02/05/2015 05:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Secret Life of a Teenage Caregiver

Dusica Paripovic via Getty Images

The keys of my computer made a series of muted clicks as I typed, the computer screen giving off a soft glow in my small bedroom. At 15 years old I should have gone to bed long ago, but no one was there to reprimand me. My father had passed out on the couch hours before from a mix of painkillers and exhaustion. Perhaps it had been an accident, perhaps he had taken one too many pills on purpose to help him slip from consciousness and the cold reality of life.

Hours ago I screamed at him as he lay passed out, yelling angrily for him to get off the couch and go to bed. My curses turned into sobs, begging him not to do this again. Not to leave me alone while he slipped into a prescription drug induced sleep that cut off all connection with the man that had once been my hero. Not once did he stir -- the pills had done their job. The tears subsided, like they always did, and I turned off the TV and resigned myself to another night like so many others. My father was not an alcoholic, was not an illegal drug user, was not a bad man. He was torn apart by a disease that crippled him and stole his ability to be the father I remembered. Peripheral Neuropathy was slowly killing my father by stealing his ability to function, and the prescription drugs that were meant to manage his pain were slowly stripping away what little dignity he had left.

Hours passed, and it was now 1:00 a.m. on a school night. Through my closed door I heard movement, and then a loud bang in our small apartment as something hit the floor of the living room. My fingers stilled at the keyboard, waiting. Listening. Like something out of a horror movie came a terrifying sound I knew all too well -- a hoarse scream for help. Begging. Anguished. Scared.

As I opened my door in fear, my father drug himself across the wall of the hallway, dazed and clearly under the effects of the opiates the doctor had given him for the pain. His words slurred, and he reached out to me. I tried to brace him, to catch him as he fell, but at 15 years old and 100 pounds I collapsed under his weight.

Anger burned through me. Humiliation tore away my logic. He said something unintelligible, attempting to speak and instead called me by his sister's name. I screamed at him while tears streaked down my face, so angry and hurt and scared that this was my life. At 15, why did I have to go through this? Why was I alone the one who had to try to drag him to his bedroom, to make sure he didn't choke in his sleep? I ached at the unfairness, and yet knew that there was no alternative. I was all he had left.

He looked at me, crumpled beneath him on that little apartment floor, and I saw the shame in his eyes. The brokenness, the way he hated himself in that moment. I saw him struggle to surface from the drug-induced hallucinations, and then slip back into confusion. In that moment I hated myself.

I hated the anger I felt towards him, hated the way I treated him in his moments of weakness. I hated the doctors that gave him the opiates that eventually took over his life, and I hated the disease that robbed me of the father that had taught me to play baseball and make the best ice cream sundaes in the world. Most of all I hated that there was nothing I could do to save him and that in the morning he would not remember any of this. I hated that I had to carry this shame alone and that the one person I could go to with any fear, any problem, was the person who was now lying on the floor -- too broken to fix it.

He drove me to school the next morning, and we didn't speak of the night before. We tucked it away in a box far away in the closet of our memories and refused to acknowledge it. If he had memories of these times I was forced to play both parent and caregiver, he didn't speak of it. My father and I were in this together. Alone. This was far from the first time, and it wouldn't be the last. He would need me again, broken and helpless. I would be there, a teenager angry and scared, masking my secret life behind cheerleading and academics and trying to care for a man who could no longer care for himself.

Because he was my father, and I loved him.


Photo by Justin James Photography

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.