September, My Daddy’s Month
Today my dad would have turned seventy-five years old. On his birthday, I want to share a story about the part of me that is a Daddy’s Girl, the power of accepting our humanly flawed parents, how AIDS quickly took my dad away, and how my eating disorder ultimately gave me gifts of healing through recovery. I pay tribute to my dad, who dances through my mind in all that made him shine. I hang onto his playful-creative nature and his effortless ability to make me feel special.
He sadly died of complications from the medication given to treat AIDS in 1996, when I was eighteen. Ultimately, it was a heart attack that took his life. He was only forty-eight years old. I often think about how I can keep the memories of my dad, and mom, alive. Tell their stories as I know them to be true and how those have shaped me. My mom and dad had a deep-complex tale of unconditional love for one another. They divorced when I was four years old, mainly because my dad was living a lie and whiskey had become his consoler; however, they mended their friendship after forgiveness was found. They both had huge loving, generous, non-judgmental hearts. Both intuitive and spiritual. Both creators of beautiful things and connections with others. Both loved by many. But, also both sensitive and tormented in their own ways, starting with trauma in their individual childhoods that I only know of at a surface level, and masking pain with substances (my mom, food, and my dad, alcohol). Today, they are both my angels.
As I understand it, my dad mainly turned to alcohol to escape internal conflict with his sexuality. My brother and I spent most summers with him in Cartersville, GA, until my early teens. I remember my summers growing up being full of fun and sprinkled with some daunting unpredictability. All an escape from our “normal life” of daily financial struggle in Houston, TX, where my mom tried to do it all by herself. Although, I willingly stepped up as a mini-mom to be brother. I will never know if my mom didn’t want help or if my dad was clueless. However, despite their shortcomings, I always felt loved by both parents. My dad typically turned childlike after a few whiskey “cocktails” and was so playful, fun, creative, and spontaneous. In this state, I went from Daddy’s Girl to needing to be a caregiver to my dad- thinking someone must watch over him. Both roles I embraced, for I loved him dearly. However, I would find out later through therapy and my recovery from a battle with an eating disorder that my relationship with my dad began to sculpt my struggle of an insatiable desire to be loved and adored, often neglecting my own truth and needs, but also staying safely independent and overly responsible. My eating disorder took these “needs” and turned them into a toxic pursuit to be perfect, beautiful, in control, and a workaholic. I do not blame my dad, mom or anyone else for my eating disorder. I feel blessed they were my parents, and eventually found great compassion as they were people with their own baggage trying to cope and survive the only way they knew how. I am only describing part of what contributed to my perfect storm of triggering Bulimia (which today I would have been diagnosed with Anorexia Binge-Purge Subtype).
A moment, that changed my dad as I knew him. One summer, when I was around nine years old, and my brother was seven, and we came back from swimming with my cousins earlier than expected. As we walked into my dad’s cottagey home, which sat on top of a hill, laced with beautiful, perfectly groomed flowerbeds, we saw him having sex with a man. He did not see us, nor did his friend. I did not know what I was witnessing but instinctually knew we shouldn’t be there. I grabbed my little brother’s hand, and we quietly went back out the front screened door. After a few moments of silently standing on the front porch, I again opened the screened door, pulled my brother by his hand, and purposely slammed the door behind us to alert my dad we were home. That worked! He didn’t realize or know what we saw. When we returned to my mom in Houston shortly after, I told her what had happened. I recall crying profusely, but only because I didn’t want my dad to “get in trouble.” I will never forget what my mom did and said next. It is one of the most beautiful examples of her heart that I even spoke about it in her eulogy. She hugged me and said:
“There are all kinds of love in this world. The most important part is to give love and be open to receiving. Sometimes it does not make sense, and we won’t understand it. But one thing that is for sure; your daddy loves you very much, and I am certain he didn’t want you to see that.” -Mom
She then called and told my dad about our conversation. Not in a state of anger, which would have been understandable, but rather great concern. I don’t remember what she said at all; I just remember feeling thankful she wasn’t mad at him, and this would no longer be a secret. My dad then wanted to speak to me. I wish I remembered all that he said too, but I don’t. I recall his voice shaky (he may have been crying) and him sincerely apologizing for what my brother and I saw. He also tried to explain himself to me. From that point forward, my dad lived openly with who he was, or at least who he believed himself to be. Yet I remember him still being tortured, for he loved Jesus and felt conflicted. In a healthy way, he would paint and create incredible artistic expressions. In an unhealthy way, he would drink his torment away. For the next several summers, we would come to know Randy. He became my dad’s partner. Randy treated my brother and me well enough, but I always thought he was a bit strange and didn’t like how he would hurt my dad by cheating on him. It felt like my dad tried to shield us from what was happening and the drama, but I knew it was there.
