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Six Life Lessons My Crackhead Dad Taught Me 

Photographer Credit: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

Absent dads and substance abuse, In this personal essay, Alexie explores what it’s like to grow up with a father who might not seem like the best of role models.

‘I want everybody to think about how their parents are role models and share it with the class…’

I’m in primary school. Year 3, no older than nine. It’s the first lesson of the day and Mrs O’Neil is explaining the task to the class. ‘I want everybody to think about how their parents are role models and share it with the class,’ she says.

My heart instantly sinks. I don’t know how to answer that question. I barely even have a dad around, let alone view him as a role model. One by one, everyone begins to share stories about their mums and dads. I don’t have either. As my turn comes around, I feel out of place. I felt like I have nothing to say because my situation is the wrong answer. Where is my role model?

Growing up, I didn’t really have anyone in my life I looked up to as role models. My mum passed away when I was three, meaning I lived with my grandad and older sister in Exeter. My dad, a conflicted man, opted to be a career criminal to fund his drug addictions, resulting in me never viewing him in an inspirational light. As I grew older, I began to try and develop a relationship with him. Spending time meeting him in the school holidays in Bristol, I soon learned the ins and outs of what his life consisted of. Dealing, robbing, and scamming are where a few of my dad’s talents lie. Being around him, I got to experience the forcefully negative impact drug dependency can have on an individual. Here is eight life lessons my crackhead dad taught me. So I guess, in a strange way, I do have a role model, just not in the way you’d expect:

1. Drug Addicts Are People Too

My dad is forever sharing with me his overly ambitious plans to take over the Bristol reggae scene with his music, or his dreams of being an olympic table tennis player. Being around my dad reminds me to percieve drug addicts as normal people, who have family, friends, emotions, talents, ambitions, just like the rest of us. There are a range of reasons people can get hooked on drugs. Some may be abusing substances as a coping mechanism for trauma they have experienced in their life. Others could be self-medicating to cope with their mental health. Some might gain a drug dependency through regular recreational usage, and for many it may be a mixture of different things.

2. The Dangers Of Self-Medicating Mental Health Issues With Drugs

At 12, I remember spending days around Bristol with my dad; having to wait outside crack dens in St Pauls. After standing around doing nothing for a long 20 minutes, he would inconspicuously come back out, untroubled by the fact he had left me waiting for him outside to smoke crack. His whole existence revolving around how to get money to fund his next fix. I knew my dad suffered from mental illness, and wondered if he overcome that, could it make battling his addictions easier?

According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, roughly 29% of all people diagnosed with a mental illness are also abusing alcohol or drugs. People not being able to get the right support needed, can lead them to finding their own solutions. Often leaning towards drugs and alcohol as a short-term relief. Self-medicating mental illness through substance abuse, can create additional problems and side effects that can worsen the very mental health symptoms initially being numbed or relieved. Seeing first-hand the life substance addiction forces my dad to exist, highlighted to me the importance of not attempting to self-medicate.

3. The Importance Of Self-Love

Looking after your, social, physical and mental wellbeing are three musts for self love. Surprisingly, a life of substance abuse does no wonders to your physical health. Although my dad is still relatively healthy, I can’t help but wonder what shape he could be in now if he had lived a cleaner drug free life. He often jokes with me, ‘Do you think you can beat me in a race yet?’ If he looked after his body better, perhaps I couldn’t.


Both, your mental wellbeing and physical health are really important to try and preserve. Looking after yourself helps you to boost your confidence and self-esteem, as well as reducing the chances of getting ill. You only have one body in life, look after your body and your body will look after you.

4. Being Resourceful

When I was 14, there was a Banksy exhibition at Bristol Museam that everyone was really excited to see. The line to get in went on for miles, wrapping back and forth around the entrance and then all the way up park street. It would must of taken hours of waiting to get in. I remember me and my dad performing a card trick on a steward convincing him to let us skip the queue if we got his card right — it was a great exhibition. All we had was a pack of cards and our resourcefulness.

That was a rare moment with my dad however, as growing up without him around me meant I had to teach myself loads of skills you’d expect to learn from a parent: like, how to ride my bike, fix my bike, shave, the sorts of things most people take for granted. Now, if my dad was around, I’m sure I would of learnt these skills, however, by not being there, I learnt the invaluable skill of resourcefulness and finding solutions to problems by myself.

5. Living In The Moment

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Although my dad faces his own challenges, he still seems to live a pretty fulfilling life. Investing time in producing his reggae, performing stand up at open mics and playing table tennis with friends in the park. In this, fast-paced, frantic world we live in today, my dad helps to remind me the importance of taking a step back, to live in the present and find reasons to live for today.

6. Understanding How Much Destruction Addiction Can Bring To Your Life

My dad has had his life stolen by his substance abuse. Impacting his relationships and career prospects, in addition to encouraging him into a criminal way of life to feed his unsustainable addictions. The sad reality is that there is a real lack of support offered to our societies most vulnerable. With thousands of deaths caused by drug abuse recorded in 2015, how many more thousands are suffering without support for their addiction? Isn’t it in everyones best interest to help create more productive members of society that can contribute?

‘He was actually an unintentional good role model’

In many ways by having such a terrible father, he was actually an unintentional good role model. Teaching me life lessons that most people might never learn, or learn well into their adult years: empathy, self-care, resourcefulness, the importance of not self-medicating, living in the moment enjoying the presence, the dangers of substance abuse.

My dad’s lack of maturity, responsibility, selflessness led to me realising that ultimately you don’t need to aspire to be like anyone. You can simply aspire to be a better you. You can learn something from any situation, regardless of how terrible it is. My father’s lack of parenting helped me to learn many lessons that make me who I am today, and for that I am grateful. Perhaps he’s not such a bad role model after all?

Tell us about your role models, good or bad, and what they have given you. Comment or tweet us @rifemag