That was his question, Stefan Åsberg, correspondent for SVT.
This past weekend I participated in the filming of a segment about marijuana use in the U.S. for Swedish television (the segment will air in August).
How did they find me? I received an email from Alexa at SVT.se who had seen my blog and wanted to know if I could recommend someone for their segment about marijuana. She was looking for a woman in her 40s whose parent had smoked marijuana during her childhood. I was like, “Well…I fit that profile, but let me reach out for someone else.” Anyone else.
She said that I’d do. But then said that ideally my marijuana-smoking parent should be involved as well. Hard stop. “Yeah, no. That’s not going to work,” was my reply. Then, about a week or two later, I heard from her again and we could go ahead with just my part of the story. Phew. (Anyone wondering why I didn’t want to invite my dad to participate should know that I shy away from filming situations that have unpredictable outcomes. And the idea scared the hell out of me. What if my dad said no? What if he said yes? What if he revealed something horrible to me? What if he defended and justified his drug use? Worst of all, what if he shrugged off or laughed at my experience and feelings, my childhood pain? That felt too risky.)
When Alexa left me a message a day later that Stefan and the cameraman, Andreas Zernell, were in town and ready to come over to my house, reality set in. “Now? Here?” was my reaction. What adult child from a chaotic childhood doesn’t like to prepare her mind and nerves!? “Yep. They’re close by so if you can shoot this weekend, well — we’re ready.” And so that’s how Stefan and Andreas came to spend two days filming at my house.
Before I knew it would turn into a two-day shoot, I assumed they’d be in-and-out, arrive at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and be out by 1:30 p.m. when my son was coming home and we’d head to his friend’s birthday party. Timing was tight. The logistics were perplexing. But it felt right to roll with it.
Stefan sat on my couch, and asked me some questions:
What do you think the impact of legalizing marijuana will be on families? How did your dad’s marijuana use affect you? Do you remember your dad smoking pot?
We talked a bit. Then he said, “Would it be OK if we got started?”
I swallowed and was like, “You really want to do this?”
He was like, “Yes, we want your story.”
I told him that when I was a kid and my father got high, it was like watching him open a door and go through it alone, then having to watch and wait outside that door.
I heard myself say, more than once, that my childhood wasn’t turned upside down by my father’s marijuana use alone; the weed habit wasn’t all, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. There were other influences, like having both my parents split when I was four and living with my grandparents without any idea how long that would be. Getting a stepmother thrown at me, for one. There was my mother’s drug abuse and manic-depression. There was my father’s own depression and alcoholism. Let’s be honest, there was my grandfather’s alcoholism, my great-grandfather’s, etc. And that’s just one side of the family. All that would take a big vacuum to hold it.
After a while of talking and filming, they wondered if we could do more shooting over the weekend. I was excited and panicked. Could I roll with the unexpected? We did a take with me making tea in the kitchen. I had already made the tea, actually, but this time I made it again for the camera. That’s when Stefan asked the Big Question: “Have you ever talked to your father about this? Have you ever told him how his marijuana use affected you?”
Maybe it was Stefan’s sapphire eyes or the compelling honesty of his question — “Why not?” — but something made it clear as day to me: I didn’t have an answer.
Umm, I don’t know.
Sure, there were reasons why I hadn’t talked to my dad about it, and I threw a few forward -
Part of me doesn’t want to make my dad mad.
I don’t want to start a family drama.
It’s really uncomfortable to talk about this stuff.
Honestly, it’s in the past, I’m over it.
Still, no one had yet asked it in that way. That’s why, on the way back from the birthday party later that day, I called my dad. “Swedish TV is here talking with me about growing up with a parent who used marijuana, er, you. Do you want to come up tomorrow and talk with them, share your perspective?”
He was game.
Specifically, he said, “You mean talk about getting high every day of my life for nearly two decades?” Gulp. Wow. (“It was that much,” I thought to myself. “My seven year old’s instincts were spot-on.”) Yeah, that, I said.
My dad came for the second day of shooting. I’d already talked about what my experience was like, the day before, but I had the opportunity to say what it was like to my father that second day. It wasn’t as scary as you’d think. It was…powerful. That’s the word. I think the power of what we each shared about our own experience of those years will take a while (weeks? months? years?) to find all the spaces in each of us that that it needs to reach.
“What Was It Like for You When Your Father Smoked Pot?”
Stefan asked me that, and you know what? I’ve never been asked that question in my life. For all the years that I’ve written about how adult children of dysfunctional families and alcoholics can turn their lives around, I hadn’t ever described what it was like to have a high parent as a kid. And then came Swedish TV, asking; like really asking. (I know most of you know what it’s like to be unheard and invisible and even when you’re asked questions — well, the question-askers we used to surround ourselves with didn’t truly listen to us answer because they were readying what they’d say next about themselves.)
I told him that I felt less interesting to my dad than pot. I could sense that there was something that smoking a joint did to him. You could say that I was envious of marijuana because it stole him from me; it held intrigue, it was something he loved (more), it was smoky and magical-looking, and it was unexplained and mysterious. That sounds a lot like a description of “the other woman,” or a secret. Marijuana was my dad’s other woman. I was homely, short, and boring, or so it felt. I felt that I needed a schtick to get his attention; being me, being alive — those weren’t enough.
Back then, at six and seven, I was still coping with the disappointment around my dad coming to claim me from my grandparents, where I’d lived for a year or two, because when he claimed me it wasn’t just him. I never got just him, it was always just a piece. He had a girlfriend in tow, and we three lived together. I got the ghost. And I got a stepmother. I felt invisible. Were we all just odd, disassembled apparitions living under one roof?
The feeling of having a high parent was that of being abandoned. Yet the twist is that he didn’t physically leave to abandon me. I had his physical presence. He was there but not there. Every time he used (and I really didn’t have “proof” of him using — I only remember him getting high twice!) I felt scared. I felt the kind of fear one does when separated in a huge, loud crowd of people, anxious, like I was being left on the corner in the middle of town at dusk, ill equipped to deal in the environment. In a word, I felt lonely.
We were there under the same roof. Yet our experiences were incredibly different. I leaned towards him, and he away from me, away from convention, from being present, from intimacy, from society and toward work and drugs. That doesn’t mean he didn’t love me. He did, he loved me a great deal and I knew it. He was in his early twenties. It was the early 70s and it was important to him to celebrate the counter-culture born in the 1960s. Yet, he had a daughter. He believed that I was young enough to not notice what was going on, that I saw him smoke his Winston cigarettes all the time and wouldn’t register the difference between a cigarette and a joint.
He looked regretful. I know that he is sorry.
Stefan commented that there’s clearly a good deal of love between my dad and I. It’s true. And neither of us came to the conversation with anything more than curiosity about the past and a willingness to speak truthfully.
Listening to him tell his story, and telling mine to Stefan and to my dad was important. Powerful. I feel good about sharing it because it’s true, because my experience may speak for voiceless others, and because the experience is universal. A bit too universal. I’m hardly alone in any headcount of children of addicts. I wouldn’t say that I feel transformed by the experience of discussing the past with my father nor by speaking about what I experienced when my dad smoked marijuana. By the same token, I don’t feel gutted or depleted by the experience either.
By god, I feel even-keel.
* * *