The Lesson My Dad Taught Me, Even While Not Being in My Life

My daughters have a dad, and I... sort of do not.

Earlier this week my oldest daughter returned home from a school trip flushed with excitement. She recounted her day, and how exciting it was that her dad was able to go on the trip with her.

“There were lots of dads there today! Dads are the best!” My daughter’s enthusiasm should have been infectious.

Instead, I could feel a lump in my throat and my cheeks redden, but I forced out a smile and a reply.

“Yes, they are.”

My first-grader’s excitement brought me back to my own childhood, and the longing that I will always have for a dad. I remember clearly, that desire to have a dad on my class trip or school performances, a dad who could attend father-daughter events with me. A dad who could sit at the kitchen table and hear about my day.

My own children know very little about their grandfather, who is still alive, but has always been absent from my life. By the time I was born, I had already lost my father to addiction, and although I have hoped and prayed that he would return to me, it’s been thirty years and he still hasn’t. I continue to cling to a small kernel of hope that my dad will one day overcome his addictions, but I remain permanently wounded by his absence from my life because of drugs and alcohol.

Despite my father’s lack of involvement in my life, he’s still been a very important part of me. I think about him often, and I do love him, even if I remain hurt and angry. He hasn’t been able to raise me, nurture me, or love me, but he has given me one gift: the startling realization that addiction destroys families.

It’s because of my early childhood encounters with addiction that I remained steadfast in my refusal to participate in recreational drugs or drinking. I knew from an early age that genetics and family history contribute to addiction, and this knowledge kept me from experimenting. I was motivated mostly by fear, afraid to ever become the type of person who would choose a bottle over a baby. But I also was determined to become an emotionally healthy adult, someone who was able to deal with life’s difficulties without turning to anything habit-forming.

Now that I am a mother to three children, my determination to keep habit-forming substances out of my life is stronger than ever. I’m not a teenager anymore, I don’t have to constantly say no to drugs, or feel left out when I choose not to binge drink. But, I am an adult with grown-up worries and stress. Recently my stress has been elevated, and I have been intentional about not touching alcohol, even though I normally enjoy a beer or two every month.

My responsibility to pass on my knowledge about genetics and addiction extends beyond me. Now I have three daughters who have a predisposition to mental health issues and addiction, and I plan on educating them and encouraging them to be wise about their interaction with drugs and alcohol.

Now that cannabis use is legal, I know that my conversations will likely have to shift. I grew up believing that cannabis was wrong and incredibly harmful, and my mindset has certainly changed. I am not opposed to the legalization of cannabis, but I do plan on encouraging my children to self-monitor and develop healthy coping in stressful times.

As my kids grow, I plan on explaining to them the role addiction has played in our family. I want them to know that I lost my dad to addiction, not because I want them to fear drugs or alcohol, but because I want them to understand that drugs and alcohol aren’t harmless substances. As I walk with them into the preteen and teen years, I hope to encourage them to reach out for support in stressful times, and encourage them to develop healthy coping tools.

As for my own father, I know that it’s not impossible to recover from addiction. I’ve seen many hope-filled and joyous recoveries. I still refuse to lose hope that one day I might have a relationship with my dad, and I plan to share that hope with my kids too.


Brianna Bell is a writer and journalist based out of Guelph, Ontario. She has written for many online and print publications, including Scary Mommy, The Penny Hoarder, and The Globe & Mail. 

Brianna's budget-savvy ways has attracted media attention, and led to newspaper coverage in The Globe & Mail and The Guelph Mercury. In April 2016 Brianna will be featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less, alongside co-writer Brooke Burke. You can find Brianna's website at Brianna Bell Writes.