that threatened to rob me of the joy that was being in his presence. Before, I did not understand addiction or how to support him properly. I was selfish. I did not realize how much he truly loved and supported me, and how much he needed me to do the same. I took, as a child tends to do, when I needed to give a little more. When my father was alive and healthier, I laughed with my whole heart. My stories and secrets had a home outside of my head, and there was always an adventure to be had any given Saturday afternoon. The woods glistened with mystery and as we walked, I relished every anecdote recounted. I went about my everyday life with confidence that I had an ally no matter what. The world couldn’t touch me.
In the 15 months since losing him, I am constantly conflicted. I have learned so much about addiction, harm reduction, support, and recovery. There is a wealth of information that I could have applied to our dynamic, and perhaps it could have made a significant difference. Perhaps the outcome would have remained. So while I am grateful for this knowledge, and my platform, and hopefully the impact these things have, it makes my heart ache some days. Before, I may have collapsed. I may have let the sadness drown me (there were plenty of days this almost happened), and I may have remained paralyzed with grief. I may have succumbed to the bottle myself. Then I think of all the days before, when my parents did their best to love me and prepare me for the ever-changing and often unkind world. I think of all the moments of beauty we had together, and the sparkle in my dad’s eye when he was proud of me for something. I think of all the things a younger me wanted to accomplish, and I fight. I pick myself up and I vow to learn more and remain and advocate for anyone in pain. I can’t save him, and I cannot physically return to any moment “before.” These periods, tucked safely in the recesses of my psyche, peek out when I stop long enough to consider them. They are crucial to my evolution, however painful sometimes.
I think the best any of us can do is create our “after” filled with promise and possibility.
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