My father’s drug addiction put a mask on me. Here is how I removed it.

(RNS) — By most social standards, my life is going well. I am healthy, live independently and comfortably care for my family. I’ve published two books – the latter doing significantly better than the first. I know what it’s like to wear many hats – mom, aunt, PR coach and friend – and enjoy the respect of colleagues and friends. I have the mental and physical space to dream and achieve many of those dreams.

But as the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote“We wear the mask that smiles and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—that debt we pay to human cunning; with torn and bleeding hearts we smile, and mouths with a myriad of subtleties.

I wear a mask. The labels that represent me—committed Christian, talented author, well-connected publicist—don’t tell the whole or even part of my life story. My pride sometimes blocks authenticity. Although my ego has a vested interest in me looking like I have it all together, I have a pain that breaks me; I am the daughter of a drug addict.

Having a dad with a substance abuse problem means I learned a long time ago that I can’t trust my dad to tell the truth. A father is supposed to be a daughter’s hero, someone she doesn’t need protection from. This is not my story; I must like the limits.


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Yes, drug addiction is a disease. But that doesn’t mean I’m not frustrated with its ill effects. I know what it’s like to plan major and minor events knowing that my dad will almost never be there or act normal if he does manage to show up. At my mother’s funeral, my father rocked back and forth, visibly troubled not only by grief, but also by a life of chemical addiction. Although I was grieving, I felt that I had to simultaneously take care of my father. I wanted to wrap my arms around him, but I needed him to wrap his arms around me.

I would like to say that this realization hurt me, but I became a master at numbing the pain. Until I can’t anymore.

The times when I have trouble numbing myself are as simple as they are routine. When I take my daughter to after-school events, my heart breaks when I see grandparents showing up for their children and grandchildren. When friends and associates talk about being a daddy’s girl or having Sunday dinner with daddy, I secretly wish that was my story too. Why couldn’t the father of my youth—the one who took me to church meetings, worked hard, and taught me important life lessons—be there now? Why had I been deprived of his physical and emotional presence?

Typically, I push these feelings into the deep recesses of my heart. Sometimes they spring from tightly barricaded spaces. There was the time my dad broke his neck in ways our family has yet to discover. There was the time my father came to my workplace asking for money. There was the time he ransacked the apartment he rented to me. Although I was angry at the time, I finally concluded that I had failed him – why had I expected him to take care of the property when he didn’t care. not by himself?

More recently, another family member called to say they had found a video of my dad talking about drugs as if he were doing a promotional commercial for a product launch. The video was posted on Instagram for everyone to see. I can’t begin to describe the agony of learning and then seeing the video. I wanted nothing more than to take my father out of the public eye – not just because he didn’t deserve to be taken advantage of, but because I didn’t want anyone to see him.

As I pondered a litany of questions, I realized that part of my reaction was rooted in pride. Of course, I was saddened, but I was also embarrassed. I was focused on how my father’s behavior made me look.

Lest I minimize these emotions, what I am describing is pride, and pride is anything but benign. In the Gospel of John, we learn that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble”. Equally sobering is the scripture in the biblical book of Hebrews: “We have no high priest who cannot be touched by the feeling of our infirmities…and that we may come boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy. and help when needed. .”

It means that I can be vulnerable because Jesus can resonate with every feeling of pain, disappointment, sadness and anger that I feel. I don’t need to hide or wear a mask. I can be seen and known.

But for a long time, few people saw it. One of the few places where I was vulnerable was my support group, a group specifically for families of drug-addicted loved ones. On Zoom calls or huddled in a room at our church, Vineyard Columbus, we confide and comfort each other, sometimes through tears, other times through attentive listening, and other times through silent resignation. In these gatherings, we rely on our shared belief in God’s unwavering love for us and our loved ones. It’s one of the few spaces where I’ve brought my whole self, not just the parts that photograph well.

As I continued to process the video, I realized that “daughter of a drug addict” is as accurate a reflection of my life as “public relations professional.” The irony is that as a PR professional, I spend a considerable amount of time helping clients project the best possible image. In other words, I help them put on their mask. Somewhere along the line, I started wearing a mask myself. But my mask didn’t erase the problem; I just suffered behind.

My truth is not mine alone. As James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and grief is unparalleled in the history of the world, but then you read.” There are approximately 20 million people in the United States with a substance use disorder. These people have families and friends who are also affected by their disease. But the question becomes: will we be healed even if we pray for the healing of our loved one?


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In the words of Tiffany Nicole’s 2020 book, “Lavender”: “I want to heal. So, I make a conscious decision to expose my wounds. I will no longer hide my scars or numb my pain.

Jennifer R. Farmer. Photo by Jehan Photography LLC

I’m finally free to take off my mask, knowing that people can’t help me if they can’t see me. By throwing off my mask, I hope to encourage others to get rid of theirs too.

(Jennifer R. Farmer is the author of “First and Only: What Black Women Say About Fulfillment at Work and in Lifeand public relations advisor to some of the nation’s leading social and racial justice advocates. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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