Alcohol was eating away at my father’s insides, sending him into free fall of physical troubles and a deluge of mental problems. But alcoholism wasn’t the only thing that ailed him.
Ever since he attempted suicide as a young man, his bodily health was never the same. As you can imagine, firing a foreign object into your guts point-blank can leave a devastating aftereffect. It was the choice he made, and the consequences came with it. Over the next decades, he’d pick up the pieces from that tragic day, added to new health problems that certainly were helped along by more poor decisions and personal neglect.
Granted, some medical problems were the result of bad luck, poor timing, or job-related misfortune. Like the time he fell several stories at work and needed surgery to repair his leg, resulting in staples (from ankle to knee) and chronic pain. Or the time he developed a hernia and later an ulcer. X-rays and tests proved their presence, meaning treatment was imminent and couldn’t be ignored.
Those diagnoses would be accepted by most people as terribly inconvenient and scary; however, upon hearing the news from the doctors, my dad’s proverbial ears perked up. He knew he could use this for his personal gain: to feed his hungry addiction. In fact, he’d continually visit doctor offices post surgery, complaining that the pain hadn’t subsided. And a busy doctor’s answer was always a refilled prescription. Whatever was beyond a certain doctor’s specialty (depression, for instance) resulted in a referral to a behavioral specialist like a psychiatrist.
His different ailments were like the flavor of the week at a local ice-cream shop. So many choices. Eyes widened over the endless possibilities. Glands salivating at the thought of flavor upon flavor. We waited in anticipation of what dad might be diagnosed with next, and then sat back as he ingested the supple treats: pills.
Each time dad flirted with bad health gave him an opportunity to discover new pills and, depending on his condition, be reunited with pills with which he had an all-too-familiar past. Red ones. Klonopin. Blue ones. Paxil. White ones. Vicodin. Little ones. Prozac. Big ones. Zoloft. Capsules. Valium. Tablets.
Our medicine cabinet was dad’s trophy case, his prized possession and favorite place to escape. It was a rainbow of colors, and not in the take-your-breath-away, hey-everybody-look-there’s-a-beautiful-double-rainbow-in-the-sky kind of way. Those colors dwelling deep inside the maze of pill bottles represented something terrible and awful.
Whenever he escaped for the comfort and sanctuary of the medicine cabinet emerged a monster. No, he wasn’t abusive (to anyone but himself), but he’d stumble around the house in a medicated stupor, incapacitated to do normal activities. He’d lock himself in the bathroom and proceed to fall asleep on the toilet. He’d skip family activities and school functions because he had to “sleep it off.” If we ever questioned dad’s whereabouts, chances are he was dream deep on our parents’ bed.
The ever-changing tide of his health was his idea of a shifty strategy. Since he saw doctors and psychiatrists on a regular basis, he had his normal dosages. As he developed relationships with those medical professionals, he’d alter his story slightly by introducing something new. A plot twist here (“I feel even more depressed lately.”). A turn there (“I’m not sleeping well now.”). And those new developments often led to new medication.
My dad was crafty. He knew the right things to say to the doctors. He knew how to get the medication he both needed and wanted. He realized that to keep his addiction going, he had to stay on top of his game. You could say he was a con artist, of sorts. And I haven’t even divulged his love affair with over-the-counter medication. According to him, he suffered from allergies, indigestion and other bowel problems, asthma, headaches …
To counter the bevy of self-diagnosed ailments, he’d visit the local pharmacy or grocery store on his way home from work. There, he’d find whatever he could in pill form to help ease his weary body, whatever could be popped into his mouth and downed with a cold beer. Yes, beer.
Despite doctor orders that alcohol shouldn’t be consumed with the pills, this was my dad they were talking to after all. He never intended to get better. He never meant to go off the pills. His nightly cocktail of pills and booze was his excitement, his passion, his first love. And that did not sit well with the rest of his family. Not only was he harming a body already in disarray, he was falling deeper into an addiction that was pulling him from family and work. When the “nagging” became too much, he’d let my mom help control dosages for a while. Or he’d switch to nonalcoholic beer, until he grew bored with the bitter taste or tired of its low alcohol volume.
To avoid additional family confrontation, dad began hiding his pills around the house. Under the cedar chest. In the creepiest room in the basement where spiders and centipedes dwelled. In the garage. Under the sofa. Wherever a pill bottle could fit. Occasionally, mom, sister, and I would set out on inside-the-house voyages in search of the lost treasure, determined to apply our detective skills to find dad’s familiar and new hiding spots. Rarely did we speak of our adventures; when dad went for his pills the next time and couldn’t locate them, only then would he know what we had been up to.
Rainbows are supposed to bring joy and amazement over God’s creation. Over our house, rainbows rarely appeared, for inside was a family hurting and struggling to find happiness. Tucked away inside our house, however, was a rainbow of colors within the medicine cabinet, only we didn’t speak of the colorful phenomenon. It was a sad little rainbow that only tore apart our family, rendered my father completely useless, and tugged at our unwavering strength.
(As I wrote this, I wondered how many of you would question my perspective on medication. I take medication. I’ve taken it for years, it helping me in a way that has made my life more enjoyable and manageable. Pills have good uses and proven applications. When taken properly, they can be medical marvels, helping people in grand fashion and even giving hope to those who may have lost it. My father, unfortunately, didn’t see medication like I do. To him, it was a vice, a burden, a tormentor.)