Don’t do as I drink (and other lessons my father unintentionally taught me)

Yep, that's me, learning about the dangers of smoking .
Yep, that’s me, learning about the dangers of smoking .

I come from a long line of alcoholics. Truth be told, the roots of my family tree are probably located in a beer garden.

For this reason, I was determined to break the cycle and be the first member of my family to remember most of his 20s and 30s, not develop a beer gut and actually know who all of my kids are.

I was genuinely frightened of carrying a gene I assumed had its own alcohol content — which is why I didn’t crack open my first beer until I was 20; in a moment of weakness; working under the blistering Texas sun; because there was no water or soda; and I had just read about spontaneous human combustion.

The second drink of my life came a year later when I was given a shot of peach Schnapps on my 21st birthday. It was quick, painless and not noticeable on my breath when I left for my second job. It was also the last drink I had until I was 30, when a friend started making strawberry lemonade spiked with Absolute. It was the third drink of my life, and the first time I had more than one in single night. I went from sitting to crawling, and eventually lying on my back laughing before falling asleep. Looking at the big picture of my life, I can only hope that’s the way things eventually play out for me: Sit, crawl, lie on my back laughing, then just fall asleep.

It wasn’t until my 30s that I began to understand how, in spite of my efforts to the contrary, alcohol had still become a factor in defining me — through my nearly obsessive efforts to avoid it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I feel like I missed out on something by not becoming an alcoholic. But I’m well aware there is an entire right-of-passage experience I was not a part of and can’t really relate to because of the fear I had of opening Pandora’s six pack. The drunken parties, crazy nights waking up with someone else’s pants on, singles bars and dance clubs, as well as the bonds created through those experiences — I have no frame of reference. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t seen The Hangover and American Pie, but I’m still left with a certain level of naiveté when it comes to conversations of “the old days” among friends, not to mention what to anticipate from my teenaged kids.

God help me.

Or them; I’m not really sure which.

What I do know is that I can hear the “phssst” of a bottled beverage from 50 yards away. So kids: good luck sneaking a Dos Equies out of the fridge. That’s right. I eventually overcame my fear of drinking, right about the time my oldest daughter became a teenager. By then, I had been divorced and a single father for two years; if I hadn’t become an alcoholic by then, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to. I also recognized that other fears I had carried with me — based on the mistakes of my father — weren’t coming to pass. I don’t smoke or do drugs; I’ve never been to jail; and I’ve never struck my wife or children. It’s with no small sense of irony that, after 47 years, I am becoming the person I hoped to be by following my father’s example… to the contrary.

I honestly can’t say whether my father did things with absolute purpose or recklessness. I can tell you he was a heavy smoker, yet I credit him for being the reason I never picked up the habit. Not because he preached against it, but because he started telling me light his cigarettes for him when I was 11. Admittedly, I thought that was pretty cool at first. And by “at first” I mean the first time I lit one up, inhaled, and then threw up what seemed like everything I’d eaten since graduating to solid foods. He had me light him a few more that day, just for good measure.

I wouldn’t even touch candy cigarettes after that. The illusion of coolness associated with smoking had effectively been snuffed.

Was that his intent… with everything?

I’ll never know for sure; he passed away long before I had the courage to pose the question.

While I spent a long time resenting him, I’ve begun to realize — like my fearful and obsessive avoidance of alcohol — the end result is a two-dimensional life that only offers a reflection of what you don’t want to be. To live three-dimensionally, you have to be more than a reflection: you have to cast your own image.

My dad taught me that.

Whether he wanted to or not.




(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

52 thoughts on “Don’t do as I drink (and other lessons my father unintentionally taught me)”

  1. Thank you Ned for sharing this post (and then resurrecting it for those of us who didn’t catch it the first time). I can see how it certainly is outside the comfort zone. It sets a high bar for the rest of us.

    1. I really appreciate that, Paul. Even posting it here was a little out of my comfort zone — which is good for us sometimes. But did you have to use the word “bar?”

      Just kidding 😉

  2. There’s an old saying that goes, :Every generation turns it’s back on it’s Fathers and shakes hands with it’s Grandfathers” My Father grew up on the back of my alcoholic Grandfather’s hand. I grew up on the back of my teetotal Father’s hand. I broke the cycle of abuse. I drink a lot. I like me. My teenagers like me. Go figure.

    1. I also like you, REDdog, and I think I’m a good judge of character. I’m also guessing your teenagers like you for the same reasons I do: Your real, honest and real honest.

      By the way, I think that old saying has a lot of truth in it.