One afternoon, my mom sat my brother and me down and told us our dad was sick. He had been feeling bad for months and finally went to the doctor, and he had AIDS. Ultimately, Randy gave my dad AIDS, and survived him with only HIV for many years to come. My dad quickly lost his beauty shop (hair salon), house, and all he had, forcing him to move into a small trailer on my MawMaw’s modest property. His health deteriorated quickly, and he didn’t want my brother and me to see him that way. His weight dropped below 90 lbs., he had lesions, and his bones were very brittle, breaking easily. He became allergic to his oil paints, which was so heartbreaking, for that was his healthy form of expressing and coping. So, he spent more time in his Bible and trying to care for his perishing body. He passed away six months after that first doctor’s appointment and diagnosis. My MawMaw shared with me what happened, and I am incredibly grateful:
“Your daddy woke up that morning; the sun was shining, and the birds chirping, and he was feeling better than he had in days. I cooked him breakfast, my homemade biscuits, and roast beef gravy with ripe tomatoes on the side picked right outside from the vine. We were sitting at the small table in my kitchen when he put one hand over his heart, the other in the air, as he looked up and said, “Momma, it is so beautiful.” Those were his last words.” -MawMaw
I often imagine what he must have seen and how beautiful it must have been. In my mind’s eye, I envision the path to Heaven opening and Jesus reaching out to grab my dad’s hand.
I sadly didn’t go to his funeral, for it felt too hard, and after crying for a day after receiving the news, I decided subconsciously that work would be my cure. My escape. So, that is what I did. I went back to work at the bank, never taking time off or processing any of my feelings or grief over the loss of my dad. A few years later, when I was twenty-two, following the birth of my son and then a divorce from his father that ended very badly, I was launched into my eating disorder. By day, I seemingly was a successful young mom, yet I secretly lived in constant fear of trying to restrict my hunger and calorie intake by counting everything that went into my mouth. My escape into work and overachieving became even more potent as I had a strong drive to provide a better life for my son, Bruce. I genuinely loved banking too, which I happened to fall into on a quest just to make money and survive. By night, I was lonely, wanting to be loved, and the urge to binge/purge could only be avoided for so long until I gave in. That was my cycle. I have spoken of it before. Restrict, restrict, restrict, then after a while, a binge/purge “episode” (what I considered it) would overtake me. Then right back to restrict, restrict, restrict. It would not be for another six years, when I was in recovery, that I would find a tender wound that needed healing called: Daddy’s Girl. I am crying as I type this sentence.
My dad left too soon, for he was too fragile to fight AIDS, likely from alcoholism, plus the medications back then were so hard on the body. His time in this world was riddled with an internal struggle (which so many of us have on some level), yet he left a loving footprint on many hearts, starting with mine, his daughter…or Little Darlin’ as he called me. He was challenged with his sexuality and spirituality but ultimately reached up taking his last breath. I hope he found peace in his final days, which is why I am so grateful for the moment my MawMaw shared with me.
As one of my angels, I believe he now helps paint the sky with sunrises and sunsets. Two of my favorite things! One of my many gifts of recovery from my eating disorder was being able to heal what I didn’t even know needed healing. It was buried so deep inside me, a tender wound peppered with a loving yet complex father-daughter relationship. Another gift of recovery was the calming and grounding techniques I discovered by looking up at the sky when my spirit is a bit more anxious.
Suppose you can see your eating disorder, or any other unhealthy disordered patterns or addictions, as doorways to healing. In that case, you can shift your recovery experience to one that feels purposeful and hopeful. You can begin to reframe your story and release past wounds. Sure, the memories will still be there, yet they will not affect you as they once did. Instead, they will grow you and even allow you to help others do the same. Therefore, I so vulnerably share.
I am thankful I could heal in ways my dad was never able (or my mom). We change family lineage and history when we step up and do the work….and keep doing the work. Ha, and I have never been afraid to work, that’s for sure. Remember, friends, we have never arrived until the end.
Until I hug and see you again, Happy Earthy Birthday, Daddy!!!!
Clomie Haney Jr. (Junior) | 9/27/1947 – 9/17/1996
-In love and light, Sarah Lee