Fathers for the Fatherless

A Father’s Day Wish

By Teresa Cobleigh

Father’s Day is a time to celebrate great fathers and mark their important roles in our lives. It is also especially difficult for the fatherless. Let us celebrate our good fathers and also those good people in our lives who stand for us as fathers would. Hats off to our personal heroes—the sponsors, mentors, adoptive parents, friends, relatives, and coaches who rise to serve an influential role and fill a void where a father may be missing. On Father’s Day, we commend your significant contribution in supporting emotional health and well-being.

Consider the importance of fathers in the field of addiction. In prevention, we look to protective factors that can mitigate and counter the weight of other risks for substance use disorder and contribute to resilience. In recovery, we look to build recovery capital to protect against relapse. A strong relationship with a father or father figure seems to be worth its weight in gold.

According to Fatherhood.gov, an excellent resource for fathers, “Teenagers who report more emotional closeness with their fathers are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol than teenagers who report less emotional closeness with their fathers. Teenagers with more involved nonresident fathers are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior (e.g., stealing, cheating in school, using drugs or alcohol) than those with less involved nonresident fathers.”

The Fatherless Generation cites a barrage of statistics to support their advocacy for involved parenting from fathers: “Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two or three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents,” they claim. Also, they claim 63 percent of youth suicides and 90 percent of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes. Fatherhood.gov affirms: “Positive father involvement is linked to children’s social and behavioral well-being…Father absence is associated with widespread negative outcomes for children at all stages of development.”

Allow me to share my personal opinion and experience, which do not necessarily reflect the official clinical perspective of Herren Project as an organization. I’ve come to know the plight of young adolescents I call “the lost boys,” usually fatherless or lacking a key parental relationship in their lives. I’ve listened to the stories in family circles at recovery centers. I’ve mentored a few young men. When my father died, I considered his influence on my life. He was my hero, and his validation provided a stable footing for me. I never doubted his love, and I always knew he would be rooting for me. His return to our family after a marital separation made a huge difference in my risky behavior as a teenager and fostered success in my academics. Ladies, too, have daddy issues, as John Meyer highlights so beautifully in his song “Daughters.”

Sadly, my sons would not have the same foundational support I had in my adolescence. My divorce was contentious, and I acknowledge my role in creating family disharmony and depriving my children of a positive relationship with their father. This factor could have supported their resilience against substance use. Maintaining a level head through a divorce was one of the greatest challenges in my life, and his too, and yet regrettably so very important. Echo the words of the divorce expert Judith Wallerstein, who studied the effect of divorce on children in her 25-year landmark study. Based on her limited sample in Southern CA, heavy drug use among children of divorce in high school was 85%, compared to 24% for the control group of intact families. The image of tipping the scales against my children haunted me for years as I recognized they were collateral damage (see excerpt from Mama T’s Rap-sody: 24 goes to 85*).

My kids fell into unhealthy coping habits, self-medicating to escape the emotional pain of having their hero depart from their life. Drugs and alcohol have a way of taking a stronghold when a person uses to feel good because they normally don’t. Getting high seems an easy way to transcend a painful reality. When a beloved parent leaves, kids might feel a gaping emotional hole, a void so palpable that every single day hurts, and they would look to fill it one way or another. Sadly, my son Graham became a casualty of addiction five years after our divorce.

When children die, all conflict leading up to that point becomes the general background noise of discordance. Why couldn’t we see that nothing was more important than creating the conditions for children to live in harmony and peace without creating inner conflict or emotional turmoil that makes them want to rage outwardly or hate themselves or cut their skin or drown out with drugs and alcohol and disregard life? Looking back, we needed to remind ourselves of our roles in providing a nurturing, loving, and harmonious environment so our children could thrive.

Some kids self-destruct, while others rage. Consider the father factor in hate crimes and mass shootings. In Uvalde, Texas, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos’ biological father was absent from his life, and his mother allegedly had a history of drug use. He lived with his mother’s boyfriend, many years older, who claims he could not make a connection with him. The boy was a loner, bullied at school, self-destructive, cutting his face, and generally an angry young man. Some have called him “evil,” but I wonder what is from nature and what is from lack of nurture.

What was lacking in his environment to spawn such rage? Do we have compassion for their suffering and see in each perpetrator a potential victim? What can we do in our communities to bolster the support for children who lack positive father relationships in their lives?

On Dec 14, 2012, my then 15-year-old son Graham wrote about the Sandy Hook shooting. We had grown up in a neighboring town and had traveled to Newtown, CT, for football, so the shooting struck close to home. He had learned about 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who had his emotional and behavioral struggles before his parents’ divorce. There had been a close relationship between Adam and his father before the divorce, but things changed afterward. He no longer got the attention and support he needed.

