Deep in the recesses of my past, a bleak darkness hides. It is a source of shame, this black hole that devoured me and nearly dragged those I love down with me, whom I’m certain felt the substantial pull of My close friends and family know the depths that it took me, how far into the abyss it dragged me down. They also know the will and fortitude it took to make my way out from under crushing weight of its control.
Nearly everyone I love knows. All except my teens. They don’t have the faintest inkling of my degradation. Truth is, I’m terrified to tell them. Terrified that they will think less of me. Terrified that they will step back from me, fear in their eyes. Terrified that I’ll lose their love for me. Terrified that they will no longer see me as their father, but as something less.
I’m terrified to tell them that I’ve been in prison.
That I was arrested and spent nearly a year of my life as an inmate.
What is even more worrisome for me is to tell them why I was incarcerated.
I was an addict, but not in thrall to drugs or liquor. My demon was gambling. I am scared out of my wits that once my kids learn the truth of me, the ugly side of me, they will only see me as what I was, and not what I am.
I was an addict, a junkie.
What I am today, though, is a father. A husband. A man who’s worked his way out of a shit heap of my own making, and managed to build a life that is more than I ever thought possible.
Nearly 25 years ago, I was arrested two days before Christmas. I was thrown in a cell in Dauphin County Prison, which happened to be right near a mall. Over the next two days, I watched through bars of a murky window the scores of people and cars moving briskly to get gifts for their loved ones. I let each armful of presents that walked by rip a part of my soul out. I was a terrible human being, and this was my atonement.
I’d stolen money to feed the gambling beast within. I’d lied to friends. I’d taken from my family, uprooting all trust they had in me. In the throes of my addiction, I’d rationalized these actions, falsely telling myself that if I could just hit the big bet, win against the odds stacked against me, just once, that I could pay everything back, and all would be well again.
But it never happened.
No matter the lies I told others to deceive them, the checks I wrote on bank accounts I had no money in, the way I pretended to be a person who had it all together. I was an addict. I was a deceiver. A liar. A charlatan who preyed on others. I deserved whatever punishment I was given.
The day after Christmas, I made a promise to myself. I was going to get myself well. I believed that if I could do that, then over time and with diligence, then perhaps I could regain the love and trust of my family. I knew this would not be an easy road; it would be one fraught with rightful accusations and angry words. My parents were the ones I needed to rebuild with the most. I’d taken money from them, even stole their credit cards. Though they never verbalized it, I knew they were devastated. I was determined to show them, through actions, not words – those I was gifted enough to use as a shield to my egregious behaviors – that I was the man they raised their son to be, not the craven thief I’d become.
I struggled mightily, working two full-time jobs for most of the first year of my parole. I worked hard at paying back the significant amount of money I’d stolen. And I worked even harder at proving to my family that I was no longer the pathological liar who had duped them at every turn.
It took years of demonstrating my rehabilitation, but I did exactly that. Years of barely scraping by, surviving on ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches. Years of rebuilding the foundation of trust I’d so wantonly destroyed because I chased the darkness.
A lot has happened in my life since then. I have married and divorced.I had two marvelous sons and added a fabulous daughter and son to my family when I remarried. I have worked in corporate IT for close to twenty year and I have lived a life that I’m grateful for, a life that might not have been possible if I had succumbed to my addiction.
I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed to tell my children about the grand mistake I made years before any of them were even alive.
Logically, I know that my kids will love me regardless of my past. They’ll see how I am now, as a man and a father. They’ll know I love them and care for them beyond any measurement that exists. Emotionally, I’m petrified. Doubt sits in the background, casually inserting itself just enough into my thoughts to cause chaos.
My wife, my champion, stands resolute by my side. She understands my hesitation, yet steadfastly reminds me of the unlikelihood that my fears will come to fruition. She empathizes with the side of me that believes I’m unworthy of the love I crave from my family. She also shoots straight with me. She fights the leviathan that is my doubt with truth and unequivocal love. Doubt doesn’t stand a chance to against the brilliance that is her light.
So this weekend, I will sit with my teens, the ones who I love and adore most, and explain to them the most unflattering season of my life.
I will tell them about my past addiction and all the ugly ways it infested my life. And then I will await their questions (there WILL be questions) and answer them as honestly and earnestly as I can.
I hope they’ll take my tale of struggle and apply the hard lessons I had to learn and endure and use them in their own lives. I hope the message of work ethic and perseverance wins out in their young impressionable minds.
I hope they won’t think less of me. I hope they’ll still see me as their father, less than perfect, but ever on their side.
I hope it will be easier for them than is has been for me.
Doug Zeigler is a father of four teens and a husband to one marvelous woman. Basketball, 80’s music trivia, and scotch are some but not all of his passions. He’s been featured in Huffington Post and The Good Men Project for his views on parenting and mindfulness. In his rare spare moments, he co-hosts the Parental Dadvisory podcast, a NSFW discussion about all things Fatherhood.