  3. I never did understand all that carousing and drinking and throwing up. I had a warm rum and coke at a wedding when I was about 20 and that cured me. You didn’t miss anything. I do like my wine nowadays.

  4. Both of my parents were alcoholics and they come from long lines of alcoholics. We lost my mom two days ago and today is the 8th anniversary of my dad’s passing. Good for you for breaking the cycle. My brother and I are ever vigilant about breaking our family cycle as well.

    1. I’m so very sorry to hear about your Mom, Susan. I lost my father almost 10 years ago and I still miss him every day. I’m glad you and your brother have each other, as well as a shared vigilance against alcoholism, particularly at times like these. Like you, it’s always in the back of my mind but I have worked hard to strike a balance. I drink, but never to excess. I’m proud of you for your vigilance, and I’m sure your mom was too.

      Thinking of you with my best wishes and sincerest condolences xo

  5. I first read this post when it was on “Black Box Warnings” – too bad we lost that site. I thought at the time that when we can go from resentfulness to just “seeing” our parents for what they are, that we’ve actually gained a little wisdom. Like yourself, I spent a lot of time being two-dimensional (great metaphor, btw) and wasted a lot of time there, too. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Lynette. It wasn’t easy to write but worth the effort. And I still think you’re right about really seeing or parents for who they are. We grow up thinking of them as something bigger than they are. In some ways it’s unfair to them; in other ways, we’re being unfair to ourselves. In the end, I think we learn more from their mistakes, and the valuable lesson it demonstrates about being human.

      Thanks for reading again, Lynette 😉

  6. Ned, I think you know that I, too, struggle with my past, my upbringing. And this post makes me realize–or be reminded–that humor is in many ways a defense mechanism. It becomes our shield. I love being funny–I love being around funny people. And now I understand a little bit better why you are so funny–perhaps your dad taught you how to be that, too. Thanks for sharing this side of yourself.

    1. I do know of your struggles, which makes your comment all the more appreciated. And you’re right, my dad was a funny guy. So were my brothers and so is my Mom. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people with great humor. Without question, laughter was sometimes a defense mechanism. It took me a long time to recognize the difference between joking and coping.

      By the way, it was a real privilege being able to share this. Thanks for that.

  7. I read this post earlier this morning and it made me even more appreciative of your talent and the person you are. What a fantastic perspective you have of your father’s drinking and the steps to you took not only to avoid what could have been, but also of recognizing (and being grateful for) the many lessons even if he didn’t.
    You have a rare gift of resilience, gratitude and self-awareness. It may have been out of your comfort zone to post here, but I’m so glad you did and I’m sure you’ll see that your other readers will appreciate it, too. Loved it!!

    1. Thank you, Michelle. I was fortunate (and still am) to have a mom who taught me how to look deeper and learn from life, as well as a stepfather who will always be the example I strive to be as a father and husband. A family of genuinely funny people in my life was just a bonus.

      Thank you for reading, Michelle, and for your kind words 😉

    1. It was a privilege being able to share it, so thank you for reading. And I have to say, I wake up every day knowing what a lucky man I am. Except Mondays, maybe —at least until I’ve had my coffee 😉

  8. It’s strange how we sometimes have to wait years before we really understand events that happened to us as a child that then defined us. Glad you reposted this.

    1. Thanks, Piper — and you’re so right about that. I think it’s a combination of getting enough distance to gain perspective, as well as gaining the maturity to recognize it. I think of it as being on a plane and looking down at the landscape; when you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s impossible to see the patterns. But from the air, they are easier to see.

  9. Ahh the synchronicity of the blogosphere. I also blogged about my father in the past 24 hours (you sure we don’t have this psychic thing happening)? lol.
    You know Ned, whilst I love your funny posts and enjoy the laugh, this post shows your true talent as a writer. It was insightful and real and showed the real human side of you.

  10. there are a lot of alcoholics in my family as well… luckily my dad doesn’t have a problem and only had the occasional beer… though his dad was an alcoholic… and it sounds like pretty much most of my grandfather’s brothers were as well… and on up the family tree… though the stories are more funny than sad… my grandfather got sober when my parents had their first baby and told him they didn’t trust him to watch after it… he got help but it had done a lot of damage to his health… sadly my brother didn’t learn from this example and can’t even leave his house without a cooler in his car so he can have his beer wherever he goes… my sister though can have her drink and be fine… never over does it… then there’s me… who has never drinked and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything… there were a lot of ‘friends’ who seemed frustrated with me for not doing the 21 getting wasted thing… I’ve never been to a bar except to pick up a friend… and I’ve never gone clubbin… but that isn’t my thing… I’m sure if I ever did find a drink I’d like I wouldn’t become an alcoholic… but then again I tend to overdo anything I like so who knows… but as much as I understand not letting something control either which-a-way… there’s nothing wrong with not being like everyone else… not suffering through what other consider normal behavior… I don’t look down on others who enjoy alcohol and I’ve been plenty of people’s DD… you sorta sound like my mom though… she just recently started drinking in her late 40’s… she likes her occasional glass of wine… maybe I’ll be like her… but if I never have a drink in my life I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything…