I believe Graham saw a little of himself in Adam’s history and put himself in Adam’s shoes. The discord of my divorce brought inner conflict as he found himself caught between two contentious perspectives by the two people he loved. Anger toward his father was mixed with a longing for him. These are his words:

“So tell me, why does this happen so much today? Why are so many innocent lives lost? Where is the love and compassion we should all show? Is it covered up by too much hate to answer a cry for help? All we can do is pray that it won’t happen again, but it always does. This disastrous day will always be in my heart. Full with fury but conflicted with compassion, I want this anger to go away. How can I forgive but not get over it? I want this anger inside to die. I want to be able to feel the warmth within my heart. I wish this anger inside would die.”

Can we not put ourselves in the lost boys’ shoes and find compassion for their suffering? Can we not provide additional support for those children with issues at home? The family unit is decimated for so many teens, so we look to our communities. Our churches struggle to attract young people. Our teams attract the athletic. Schools focus on testing and performance when emotional and social wellness is equally important. In our society and culture, more and more young people, feeling isolated and alone, fall through the cracks. Without people and programs that focus on wellness, we leave our kids at risk. We, as a society, fail our youth.

I came to Herren Project with my own personal passions and opinions, committed to offering my insights and reflections for the benefit of others, and I feel blessed to be part of the solutions that may have made a difference with my son Graham. What can we do to bolster the protective factors for the children around us, in our schools, and in our communities? For one, we can focus on youth and teen mental health to provide a safety net and build social support. As an addiction nonprofit committed to prevention and recovery, Herren Project aims to build protective factors by putting peer support, guidance, and inspiration into the equation. Herren Project Clubs bring social and emotional learning skills to schools. We recently announced we now have two on-staff certified trainers for teaching Youth and teen Mental Health First Aid through the National Council of Mental Wellbeing to educate parents, caregivers, and teens on the warning signs of someone struggling. We sound the inspirational voice and example of Chris Herren. We provide support for caregivers.

For those in recovery, we symbolically walk with each individual, affirming them that they are not alone and are worth the fight. We build “recovery capital” as a primary strategy for dealing with relapse prevention, which is especially significant in the early weeks. We provide safety as security in stable housing, hold the standard and expectation of employment and skin in the game, and are there to provide help for addiction with a peer recovery coach. Coaches serve as mentors to support, inspire and empower, much like a father would. By boosting these supports in the vulnerable early days, we extend recovery time and lower relapse rates. As an organization, we stand in like a father.

As part of our mission, we aim to inspire. We uphold core values with a vision and hope for the future and lead by example. We believe one person can make a difference, as Chris Herren exemplified when he founded an organization committed to helping others. So let us recognize the protective asset a father provides to youth and inspire those able and willing to play a fatherly role. We can make a difference in our personal lives, and may these words inspire you. You, too, can stand like a father. Extend your hand. Rise for the fatherless.

Every person deserves a personal hero to encourage and affirm them in their lives. Some of us are blessed with fathers and mentors around us, while others are bereft but no less worthy. Let us take on civic roles and professions that serve our young. Let us look to the youth around us. Each of us can shepherd a lost sheep, walking beside them with compassion and brotherly love. The world needs more father figures. Our emotional well-being and the safety of our communities are at stake.

So a wish for Fathers’ Day, and may all with ears hear it: may there be fathers for the fatherless. If you can serve in a fatherly role for a young person in need, please rise.

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*Excerpt from The Key of G, Mama T’s Rap-sody: 24 goes to 85

Graham Cobleigh

Candlelight flickers by his photograph;
He smiles from his picture, but he ain’t comin back;
She fidgets with the digits in the aftermath.
It’s Monday morning; she’s the quarterback.

Now the number’s high, and numbers don’t lie–
Takes it from 24 to 85,
that’s 3 times plus a nickel and dime.
Chances are they’re doin’ those lines,
Steelin’ or lying or doing time.
Struggling kids with that addiction bug
’Cause you tipped the scale toward doin’ drugs.

Matrimonial holes in the measuring cup.
Looking for love, love to light it up.
Fuel for the fill; never measure up.
Bet on a number, and his number is up.

24 goes to 85; that’s 3 times plus a nickel and dime.
24 for the stable,
85, broken label,
Put your nickels and dimes on the table.
24 goes to 85, the factor: divorce,
Now tell me, do ya bet on that horse?