My father was an alcoholic, an addict, and had undiagnosed manic depression. He was violent and erratic, but he was also incredibly loving of me and my siblings, our mom and humanity in general. It was he who taught me to advocate for working people and those who did not have the advantages I have. Maybe it sounds strange, but he was lovable and I loved him so much.
When I was a little girl his behavior often did not make sense; as I grew it intensified. It was mortifying when he would torment me from the softball field sidelines, the other team asking, “Who is that man?” It was confusing when he told me I could come to him about anything. He was gregarious and charming, the life of the party, but also very manipulative and impulsive, gaslighting those of us who tried to hold him responsible.
Stoked by alcohol and hangovers, his anger was terrifying. Countering that, he eased his physical pain, from countless accidents, and his emotional pain, from his difficult life, with painkillers. He would swing between bizarre mania and exhausted depression, and then for some stretches he’d be “normal.”
Trying to understand the pain our father inflicted on us, I would try to look for someone to blame. But I would land on my dad’s hopeful, little, round face from his childhood photos. Was it his mother’s fault? My grandmother staggered between cruel and kind. Nope. In my mind’s eye, I would see her 6-year-old self coming home from school to find her parakeet in the snow, snuffed out by her drunken father, who was incensed by the bird’s chirping.
Their behavior only started to make sense with age and time. Genetics and environment had stirred together a compound of mood disorders and substance abuse, a shattering combination, spanning generations and an ocean. Looking back with an understanding of the physiology of mood disorders, I know my dad used alcohol and drugs to manage his swinging moods, anxiety and feelings. He used chemicals to try to address the chemical imbalances in his brain. In hindsight, my father’s — and ancestors’ — behavior was understandable, but it was never excusable. It endangered me and so many others and was partly responsible for the death of one of my brothers.
Imagining anyone who suffers with the illnesses of substance abuse or depression as children almost immediately evokes compassion. It is a helpful practice. However, compassion must be tempered with accountability, a crossroads some call “tough love.” Accountability can save lives; compassion without accountability cannot. But we as a society do not have the habits or safeguards in place to hold people accountable and compassionately and affordably give them the continued help they need. Our actions and tools are limited and insufficient.
After our mother died in July 2009, I gave my father an ultimatum: go to rehab or I would fight for custody of my little brothers. He went but checked himself out four days later, against medical advice. The rehab collected close to $20,000 and he left, mid-detox, shaking and sweating, to the nearest bar. He was terrified of getting sober. In October 2009, I won custody of my little brothers. In April 2012 we physically lost our dad. But really, he had been lost from the time he was a little boy.
Our story is tragic and unnecessary, enveloped by the deeply rooted system of shame and rugged individualism that says these issues are the sole responsibility of a flawed individual. Inadequate and stigmatized help came with extreme effort and cost. Fixing all of it will require a paradigm shift in our thoughts, words, actions and understanding.
Having compassion for someone suffering with mental health or addiction issues separates the person from his behavior. Accountability focuses on the behavior, not the person. As individuals we need to check our behaviors that enable the bad behaviors of individuals with mental and substance abuse illnesses. From a systems standpoint we need to enact and fund policies that hold people accountable.
Having compassion means committing to communitywide accountability. At the same time, we must hold people with substance abuse and mental health issues accountable for their actions and behavior. We can be soft on the people and hard on their actions. Most importantly, we must remember that accountability without compassion is cruel, but compassion without accountability isn’t compassion at all.