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

My father at age 48, the same age as I am.
My father at age 48, the same age as I am now.
My father and I were never very close. I resented him and his influence in my life for many years; he was abusive and an alcoholic who died 20 years ago today. It wasn’t until I became a father that I began to see him differently and, over time, forgave him enough to recognize the things he’d taught me through his own bad example. Even if only unintentionally, he is partially the reason I’m who I am today — as person, a man and a father.

It’s also because of him that I understand and appreciate the difference between the three.

What follows is something I wrote a couple of years ago for the now defunct blog “Black Box Warnings.” Given that the 20th anniversary of my father’s death falls on Father’s Day this year, I felt the need to share it again — for him as much as for myself…

Grabbing my dad a Budweiser and his fishing pole.
Grabbing my dad a Budweiser and his fishing pole.

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...

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

  1. I’ve seen firsthand that not everyone responds to this particular kind of adversity by examining, and doing, what it takes to avoid repeating it. That takes courage, as does writing about it. Bravo to you for both, and Happy Father’s Day!

  2. You always find a way to reach that common denominator in all of us, Ned, and share the most profound and serious of things, adding exactly the right amount of gentle, self-effacing humor. A touching article, and it reaffirms my believe that no one becomes a permanent victim unless they want to be. Thank God you made your own choices, and no matter the influence, became the person you are today. (Which, btw, shines through in everything you write.) Happy Father’s Day.

  3. this is wonderful, ned. even with all of his challenges, you have come to a point where you can understand a bit more about his humanity. happy father’s day to you, the wonderful father that you are )

    1. Thanks, Beth. It took me a while to recognize I couldn’t avoid his influence, but that I could use it for something better. Kind of like a superpower sponsored by Coors…

  4. Thank you for writing that. These are such lovely and wise words, “To live three-dimensionally, you have to be more than a reflection: you have to cast your own image.”

    As painful as some of these issues are, they really can serve to create some amazing people, kind, empathetic, with a great sense of humor. I really appreciate men who come from the school of hard knocks, they lead the way for the rest of us and show us what is possible.

    1. Thank you so much for that. When I look back on my life, all I can see is how fortunate I have been — and continue to be. I’m always happy to try to lead the way there 😉

  5. What a gift that you’ve been able to pull the good out of a bad situation. My father whom I think you know I’m estranged from came from an alcoholic family too so he was very adverse to it. I’ve had a bit of a fear of it so I just have an occasional drink. Weirdly instead of alcoholism with my father his extreme addiction became gardening. (No kidding)

    1. I’m still the same way. I can count on four fingers the times I’d consider myself “intoxicated,” meaning not 100 percent sober. I always have a bottle of vodka in the freezer for an occasional screwdriver on the weekend. When I got divorced 10 almost 10 years ago, the first thing I did was go to the freezer and pour the vodka down the sink because I was afraid I might turn into my father. I had both children (11 and 9) with me full time and it wasn’t a chance I was willing to take.

      But now that they are teenagers… I’m back to keeping vodka in the freezer 😉

        1. You’re so very right, Gibber: No addiction is a good addiction — because it means you’ve lost control.

          Although I wouldn’t be disappointed if my kids became addicted to cleaning their rooms.

  6. Ned, wow. Such a powerful share that so many can connect with. I remember vowing to never smoke from growing up in my dads cloud. But candy cigarettes. Stupid how fun I thought they were. Are they still out there?

    Thanks for sharing. Keep on.

    1. Thanks, Renee. And yes, you can still find those cany cigarettes in private candy shops from time to time. Along with chocolate cigars. Probably made by Phillip/Morris 😉

  7. Thank you Ned for sharing this post with us. It is a credit to you,not him, that you have turned out to be the kind, caring, open person you are. You are the one who made the hard decisions and you are the one who fought against your environment to become a better person. This Father’s Day, the anniversary of your Dad’s death, it is you who should celebrate for the man you have become, against all odds. Your Victory.

  8. Ned, what a reflective and introspective piece. Thank you for sharing it with all of us. Congratulations on being a man, the man your father couldn’t be. I’m confident he is proud of who you’ve become. Happy Father’s Day to you.

    1. My saving grace was that my mother was such a constantly positive presense in my life. She was my foundation — and I knowhow fortunate I was to have that. Had she been a drinker, I’m not sure how I would have turned out.

  9. Our parents provide lessons and genetic material…what happens after that is up to us. Happy that you have found some peace with your past (always a work in progress) and have had the strength to become the man that you are. Happy Father’s Day, my friend.

  10. A great post, Ned. I’m always impressed by the men and women who possess the self-awareness required to make conscious choices and break generational patterns. What a gift to your children. And as you note, the evolution of who we are continues as we are open to the wisdom of self-observation. Understanding frees us of the baggage of our pasts and “frees us to cast our own image.” I can relate. Happy Father’s Day.

    1. Thanks, D.

      Life is definitely an evolutionary process, or should be. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s the best example we can give our children — and the most lasting.

