Under the Influence is out now on eBook ($0.99), Paperback ($9.97) & Audible ($6.08)
By the end of year seven, I was starting to realise just how different my father was from those of my friends. He rarely worked in a conventional setting, and I had never known him to have a full-time job. Thinking back, I am not sure if he had ever held down full-time employment in his life. I only remember him working here and there, helping his friends with basic labouring or graphic design work. That, and the drug dealing.
The lack of a role model demonstrating the dedication needed for full-time employment has left me struggling with employment issues of my own. I know it is illogical, but I can't help but almost envy what he had, the 'freedom' of his lifestyle. Yes, he was very poor, but despite only having possessions of modest value, he had one thing that most people seemingly did not have. Time. Time to spend on projects, artwork and gardening. Time for personal development, for friends and family. Time for anything other than the monotony of the daily grind. Maybe that is just a rose tinted version of the truth.
I have come to realise that if you give an addict too much free time, they get bored. He had to fill it somehow, and more often than not, it was spent getting high. Addiction and boredom typically lead to more usage, especially if the person is using the drug to escape. My dad was no different. So whilst he did have a lot of spare time on his hands, it was not used in the most beneficial way. He lived a wasted life.
Regardless, it is still tough for me to find the motivation to work when I never saw an example growing up. Besides, who am I to judge? I have learnt that when I am bored and have a plethora of free time, I seemingly drift towards my dad's example. Substances can temporarily stop the painful thoughts creeping in and taking hold. Inebriation has been the difference between life and death for me at some points.
Reflecting upon this, I can't help but wonder at the kind of personal hell that Dad was going through. What demons from his past was he desperately trying to escape? I wish I had asked. I wish I was mature enough to see then what I see now. Maybe talking with me would have helped him, maybe it would have provided me with deeper understanding. Who knows?
When most parents worked, mine didn't. Dad supported himself with a disability pension, drug dealing, and charity from our extended family. I remember with clarity how at every Christmas and Easter gathering with my family, my father would always get a hamper as a gift. Do you know those hampers that people fill, with donations for the poor and homeless? Like that. Random groceries that people take for granted, were gifted as luxuries. Dehydrated coffee, canned meat with vegetables and if we were lucky, chocolate biscuits. Yum.
Whilst the rest of the family were receiving personalised gifts that showed love, thoughtfulness and understanding, Dad was given charity. His face would drop every time it was given; he knew he was a failure and his family was rubbing it in. Despite the fact that he actually needed the goods, it was still deeply upsetting to him.
We were so poor that sometimes he went hungry just to feed us, other times I also skipped meals to be able to provide some food for my younger brother. I never told anyone about that, I was too ashamed. I remember being legitimately surprised when I went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. His dad fed us three square meals with soft drinks and treats in between, took us to a movie and gave us some money for an arcade. Over dinner I distinctly remember having the thought,
“Aren't all single fathers poor like my dad?”
I couldn't fathom why they were different. I had assumed that all single dads were like mine, a touch odd with some 'special' habits.
We would survive off the charity of family and friends. Grandma would almost always drop off food for Dad each week. Other members of the family would regularly give him the cash he needed to be able to feed us. Thank God they were there to provide some help, often we only ate because of them. Still, accepting their offerings felt kind of like a double edged sword. It was not the gift of charity that was the most upsetting to me. It was the way it was given. I can't read minds, but the looks on the faces of the family told a demoralising and depressing story.
“What a waste of space … how pathetic … what is wrong with him … can't even feed himself, let alone his kids.”
Although they would never say such things directly, it was heavily implied. That cut me deeply, I loved him and it hurt. But I could see both sides, he really was a failure.
They provided material support, but never emotional. They would give him stuff to survive, but no reason to do so. Families should be about more. I felt utterly powerless to help him, but also amazingly angry at the whole situation. Why was it like this? Why did I, because of association with my father, feel like the black sheep of the family? I felt ostracised from them, judged and looked down upon. I'm still not sure at what I was angrier at, my family for not understanding or my dad for being different. Maybe I'm just angry.
I truly realised just how different my dad was at the end of year seven. By this stage in my life I had started to develop friendships and establish myself in a social group. I faced minor bullying issues, but nothing too major. However, I had seen how one event, one embarrassing moment, could lead to the expulsion of an individual from a peer group. Leading to a random person becoming 'that guy' that everyone picked on.
I still had affection for Dad, so when it was time for the school award ceremony I asked if he would come. I expected him to say yes but not turn up, as was the pattern up until that point. I was used to being let down on that front and yet I still perpetually tried to show him I was good at things. I wanted him to be proud of me, to tell me that I had done well at something and that he was happy for me. So when I was up on stage and saw him entering, my heart skipped a beat. For a brief instant I was happy, he did care. That was until a close friend of mine spoke:
“Who let the bum in?”
