Having A Father In Jail Made Me Realize There’s Hope Behind Bars

Jail
Alex Ronsdorf

For the first 7 years of my life, I grew up with 2 parents who loved me and my brother very much, and it helped they loved each other, too. I was young when they separated, but I wasn’t naïve. My brother is 10 and a half years older than me, he slowly stopped spending time at home, my dad always seemed angry, and my mom was sad – kids recognize people’s emotion – my niece is 4 and she can already pick up when something is wrong – so it was clear to me that something with my mom and dad wasn’t like my friend’s mom and dad.

I went through the rest of my juvenile years – elementary, junior high, high school – living solely with my mom. My dad was an alcoholic; he drank more than he didn’t.

Alcoholism is a selfish disease – as any addiction, it is torturous and can feel inescapable. It is also a mental illness, it takes away your stability in your brain and changes the chemicals.

I acknowledge the struggle of getting clean, it is a tough fight. I’ve watched my dad try to get sober. He tried the rehab stint, didn’t work. He tried not drinking when I would stay at his house, didn’t work. But he tried, and at the time, that was enough for me. Sometimes I take myself out of the equation.

I think to myself: okay, here is a grown man, with two kids who he loves, but he seems to love booze more.

How does that work? He must really love booze because I know he really loves us. But then sometimes I get angry, and I think to myself: okay, he really loves booze, so he must not love us that much if he couldn’t pull he shit together longer than 3 days – that’s enough time to come watch my basketball practice and two days later my game.

But 2 public events sober must be too much to ask for, right? And then I take control of the pessimistic view and think: no, this is a broken person, who happens to be my dad, who needs nothing short of a miracle to be healed. This is a person, who happens to be my dad, who needs help beyond what he has sought out. Alcohol is his idle, but what is most painful, is seeing the person he is sober. The best person. A person who would stop and help a stranger carry their bags from the Sobeys check out to their car.

A person who would buy the homeless guy outside a cheeseburger. A person who texted his daughter “I’m so proud of you, Nat,” just when she needed it the most. Alcohol took those things from him. It took his good qualities and replaced it with qualities that my dad would be ashamed of if he could soberly step outside his drunk body to see. It’s hard to watch someone you love stuck in a toxic cycle, but there comes a point – and maybe it came with growing up – but there does come a point when you must accept that you cannot fix a person, you can only love them.

May 15th, 2016. I’m in the bathroom doing my hair, going about my morning as I usually would, and I hear my mom call, “Natalie, I need to tell you something about your dad.” After my heart comes down from panic, and after mind races to each and every worst case scenario, I take a deep breath and ask her to tell me. “Your dad was arrested yesterday in Grand Prairie, he’s in jail.” May 15th, 2016.

My “normal” life changes, it shifts in a direction that, for the last 3 months, has become my new “normal” life.

May 14th. My dad receives a place in the prison system; a cold cell, a shitty orange jumpsuit, below average food on the plate sized for a toddler. All things that inmates receive, because that is what he is. He is an inmate. He is also, in case you forgot, an alcoholic.

An alcoholic in jail. That sounded pretty awful to me at first. I worried tirelessly about him. I worried about how he was treated, how he was sleeping if he was depressed if he was suicidal. All things that ran through my head day and night.

I had no desire to talk to him, although I was worried, I was also angry. The charges against my dad are related to fraud, which comes with a heavy sentence as it is a felony. I knew this just by hearing the early details of his arrest.

I knew this because I have friends who are in school programs and work jobs related to the criminal system. I knew this would not be a short term ordeal, and I think I knew that more than he even did. I couldn’t even begin to fathom that there could ever be positive in this – my dad is in jail, he’s going to be in the news, and my family has to suffer with him. That seemed unfair to me.

But as everything in life should attempt to find a silver lining, I found mine in this.

My dad was not drinking anymore. He was facilitated with nurses who check his body every day, who give him the right amount of medication for his system. This, to me, was the brightest light in the darkest tunnel – my dad was being taken care of, in the most unideal of places, he was being taken care of. I should mention that I am not by any means saying jail is a good place to be or a place anyone should go to seek being taken care of.

But there’s a reason that people who live on the streets do petty crime to stay in jail for the night – it’s a safer place for some people.

