What happens when our need to love and be loved clouds what we KNOW to be true? Michael Byron Smith, author of The Power of Dadhood, offers some personal insight with this piece entitled, “When the Brain Lags the Heart.”
The heart is very loyal. It is faithful to which it loves even when all evidence appears to indicate it is useless to remain so. This allows us to have hope and patience for the people we hold dear. It also gives those we love time to turn themselves around when they may have been failing us.
A Personal Story
This is a personal story which I am sharing only to help families that may be in a similar situation. Most who read this will hopefully not relate directly, but perhaps you can share it with someone who does.
I loved my dad. He was so interesting and mysterious. He did things I wanted to do. He had been to places I wanted to see. Stories of his travels had me breathlessly spellbound. I longed for his attention and waited for him to come home – sometimes for hours, sometimes for months, even years.
He was a contradiction in himself. My dad was slight in build but had very strong hands. He was a real gentleman, charismatic, very intelligent, and well-liked by most people. There was just one huge problem: My dad was a raging alcoholic.
Some dads are ‘stealthy’ alcoholics that can still function in a somewhat reasonable manner. Not my dad. When he drank, he became an entirely different person from the gentleman I just described. His language became crude and his actions were awkward, then catatonic. His charming persona became slovenly and indecent, a dreadful person to be around. These are difficult things to say about my father, but they are true. With all that, I still rooted for him whenever I could!
An Unearned Title
When I think of “Speedo” (his nickname), I think of him as “Dad,” but he never earned that title. He was our biological father, but an appalling example of a husband or caretaker. A lone wolf by nature, he would often disappear for months, going to sea as an able-bodied seaman. (That’s him at sea in the photograph.)
He once told me that, while at sea, he never drank. But as soon as he got to a port, he could not pass up the first bar. He did this knowing he had six children in far-away Missouri that could use his love and support.
He once told my mom, as he walked out of the house going to who knows where, “You take care of them; you’re better at it than me.” “Them” were my three brothers, two sisters, and me! He was irresponsible and unapologetic. Our family could never count on him for anything. The funny thing is, on the occasions when he did provide for us, we were thankful to him. I guess it was because it was so unexpected and rare.
My Chance to Be Supportive
When I was in my early teens, there was a conflict between my mom and dad; they were divorced by this time. Of course, this wasn’t unusual and the circumstances aren’t important. What was unusual is that I saw this incident as a chance to support my father. He was not drinking during this time and could win anyone over with his sober charm. I wanted him to be the virtuous one for once. Never was I against my mother, just longing to support my dad. However, I felt very guilty for rooting for my dad over my mom, who had always been there for us.
What I did was not so unusual. In supporting my dad, despite all the wrong he had done, I was putting my heart before my brain. It happens to all of us at one time or another. I see nothing wrong with it until it starts hurting you and/or others. That’s when your brain must catch up. My dad was never able to beat his alcoholism nor do right by his family, but I gave him every chance.
I’m glad I did because it might have worked. I stopped, however, when I became a man with my own responsibilities. I then confessed (to myself) what I really already knew: He would never change. I couldn’t let him affect my life or my own family’s lives any longer.
He passed away in 1996 of liver disease. Ironically, I was on the Pacific Ocean at the time, on the stern of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on a dark night, looking at a million stars and thinking about my dad. A seaman walked up to me and said I had a message in the radio room. This only happens at sea when something bad happens. When I got to the radio room, my wife was on the phone. She told me he had passed away. I became very emotional; I had just lost my father, but it could have been my wife or one of my kids. Sadness and relief came at the same time!
When the Brain Lags the Heart
If you have a spouse or a parent that is failing your family, don’t let your brain get too far behind your heart. You will have to let them know that you need their love and support. Let them know how important they are to you and ask them to change their ways. It might be a long shot, but it’s well worth a try.
If you are a father (or mother) who is failing his family in some manner, yet you still are adored by your children, don’t think your inattentiveness or failures won’t come back to you somehow, someway. I know my dad suffered from great guilt; he told me so. But that only gave him another excuse to drink.
Get professional help, if you need it, before you lose the closeness, love, or support of your family. Take advantage of the time your loved ones’ hearts are giving you, and turn yourself around. If you don’t, their brains will catch up some day, and then it will be too late. ###
Michael Byron Smith is the author of The Power of Dadhood [website] He also hosts the “Helping Fathers to be Dads” blog