    1. I understand exactly how you feel, and what it’s like being the only one not drinking. However, I’ve also come to accept that I do like an occasional drink, and that there’s nothing wrong with that either. By the way, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but I didn’t start having a nip now and then until I had kids… 😉

  11. Thank you for sharing this side of yourself Ned. Like you, my family tree has an alcoholic hanging off pretty much every limb. Although I did not share your dry spell as a young person, I am ever conscious of this disease & how it has impacted my life.

    1. Being conscious of the disease, and recognizing its impact on your life and the lives of those around you, and the two most important steps you can take toward prevention. As I said in my post, it’s not just about avoiding alcohol; it’s about confronting it and not living in fear of it. It sounds like you have done that perfectly and struck a healthy balance.

      Well done, and thank you for sharing that with me.

  12. Where is the LIKE button for this post? Dang, Ned, what you write says more father than anything else. My kids are horrified by alcohol and any time I have imbibed in their eye sight, it has been traumatic for them. I don’t come from a family of drinkers, am married to a Baptist, yet I know enough about what alcohol does to me to fear what it could do if I let it into my life. Funny, I hide beer and hard lemonades in my garage,yet it’s not important to me…..

    So many reasons for me to appreciate Ned Hickson. So many.

  13. I doubt you’d remember this Ned, but I did catch this post when it was published back then in the BBW. I was fairly new to the blogging game then and I was really struck by the way you wrote about personal strife, and an issue that is so personal yet universal. I believe I said then, that it was this type of great writing that inspires me to be braver about opening up, and to strive to meet a certain level of excellence while writing about it.

    P.S. also based on this post and its illustrations, I believe Lisa and I can finally put to rest, the burning question about when the use of hair products really opened up for you. 😉

  14. Ned, you’re killing me. This is a topic I hold so close to my chest, and yet you’ve just ripped the bandaid off for me with your beautiful piece. So, inspired by your courage, I will apprehensively admit here and now (you swear no one’s watching, right?!) that I, too, was raised by an alcoholic. However, I chose not to walk the sensible path you chose as a young man. I learned well from my mother to take the edge off of life’s trials night after night with one’s drink of choice. Or seven! While I wasn’t exactly pouring vodka on my cornflakes in the morning, I did manage to accumulate too many “rights of passage” nights in my personal history that I’d just as soon forget. Your early naiveté seems a fair price to have paid for the absence of the morning-after-self-loathing you got to avoid, you sensible boy. I decided to quit drinking 2 years ago. In fact, my husband and I did it together. It was the single best decision I have ever made as a parent. Thank God for second chances, right? Thank you, Ned. Truly.

    1. No apprehension necessary between kindred spirits, Andie. I have deep respect for the choice you and your husband made together that two years ago, and the courage it takes to make the admission necessary to follow through. I don’t know how many people are “watching” from my little corner of the blogosphere, but, like me, I’ve no doubt it’s with appreciation for your example of making the most of second chances.

      Thank You, Andie.

    1. I really appreciate that, Pieter. Thank you.
      Over the course of the holidays and winter foraging, I’ve become about 5 pounds more 3-dimensional than I’d like to be, though 😉

  15. I was an adult before I saw either of my parents even a little bit tipsy. I know they had drinks because they had lots of parties in our home, but I never saw them “under the influence.” But my parents were quite abusive & like you, I did the opposite when I raised my daughter. I also had to live with the memories & PTSD from the abuse, but it made me a better parent because I knew what NOT to do!

    1. I truly believe things happen for a reason, usually long before we realize it. Congrats to you for not only understanding that, but for being the right kind of example for your children.

  16. Thank you for this post, Ned.

    Not that I’m an expert in parenting, but I often think that as parents we do the best that we can in the moment without really thinking about the long term impact. Not because we don’t care, but because we’re down in “the trenches” and just have to get through it. It’s not until our kids are grown that we can really see the whole picture.

No one is watching, I swear...

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