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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Addiction Prevention: Reading Between the Lines of My Father’s Loss

09/23/15 10:12 AM | Laura Winn | Recovery, Youth


Some things that happen in our lives have such a profound impact that you can see their tentacles reaching into every avenue of your life. For me, I can see how living poor as an adolescent, losing my mother to cancer, and meeting my husband at an early age has impacted how I approach the world today.

Then other things happen, and while you know they are significant, you can’t trace their impact. You are at a loss on how to interpret the pain and the grief, so you put it aside and move on. I lost my dad to addiction when I was 21 years old.

A lifelong alcoholic, my dad was able to manage his life fairly well on his terms. If he could shave, shower, dress, and show up at work everyday, he didn’t have a problem. A career military man, he retired in his forties from the navy as a machinist and entered the manufacturing field when we returned to the U.S. after living abroad. Less than a decade later, the manufacturing industry had constricted and my dad could no longer say he didn’t have a problem.  Unemployment meant that he could no longer shave, shower, dress and show up at work – and he could no longer deny his problem. The last few years of his life were a blur of rehab attempts, housing insecurity, and frantic suicidal calls to his college-aged daughter – me.

He was found by a friend lying face down just steps from his front door in the middle of an Illinois winter. He drank everything he had in the house and drove to a liquor store to buy more. He pulled into his driveway, parked perfectly in front of the garage, placed the bottle on his front stoop, and passed out on the ground. He died of asphyxiation, so drunk he was unable to move his head to breath.

I know that living with an addicted father all my life has left an imprint. I know the impact of our relationship must be lasting. Losing a parent suddenly at such a formative age is significant. Yet I have put it aside and moved on. Days after the funeral I was back in my Irish literature seminar, trying to reconnect with friends who had no idea what to say or how to say it. Only recently have I started to face the pain of his death and to better understand its impact.

It’s clear I didn’t find my way to the addiction and recovery field by accident, though for a long time I told myself that I did. But I’m here now and it’s impossible to interpret the work that I do though any other lens than the one left by my experience with my dad. For the past six months I have been working on an adolescent addiction prevention project, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, to help support kids who are just beginning to experiment with alcohol or other drugs. The program, called Project Amp, connects these kids with young adults in recovery to help them identify their personal goals, assess how their behavior and social networks support these goals, and connect them to community activities and supports. 

By the age of 15 my dad had lost his own mother and started to experiment with alcohol to help him cope. By the age of 17 he had dropped out of school, was living in his car, and was in trouble with the law. As we develop Project Amp, I can’t help but think of my dad at this age. What impact would a positive influence such as a young adult who had been addicted and come out on the other side have been for him?  What would it have meant if that person encouraged him to stay in school so that he could keep playing hockey – something he loved and always regretted dropping? How different would things have been if he had help navigating his relationship with his father, the grief of losing his mother, and the temptation to escape through alcohol? 

It’s important to see Project Amp succeed – in part, because of my personal experience with addiction. It’s important for me to understand the impact of prevention and the role young adults in recovery can play in a young person’s life. I always thought that my dad could never change – and he never did. But could he have been saved by never going down that road in the first place? That question motivates me now.

I regret that I can’t ask him now what might have worked for him when he was a young man faced with intolerable losses. So today I ask you – the reader – to help us look back. In your own recovery journeys, what would have made a difference to you as a young person? How can we help kids know that the choices they make today can have a major impact down the road? That those choices might lead to that place, face down in the snow during a cold Illinois winter?

Laura Winn

Written by Laura Winn

Laura Pannella Winn is an applied social scientist interested in health care policy and its intersection with substance use, mental health, and homeless services. As an Associate at the Center for Social Innovation, she has led the implementation of many related federally funded research and training grants. She currently serves as the Deputy Project Director of Project Amp, an intervention research project aimed at preventing substance use disorders in adolescents though a brief mentorship with young adults in recovery. Laura received her master’s in social sciences from the University of Chicago. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband and two children. Her work is informed by a family history of addiction.