Sometimes, Being Sober Right Now Is Enough

Emilia Wilburn
Emilia's dad looking at a photo album

There is a saying in my family that we are all born with alcoholism. That we have “the gene.”

Alcohol use disorders are common for us: Both of my grandparents had one, both of my aunts had one, my cousin had one, and my father has one. Both of my grandparents drank heavily while my dad and his sisters were growing up. My grandmother drank through all three of her pregnancies. 

The drinking led to rage, resentment, neglect, and emotional and physical abuse. This shaped how they all grew up, watching and experiencing what it was like to be the children to two people with addiction. An addiction that took no days off. Alcohol and other substances lead to the death of both of my grandparents at an early age. It also led to the death of my cousin Lars, 18 years old, operating a crane on Long Island drunk, which crushed his chest and killed him. 

I was told in college that I should never drink because this kind of fate was awaiting me should I let myself try alcohol. The truth is, none of us are born with alcoholism—but due to trauma and life experience, the condition develops in many of us.

The first time that my dad had a drink he was seven years old.

That started a spiral into his teens and early 20s. He would drink to blackout on a regular basis, forgetting where he had been or what he had done the night before. One night after a party, he told my mom that he had enough. He quit. He was sober. He remained sober for many years. It was a huge success; what any person hoping to recover wants. Unfortunately, it did not stay this way. He has relapsed many times. Recovery is a long journey, and not without ups and downs. 

One of my earliest memories is being out on Long Island for a funeral, staying in a hotel. My dad drank to black out and walked out onto the deck of the hotel room completely naked, in plain view of other guests and the road, screaming incoherently at the sky. I was three years old. 

The problem is my father not only lives with alcoholism—due to early childhood trauma stemming from his parents’ addiction, he also has severe mental illness.

His addiction and use of alcohol and other drugs coincide with flare-ups with his mental illness. And it’s a two-way street, with substance use further damaging an already fragile mind, making it more prone to relapse in the future. 

Since the time I was very small, my father has cycled through different personalities, bodies, lives, minds, and ability to function. I have seen him try to commit suicide, try to hurt others, use substances, disappear, and be emotionally and physically abusive. He is never the same person from year to year. This past year was his worst yet. 

During the pandemic, he decompensated, meaning his mental health declined.

He decided in a manic episode to leave his apartment in Tucson, Arizona and live homeless in a tent encampment in Prescot, Arizona. He started drinking again. This led to multiple confrontations with the police, with my mother and I begging them to spare his life in the event they encounter him, imploring them to understand he is not a threat, he is just very sick. In a late-night alcohol-fueled rage, he assaulted a police officer. He was arrested and thrown in Yavapai county jail. 

He spent six months in solitary confinement alone in one jail cell. Naked. He was placed on a bland diet, under 24/7 fluorescent light, seeing no one or the outside world.

We tried so many times to tell the jail that not only was he going through withdrawal, but he was also severely mentally ill. They did not care. To them, he was a criminal who committed a criminal act and was therefore not deserving of any kind of withdrawal or mental health management.

We finally got him out, but the damage had already been done. He had lost so much weight that he, my 6-foot-1 father, barely weighed 110 pounds. His hair was matted, his teeth were broken and falling out, and his fingernails were so long that he couldn’t use his hands. I will never forget getting him in the shower, helping him wash and cutting his fingernails as he was shaking and crying. Going through withdrawal and being neglected in that way for so long had left him with body tremors and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He will never be the same again, and his chances of relapse this time are higher than ever. 

I cannot tell you how many times we have tried to seek treatment for him.

It has always been a total disaster, with no one able to get to the core of his addiction, or most clinics and providers uninterested in working through his mental illness. We know that he needs more than just addiction treatment – he needs simultaneous care for his mental illness. He can be a difficult patient. Belligerent, non-compliant, and sometimes a little bit scary.

But now, after all of this, he is in recovery again. We were able to find him assisted living, where he is monitored 24/7, given care, counseling, therapy, and medication. However, despite our best efforts, most of the services and supports we were promised from the facility are not actually happening. He still talks about and thinks about using, and he is continuously on the verge of disappearing again. My dad is 65 years old; he has been in recovery over 25 times. 

Emilia's dad in the swimming pool with a donut shaped floatie

Recovery for my father might look different than the sparkly, shiny version of recovery we can sometimes see publicized.

He is elderly, sick, and severely mentally ill. However, he is sober, and he is safe from himself and from others. Sometimes that is all you can ask for, and I am grateful that he is alive. My grandparents, my aunts, and my cousin never had this chance. I like to think that the glimmers of good years we get between the bad, and the strength he so clearly shows to continue, are what have kept him alive long past his family members struggling with alcoholism. I also like to think that it is because of the dedication from my mother in keeping him alive. 

Recovery is messy, humanity is messy, and sometimes just knowing that someone is okay right now is enough. I will be here, like I always am, to catch him again when he falls. I am very proud of him. 


Emilia Wilburn is the Program Coordinator for ATLAS®, Shatterproof’s quality measurement system for addiction treatment facilities.

stand up paddleboard

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