Drug Rehab 2021 Round 2 – Teaching is Healing

Name: Sarah Anderson

Teaching is Healing

“Your dad is at a no drinking meeting.”

I remember the words my mother spoke to me like it was yesterday. I was 11, beginning sixth grade. Inquisitive and curious, I asked one too many times where Dad was and why he was working his concrete job at 8:00pm on a Thursday night. My stomach flipped. This was why he left, why he was so angry and sometimes drove really safely with me and sometimes drove way too fast others. Her answer connected so many questions and wonderings I had. Things made sense. And they also became significantly more complex.

When home doesn’t feel like a safe place, where do kids go? Where is their haven, their sanctuary, where they feel safe and feel like they belong?

For me, it was school. After I learned of my Dad’s drinking problem, school became my sanctuary. School was stable. Predictable. Comfortable. I knew what to expect. What if I was late to Mrs. Johnson’s English class? Not a problem. I’d be welcome anyway. Struggling with my statistics homework? Mr. Beal would be there to help me at lunch and after school. During my Rocky Mountain Adventure class, Coach Mac helped me connect to nature and all the ways people could heal in the outdoors. When my adults at home were unpredictable and unreliable, I knew there were people I could lean on at school. I found as many excuses to stay late, to spend as little time home as possible. School was my sanctuary.

Home was the opposite. My mom did all that she could to keep my brother and I healthy, safe, happy. But my father made that difficult. Each night, around 5:00 o’clock or 5:30 when he should have been off work and making his way home, tension grew. Would he be sober? Would we act like a family, eat dinner together, go for a walk before the sun set, talk about our days? Or would we each spend the night alone in our separate rooms, avoiding talking about the issue, avoiding the anger, tiptoeing around my father until he passed out in front of the television. Some people have asked my mom why she stayed, myself included. She was trying to get through my father’s alcoholism too. As much as his drinking affected my adolescence, it affected her too. Everyone operated in survival mode and did what they could.

This pattern repeated until I was 17 and about to graduate from high school, when my parents should have been helping me visit colleges, apply for financial aid, and plan where I would live. Instead Mrs. Johnson stayed late to make sure I stayed on track to graduate. She helped apply for schools and meet deadlines and edit my college admissions essays. She shared that she too grew up with an alcoholic parent and we both teared up at how we deserved better. Mr. Beal made sure I had the skills to pass my finals and get the credits I needed. Coach Mac gave me tools to heal myself in the mountains. All of these people gave me something I desperately needed and hoped for: confidence and the feeling of self worth. These teachers made me feel like I was worth the effort and worth their time. They were thrilled when I declared my major to be English education so I could become a teacher, and hopefully be like them.

Ten years later, I have my own classroom in Aurora, Colorado teaching Language Arts to sixth graders. My students face so many challenges and overcome so much to be successful. I see so much of myself in my students and we bond when I tell them parts of my story. I was their age when I found out about my dad’s addiction and his choice to drink over his choice to act like a dad. Teaching is healing, and as I support my students, I’m healing myself and my experience with an addicted parent.

I was 17 and when the relationship with my dad was nearly too far gone to repair. It took many tries for his work in recovery to stick, but something about his last try was different. By November of my senior year, he had his one month chip. Mrs. Johnson helped me process and understand why he decided to stay sober when I was leaving so soon.

Teaching has helped heal my relationship with my father. Learning about how trauma impacts brain development didn’t just help me be a better educator for my students, it helped me understand why my father made the choices he did all those years he drank. I didn’t understand why he would choose to cause trauma to his own kids. Now I get it. I know how his own parents impacted him, how trauma can be passed down. I know his early attempts to stay sober were earnest and a struggle. October 15th, 2021 was his ten year sobriety anniversary. Today, we have a real relationship. I can call him and get help, he talks to me about his childhood, we go to concerts together.

My father’s addiction stemmed from trauma of his childhood and his own father’s alcoholism. Addiction trickles down from as far back as my dad can remember, and stigma around getting help prevented him from even asking. In his family’s culture, men are strong and handle family business privately. Being open to support and accepting that mental health and trauma need to be talked about has so much potential to heal families and in turn heal communities. Education systems play a major role in supporting this work. Providing teachers training and further education will improve our ability to help students process experiences and regulate their emotions.

This scholarship will help me be the best possible teacher for my students and develop skills to support their needs, build relationships, and improve my practices for every child that enters my room.