September 19th, 2016. 3 months and 5 days. My dad has been sober for 3 months and 5 days. He has lost 35 pounds – he was not a small guy at all, he needed to lose 35 pounds. He has started journaling. He writes me letters. We talk on the phone every day – about 5 times more a week than we did before he was arrested.

He tells me about his dreams after his time served. We talk about what the first meal he will not only eat but DEVOUR when he see’s a menu again. We talk about Jesus, and how He has been good to my dad through such bad circumstances. I tell him about school; he’s sober, he listens, he cares – this is new. He is the dad I have missed for 15 years. He’s back, in the strangest way. He’s gone, but he’s back.

I have learned to find peace in the unknown. I don’t know much right now, none of us do. How long will he be there? Will he be moved to a different jail? When will his trial start? These are all unanswered questions that, if I want to get any sleep at night, I must come to terms with not knowing at this moment in my life.

I’ve written this as a testimony to finding the good in the bad. Was it ever this way that I wanted my dad to experience being sober? No. Was it ever this way that I wanted my dad to work on his mental health through things like writing, drawing, and appreciating time? No. Absolutely not. There aren’t always good days when I feel positive, sometimes I wake up angry and bitter.

Just the other day I went to the jail to put money into my dads account so he could make phone calls and one of the officers said to me, “you don’t seem happy to be here, did someone ask you to do this as a favor?” to which I replied, “is anyone ever happy to be here?”

He didn’t respond, because of most of the time, it’s true. Yet even through the bad days, I can’t help but feel thankful for this. I miss my dad. I miss his hugs, I miss his mid-day texts telling me he’s proud of me, and I miss seeing his face when he’s in the middle of a fit of laughter, but I don’t miss those things as much as I deeply missed hearing his voice not muffled by alcohol and the misuse of prescribed medication.

And who knows, maybe I have a complete childlike imagination in thinking that he will continue sobriety and take care of his mental and physical health when he comes back to the real world, but I have no reservations about getting lost in that naivety, because at this time, that is what is getting him and I through this.

And guess what, I will hug him again, I will get the midday “I’m so proud of you, Natster” texts, and I will see his face when he’s in the middle of a fit of laughter. Those are things I will see and have again. Perhaps not anytime soon, perhaps in many years from today – but right now, I’m reveling in the surprise of life. That healing can come in the strangest of places if one just opens their heart the slightest bit to the pursuit of healing.

I’m proud of my dad. I’m not proud of what he has done. But I am proud of him for not letting jail be a place to rot away. I’m proud of him for being relentless in keeping in contact with us. I’m proud of him for making an effort to see positives. I’m proud of him for recognizing the damage he has done and choosing to use his time there to find happiness in his kids, his grandkids, in writing, in time outside, in thinking. These are reasons I’m proud of my dad, even in that orange jumpsuit, with hair that hasn’t been cut in 3 months and always complaining about the cardboard food. I am proud of him.

I write this in hopes that someone else, someone who needs this, will read my words and believe in hope behind bars.

I often think about this when I’m walking through MacEwan. I think to myself, “I’m dressed pretty normally, I’m getting a post-secondary education, I look pretty average from the outside, and nobody would ever know that I have a parent in jail.” I think about this often. And then I ponder how many other people have a parent in jail, or in the future will have a parent, friend, loved one, or family member in jail.

It’s probably a lot less rare than we might assume, but it happens to be one of those subject people choose to be quiet about because yes, it’s not exactly rainbows and butterflies to talk about most of the time.

However, for those of us that find comfort in words, it’s nice to read something to relate to. My good friend sent me a blog written by someone else who had a parent in jail, and it helped, it helped a lot. I write this in hopes that maybe someone like me, who finds ease in other people’s words, who has a parent who is suffering from an addiction, or who has a loved one in jail might find comfort knowing that there can be love and light found in anger and darkness.

We are not made to fix people, we are not made to save people from themselves, but we are made to love.

I am still in the process of learning how to love someone who has acted in unlovable ways; people who society says not to love. It’s not always a pleasant chase; chasing unlovable love – but it is a nice view every time you reach a peak in the pursuit.

Keep chasing. TC mark

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