woman with curly hair in white t-shirt holding her hand sideways covering her mouth

“Family Secret”

A winning essay from our Brighter Future Scholarship contest

The world used to be perfect. Everyone was happy, all adults were nice, and suffering was something that happened to people far away from me. Then I got older, and I realized the world was never even good in the first place.  

My dad started his relationship with alcohol when I was born, so in a way I never got to meet the man my mom married. I grew up with him brewing his own beer in the basement and watching him stumble around in the evenings, but my mom always put me to bed before anything happened. The one time something did, my mom and dad sat me down and promised it would never happen again, that he would stop drinking. In my mind, that meant everything would be perfect all the time. But promises mean nothing to alcoholism. My mom would beg him stop, and he’d keep drinking. He’d be fired from his job, and he’d keep drinking. I grew older never knowing what kind of dad there would be when he was home: the goofy dad who would make jokes or the angry dad who mocked us all? I wasn’t allowed to tell my friends because I was sworn to secrecy, and I didn’t because I loved him, even though I believed he had chosen alcohol over me. 

I was thirteen when I realized my dad’s addiction wasn’t a small problem I could ignore. I don’t know what it was about that day. There were certainly worst days, days he’d chase me to my room, or snap at my mom until she’d cry. No, it was the day I asked him a question and he paused. In that small moment before he even registered my question, I was so scared I couldn’t even breathe. I didn’t know if he was going to answer my question or threaten me, and I wondered how I was so stupid as to attract his attention. After he answered my question and walked away, I suddenly realized how bizarre it was to be afraid of the man who was supposed to love me. And how wrong it was that I had a reason to. 

That was the day when I learned alcoholism ate away at people until there was only a shell left, and that our little “secret” wasn’t so little after all. I started to notice other people’s “little secrets”: I’d hear whispers that my missing friends were actually in mental hospitals and murmurs about a friend whose parents were getting a divorce. Suffering was all around me, but I had been too blind to see it.  

As a way to help alleviate suffering around me, I began to raise service dogs for Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD). So many of the partners SSD provided dogs for had disabilities that were invisible, like PTSD or anxiety. They probably tried to keep their illnesses as secrets too, until they couldn’t anymore. It’s only when they asked for help from organizations like SSD that they could get better. The dogs I raised gave their partners confidence and safety, and made the illnesses not so unbearable. Raising service dogs caused me to understand that illnesses like my dad’s alcoholism can’t get better unless we ask for help. 

It was alcoholism itself that made me realize that we always need to be on the lookout to help others with their problems. I can’t pretend I live in a perfect world, because the problems alcoholism causes in my own home proves I don’t. Things aren’t always as they appear to be, and we need to be alert to others suffering. When people saying that they’re fine, just going through a tough time, do they mean it? 

I’ve since forgiven my dad, and after seeing how hard he’s fought to get to into remission, I now truly believe that addiction is a disease, not a choice. He has gotten much better now; after a year of no work, he has just started a new job. Our household no longer swings between violent arguments and a tension-filled silence. However, our family is still struggling with the financial impacts of alcoholism. His lack of a stable income over the years as he has jumped from job to job made it difficult to fund my college education. This scholarship would help make it possible for me to go to college. I hope to use my eventual career to help others who struggle with invisible problems. 

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