My Dad Had A Shameful Compulsion. I Never Thought I’d Grow Up To Share The Same Secret.


As we stepped through the sliding glass doors of Walgreens, my dad’s words hung in the air. Avoiding eye contact with me, he muttered, “I need to pick up my pills, wait for me in the toy aisle.”

The doors closed behind us with a swoosh, and I watched him, unable to tear my eyes away. Before reaching the pharmacy window, he grabbed two small boxes off the shelf and discreetly slipped them into the pocket of his shiny Chicago Cubs jacket. My dad, a proud recovering alcoholic and devoted Alcoholics Anonymous member, had replaced his addiction to heroin, cocaine and booze with an unlikely substitute: Afrin nasal spray, which he referred to as “nose drops.” The more troubling addiction was how he acquired them.

This scene played out far too often during my prepubescent years. As he pocketed items, I’d surreptitiously scan our surroundings, mortified, hoping nobody else had noticed. I’d keep my eyes locked on the store employees, watching for any sign of suspicion. I loved my dad’s free spirit, generosity and zest for life, but I wanted to be nothing like him in these moments.

Afterward, we’d go to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream.

My dad worked as a truck driver in the used auto parts business, a gritty and unglamorous trade. Every Monday, he’d don his blue coveralls and set off in his beat-up Chevy pickup truck, returning only when it was filled with used parts and he reeked of grease and cigarettes.

In our painfully middle-class town, I was acutely aware of our social standing. But once Dad shed his coveralls, he put effort into looking good, sporting shiny white sneakers and Levi’s. As an insecure, closeted gay boy, I didn’t share many common interests with my truck-driving, sports-loving dad, but a commitment to appearance was our unspoken bond.

Every weekend, he carried a wad of cash in his pocket from selling his weekly haul. I could feel his pride in his ability to provide for his family, but I could also sense his anxiety growing as the wad began to shrink. My dad was adventurous, impulsive and excessively generous, often giving away his last penny to make us happy.

I can’t pinpoint when my dad began stealing, but I despised it until I started benefiting from it. He would take me to the shoe section of K-Mart, where I would select a pair to try on. Removing the tags, he would say, “I’ll pay for these, why don’t you meet me by the car.” I knew what he was up to, but we were both committed to doing whatever we had to do to look good.

This system worked for a long time, until one winter day at Kohl’s.

“Pleeeeease, can I get K-Swiss shoes?” I pleaded with my dad on our way to the store. In 1991, white low-top K-Swiss sneakers were all the rage, and I had to have them.

At the store, my dad and I found ourselves in the shoe section. My heart raced; I knew this was my opportunity. Like a style-seeking missile, I methodically scanned the brightly lit aisles until I spotted the shoes on the top shelf. I grabbed the box and removed the lid: There they were, in my exact size.

“Try them on,” my dad said.

Trembling with excitement, I slipped my feet into them and strolled down the aisle feeling transformed ― cool and confident.

“OK,” he said, “I’ll pay for them and meet you at the car.”

Stealing shoes was so normal to me that I wasn’t even nervous. As I exited the first of two sets of glass doors, the bright winter sun bouncing off the snowy parking lot blinded me. I was contemplating how to keep my shoes pristine when I was jolted from my thoughts by a firm grip on my shoulder. I turned to find the imposing face of a giant security guard.

My body stiffened and my heart raced. Just as it had at Walgreens, shame and embarrassment washed over me, and I scanned the surroundings for witnesses. When my dad walked through the glass doors, I was relieved he was there to bail me out, but then I saw his cheek muscles bulging and fingers twitching in a nervous tic. I looked at him, desperate for comfort, but received only an ominous nod.

We were escorted to a small room at the back of the store. I sat down, trembling, while my dad hovered near the door. My old shoes rested in the K-Swiss box on the table.

The guard asked, “Did you pay for the shoes you’re wearing?”

I waited for my dad to speak. I had always assumed that if we ever got caught, he would save the day with a charming explanation like how I had seen him get out of speeding tickets.

At that moment, I knew I was abandoned. I shouldered the blame, omitting my dad’s role. The security guard let us go once my old shoes were back on my feet, but I left with a shame that I would carry for a long time. Afterward, I avoided shopping excursions with my dad, and part of the connection we had shared, however unhealthy, was severed.

I can’t say for certain when my dad stopped stealing, but it likely coincided with his diagnosis of cancer, which eventually rendered him physically incapable of venturing out alone. I didn’t steal anything for the next 13 years, until my dad’s passing when I was 25.

After his death, I felt utterly adrift, uncertain of my identity and purpose. I embarked on a quest to discover myself, one that led me to law school ― yet another endeavor aimed at projecting an image of success, rather than a true passion. Despite my complete lack of enthusiasm for or genuine interest in the legal profession, I managed to pass the bar exam, only to find myself with a career that I despised and mired in insurmountable student debt.

I felt like I’d stolen a life that didn’t belong to me. Each day, fear that I would be exposed as an impostor firmly gripped my shoulders. This might explain why I started stealing once again.

On my way to court, I would sneak into the Macy’s situated between my law firm and the courthouse and slip designer items into my briefcase along with the legal documents.

I convinced myself that wearing high-end labels and projecting an appearance of success would make me feel legitimate. However, this facade failed to fill the void within. I had inherited my father’s addiction, but underneath the theft was a profound sense that we were not enough.

For nearly a decade, I continued in this self-destructive cycle, promising myself after each theft that it would be the last. Over the years, I enlisted several therapists to help me overcome the compulsion, but my shame was so profound that I couldn’t even bring myself to tell them the reason I’d hired them.

Eventually, I left the legal profession behind and relocated to Los Angeles in an attempt to rediscover myself. I was in a Nordstrom fitting room at an upscale mall, where I intended to pilfer yet another designer shirt I thought would boost my sense of self-worth, when I glimpsed my reflection in the mirror and saw my father’s vacant eyes and nervous tics looking back at me. More profoundly, I recognized that his shame and fear mirrored my own.

I didn’t steal the Theory shirt that day, and I haven’t stolen anything since. Instead, I found a new career that fulfills me and surrounded myself with supportive friends who embrace my flaws and imperfections.

When I reflect on that childhood incident at Kohl’s, I don’t feel angry at my father. I’ve come to understand that he lacked the strength to speak up for me, and even more to confront his own fears. I am grateful I have found that strength within myself.

It is often said that in healing ourselves, we heal the generations that precede us and those that may follow. Today, as I walk a journey of self-discovery and self-worth, I feel good when I see my reflection. No matter what shoes I’m wearing.

Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.


Source link