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Why my view on addiction changed forever

Six years since his father's passing, Denver7 reporter Rob Harris shares the personal story of how addiction affected his family, and how his dad's experience shaped his perspective.
Posted: 8:48 PM, Jan 11, 2023
Updated: 2023-01-12 23:16:30-05
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It’s been exactly six years since my dad died after a long fight for his health, and there’s a reason I’m sharing that. I’ve grown a lot in the past six years. And I’ve learned a lot about myself, my dad and the struggles that so many people are going through.

I think I’ve missed my dad more this past year than, frankly, right after he died. The reason for that, I think, is that I’m home now.

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My father, Jim, my sister, Gracie, and I playing in the snow.

I spent all of my 20s away at school and then working in several different states. After he died in early 2017, my day-to-day life in those places didn’t change very much. He wasn’t present in those places. But when I moved back to Colorado last year, all of a sudden I was home — and he wasn’t. I’ve felt his void more, and I think that’s why I’ve been reflecting a lot more on him and what he went through.

What you have to understand about my dad is that he was the ultimate people person, to the point that while he had a cushy office he could work in, he would often take his laptop to a coffee shop so he could work amid the hustle and bustle and random conversations. People gave him life.

But that started to change when I was about 17 years old. He started to become more withdrawn, angry and sad.

He developed a drinking problem.

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It started off small, with maybe a drink or two with every meal. Then, we realized he had been drinking during the day when we would find empty beer and liquor bottles in his home office.

Month by month, the problem grew. Every time my family would ask him about it, he would get very defensive, even angry at us for bringing it up. And we, in turn, would withdraw, because the last thing we wanted was to derail something that already felt so volatile.

I now know that my dad was sexually abused when he was four years old. It’s something that I didn’t know for most of my life. My mom only knew bits and pieces. It started to resurface for him later in life, and it drove him to addiction.

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A study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 55% of people being treated for alcohol dependence had a history of childhood trauma — 31% had experienced physical abuse, and 24% had experienced sexual abuse.

Alcoholism and addiction have become only more important to confront as a society. Research from Cedars Sinai found that alcohol use disorder deaths, like my dad’s, were 25% higher than projected in 2020 and 22% higher in 2021. Experts will point to many different causes for this, from the isolation of the pandemic to anxiety around social unrest.

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Reporting in Denver, the topic of addiction comes up a lot, specifically talking about issues like homelessness and crime. After I post a video or article on these topics, I usually will get several comments on Facebook or Twitter that tend to talk about those suffering with an addiction as some sort of object (or, frankly, a nuisance) that needs to be addressed. They, too, often do not speak of them as people we need to interact with directly.

I’m certainly not perfect. And I, too, still find myself feeling uncomfortable, or even angry, when I encounter or am confronted by someone in the throes of addiction. But I’ve challenged myself this year to intentionally see my dad’s face in these people, and then to picture his 4-year-old face, having just gone through something more traumatic and scary than many of us can imagine. I try to understand that it is this 4-year-old’s pain that is manifesting as the disease of addiction, and very well may lead to a life being cut too short.

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It's okay to feel angry. I was so angry with my dad at so many points: when he would drink too much, or when he would lie to us. What’s more important, though, is working through the anger and finding a point of compassion. As we all talk with each other about issues that absolutely need to be addressed in our community, we can’t lose sight of the humanity of every single person going through addiction.

If you or someone you know is struggling, there are resources to help. You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confidentially, for free, at any time day or night. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).