      Especially since none of mine will ever have a trust fund… 😉

  11. I know I’ve said this before Ned, but you are truly brilliant. And inspiring. Everything you write evokes emotions within me; whether it’s reflection, humor, something sad… anything you choose to write about. It is my humble opinion that you are an amazing man, husband, father, friend, writer, and whatever else you want to be. Thank you for sharing all of that with us 🙂 Happy Father’s Day

  12. It can be a tricky bit of business to write about our parents who were & are alcoholics. Although my father was not abusive, his alcoholism left me with many scars. He passed away not long after your Dad, sadly as a result of the addiction he could never overcome. I too, forgave him long ago, but there are times when I long for a chance to chat with him on a sober day.

    I felt every word you wrote here Ned. You are & I am certain, will continue to be, all of the things your father could not. Good on you my friend!

    1. I’ve had those thoughts or moments of wonder, as well: What would our relationship by like today had the chance been there to get older together? He stopped drinking his last few years, and I saw glimpses of the man he could be. Unfortunately I was in my early teens, angry with him and living 18 hours away. The opportunity past quickly.

      But the fact that he went sober his last few years is something I will always remember and respect.

  13. A large part of parenting is leading by example. So many times we become what our parents are/were because we mimic their behavior. (do as I say, not as I do rarely works) It is good you recognized what you didn’t want to be and chose a different path to be a good example to YOUR children.
    I too have an alcoholic father. However, a huge difference is that I never lived with him. I was a young adult before I truly knew what that word meant or that he was one. My parents divorced when I was only a year old and I didn’t even know his name or who he was until I was 7 years old. But now I have the privilege of having a great relationship with him and he has been sober for many years, thank God!
    It sounds like you’ve done well, but there is something to be said about experience. My daughter was never able to get away with anything because I had either done, knew someone who had done it or thought about it! LOL! 😉

    1. It makes me truly happy to know your relationship with your father today is a strong one. That’s truly a gift, and one you can appreciate best because you know what it’s like to not have it.

      And yeah, my kids learned quickly that I know all the tricks. Ironically, it may actually drive them to drink… 😉

  14. Dear Ned,
    I remember reading this artlcle last year and it’s stayed with ever since. Only a man who comes from a place of gratitude and self-awareness can derive life lessons from a life like this with your dad. Your children and wife are blessed to have you as the very best example of a fantastic father. Life is full of accidental lessons and you clearly learned how to leverage them early.
    Happy Father’s Day, Ned – I hope it was fantastic! xo

    1. Thanks, Michelle. Considering all the blessings I have had in my life — and continue to have through my wife and family — finding a place of gratitude is pretty easy 😉

  15. You story sounds like my father’s. My grandfather was a drunk and an abuser, and my father resolved to be neither but while he didn’t drink, he did not get anyone face about his views. His best friend, his brother-in-law was a raging alcoholic. I would frequently find him passed out behind a bar when I delivered my morning papers. I would tell my dad and he would go get him.

    When his daughter got married, he gave her the greatest gift he could give – sobriety. He never took a drink after that day.

  16. My parents were teetotalers, so I can’t blame my drinking on them. Set my own course on that, for sure! Yay me! One of the many reasons I quit was because I feared the image and memory my children would have of me. Probably too late for my older kids, but maybe the young one will see me as the clean (and sober) slate. It’s never too late to remake ourselves, right?
    That said, I was at a staff party last night, and sober socializing sucks. This piece you wrote, on the other hand, doesn’t. Nice job, Ned. Thanks.

    1. I truly respect you for that, Ross. And I’m sure your older kids feel the same because they know the difference and the choice you made to change for the better. In either case, whether for your older kids or your younget daughter, you’ve “re-made” yourself into an image worth admiring.

      Maybe not physically, but definitely as a father… 😉

      That said, I’d be happy to drink lemonade with you if we ever meet up. I have a feeling we won’t need liquor to have fun making fools of ourselves in public 😉

      1. Thanks, Ned. Since I replied, I’ve been thinking about the fear element. I don’t know if I fear alcohol now, but I’m definitely wary. I think of booze more as an ex-wife. I’m sure you can take it from here…

  17. In addition to the “great blog” pile on (and it is), what I want to know is how or why anyone drinks tall boys like the one you are holding in the pic? I went to the Stones Concert a couple of weeks ago and if you wanted a beer, you had to pay $11 for a 25 ounce monster. Don’t you know 5 ounces into one of those pigs, you’ve got 20 ounces of hot piss…and that’s even if you LOVE beer. In Texas, I imagine it’s more like boiling piss. Talk about casting an image.

    1. Hahaha! Great point! I suppose at a rock concert they figure they’re saving you an extra trip by providing two-beer’s worth.

      Not smart.

      With the Texas heat (I lived in Dallas for five years) I’d be willing to pay $11 and make twice the trips to 8 oz of cold beer!

      Thanks for reading!

  18. I remember that post on BBW. I’m glad you reposted it. Belatedly, I hope you had a happy father’s day. You are one of the good ones, or at least you do your best. L.

  19. I’ve always liked this one, Ned. I’m glad you’ve shared it again. It’s good writing, but it’s more than that – it shows what good can come from a bad situation.

  20. If you want to impart the same wisdom and illness upon your kids about cigarettes, have them “practice” inhaling with an incense cone scented with chemicals and pine. They’ll cough up two teaspoons of lung and gargle with orange juice for a week. Or maybe that was just me.

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