Upon hearing the comment, I looked around and searched for the bum. Why would a bum come into a school to watch an awards ceremony? Then I realised who he was talking about. In that moment I saw Dad for what he really was. For years that moment has stood out in my psyche as one of the most vivid and poignant instances of my childhood. It was by no means the most traumatic thing I have gone through, but it was significant. It was the moment that I decided to completely cut him out of my life. Previously, he had just been my dad. I recognised that he had his issues and dramas, but I was naïve and forgiving. I had noticed some of the differences between him and other dads, but I didn't pay it much attention. That all changed.
It was sixth period, and the school’s large basketball stadium was converted for the award ceremony. My dad was entering the room which was filled with thousands of students as well as hundreds of parents and teachers. People that I interacted with each day, people that judged me and knew me. My friends, my enemies, my world. Dressed like that.
On his feet he wore thongs, old and broken revealing his toes. Disgusting and yellow, his toe nails were plagued with a fungal infection that caused deformity and swelling. It was so unsightly that you wouldn't want to touch the ground he was walking on. He was wearing his usual track pants. So old that any branding had long since faded away. They were coloured a light blue, but were interposed with a random assortment of coloured stains and moth holes. He wore them low, barely held up by a thread around his fading waste line. His shirt was an old red flannel farmer’s top, at least two sizes too small for him. That day he chose to button it up incorrectly, revealing some of his grey chest hair. To keep himself warm, he wore a small black beanie on his head which framed his unkempt facial hair. Finally, across his eyelids were numerous visible fatty deposits, these looked like un-popped pimples, the smallest being the size of a five cent coin.
That was my dad. He dressed this way all the time, yet only now was I finally awake to the truth of what he looked like. He really was a bum.
I didn't respond with anything other than a laugh when my friends continued to bag him out. As he walked into the room past the teachers, parents and other students, a strange thing started to happen. Even before they saw him, they were all starting to recoil away from him. The teachers were whispering to themselves about something, something that clearly had to do with Dad. The student’s reactions told the full story.
You know how over the top kids can be when somebody farts in class? Gasping for breath, pinching their noses and pretending to suffocate? That's what they were doing. All of them. As Dad walked past, he left a wave of students struggling to breathe. It would have been hilarious had it been anybody else.
I never got close enough to Dad to smell him that day, but I have no doubt that this time they were not overreacting. He was lucky to shower or change his clothes once every couple of weeks. Subsequently, he always had a distinct odour something akin to body odour mixed with mould and marijuana.
Fortunately, my friends didn't know who he was. They hadn't realised that he was related to me or that he was my guest here. Thank God nobody had met him and that I had the sense to never invite people over to our house.
I positioned myself in a way that ensured I was hidden behind a wall of my classmates. The last thing I wanted was to blow my cover with him waving to me or calling out. When it was my turn to receive an award I quickly walked out on stage and, refusing to look at the audience, hastily shook the principal’s hand. Then I quickly retreated to my seat in the front row, nervously waiting until the end of the long presentation session for the rest of the school group to receive their awards.
When it came time to leave, I made sure that I was surrounded by friends. I hoped that I could get out without Dad noticing me and attempting to speak. I had gone from desiring his praise, to being utterly dismayed at his existence in one afternoon. To my horror, as we were leaving the stadium, Dad started walking over to my group. I don't know if he saw me or if he had given up and was also leaving. I refused to look over and we walked right past him. I didn't say hi, or acknowledge him in any way. I left without saying a word.
From that day on I chose to severely limit my contact with him, I would stop seeing him unless necessary and I would never invite him to anything public. But more importantly, or detrimentally, I decided to block him out emotionally. I made a concerted effort, a pact with myself, to no longer feel anything for him. Not anger, sadness, joy or love. Nothing. My primary coping method, dissociation, came out in full force. I made the choice to make him cease to exist. I still regularly saw him and spoke to him, but from that moment on and for years after he was nothing to me. Or so I thought.
Thinking back, I can't help but feel saddened by it all. I am writing this with tears streaming down my face. I am sickened by my reaction to the situation, I mean he was my dad after all, he deserved my love and acknowledgement. I can not imagine the hurt a parent must feel when being snubbed by their child. I know it would have taken him a lot of guts to even turn up. I am happy that he came, it showed that he cared for me, that he was proud. I will never forget that.
Those 'close friends' whose judgement I was so concerned about are no longer in my life. Practically nobody from my school is. Maybe this is because I was only really acting back then, all the confusion of my childhood had made me be believe that they were my true friends. Turns out that when I found myself, I realised that they were not who I thought they were, that they were not worthy of my time.
However, I still stand by my actions. Regrettably high school is often about survival. I did what I did to survive. To get by and endure another day.
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'Who Let The Bum In' is a chapter from 'Under the Influence - Reclaiming my Childhood'. Out now on eBook ($0.99), Paperback ($9.97) & Audible ($6.08)
Read more about Under the Influence - Reclaiming my Childhood here, or watch the video below.