Although the desire for escape may be the reason behind many alcoholics’ drinking problems, Santa Barbara author and teacher Melissa Broughton perhaps unknowingly used escape as a temporary solution for dealing with being raised by an alcoholic father. It wasn’t until six years ago — and after her father’s death — that Broughton decided to pen her experiences into Cowboy Dad, a memoir that helped with the grieving process while also teaching Broughton to separate her father’s character from the illness.
“I’ve been writing the book for five years, but think subconsciously I knew I was going to write the book when I was 24 or 25,” Broughton said. “When my dad died, I was beside myself….I also needed to understand for myself because I was really confused when he died from the withdrawals.”
At age 25, Broughton left behind the years she spent on cattle ranches in Wyoming and Colorado in favor of the sunny California coast. In Chapter 4 of Cowboy Dad, Broughton iterates the challenge of leaving her family behind as well as a broken marriage in her hope of beginning a new life beyond the struggles in her hometown. But despite her big move, teaching jobs, graduate school, and even a three-month stint in Italy, Broughton felt a tug in her heart, knowing she could not leave the past until she had come to terms with it.
As the oldest of two, Broughton recalled taking on the role of superhero when it came to holding the family together, especially regarding the cowboy’s unpredictable behavior. Broughton turned to her many extracurricular activities and studies, striving for consistency outside a home life that was not.
“What happens with children of alcoholics is we take on and develop certain roles and we do that to survive our circumstances,” Broughton said. “I think children of alcoholics are good about controlling their environment so they know what to expect.”
While it may not be common for the children of alcoholics to reflect fondly on family members struggling with the disease, Broughton remembers her father as supportive and caring, unlike many of the media portrayals of alcoholics. He was never violent and never angry Broughton said, so much as emotionally unavailable and absent during her teen years.
“The thing about my dad is everyone loved him. He was such a likeable, charismatic person. So even the people that tried to help him couldn’t be mad at him,” Broughton recalled. “Everyone has a genuine, positive memory of my dad….We don’t have bad feelings towards him at all; it’s completely the opposite.”
Broughton believes that this memoir is a proper introduction to her father — not just the man who had battled a disease for most of his life, but as the man Broughton says people came to know and love in spite of his propensity towards alcohol.
“The interesting thing about living in a small town is that everyone knows your business. So I think everyone knew [about my dad’s alcoholism], but my dad was a very good dad,” Broughton continued, smiling while reflecting on times when the cowboy helped her with her cheerleading routines, school projects, and even the procurement of an expensive Persian cat. “I’d go through all these stories because that is how I survive my grief; remembering those times instead of him passed out on the tractor.”
Prior to the Cowboy’s death, Broughton and others close to her father tried to provide him with medical help and rehabilitation he so desperately needed. Unfortunately these attempts failed, leading to a strained relationship between Broughton and the cowboy.
While writing Cowboy Dad, Broughton earned her Alcohol and Drug Counseling certificate to better understand her father’s problems. However, Broughton realizes that those less educated on the effects of drugs and alcohol may not view alcoholism as a “legitimate” illness.
“It’s not a matter of strength or weakness — it’s an illness,” Broughton said. “I think on the positive side, the stigma on mental disorder and addiction is lessening….I think people are starting to understand it as a disease. I think as adults, we do have a responsibility to want to get better. By the time he [the cowboy] was ready to help himself, it was already too late.”
Another crucial step in the writing process for Broughton was returning to rural Wyoming during the last six months of writing. There, Broughton was able to gather inspiration from the cowboy and ranching environments from her youth.
“I think it was really important for me to go back to the place where [the book] had roots and where it ended,” Broughton explained. “In the last part of me finishing my book in Wyoming, it was important for me to be with my mom.”
Readers should make no mistake about the seeming distance Broughton uses by referring to her father as “the Cowboy” rather than “Dad.” In fact, Broughton was quick to elaborate on the reason for this nickname. While Broughton did admit that the name “the Cowboy” tended to describe the man in his times of drunken rowdiness, it also described the image of the authentic cattle rancher of her childhood.
“I find that the fact that he was a cowboy — a real cowboy — is really cool,” Broughton said.
Broughton will be hosting a free book signing for Cowboy Dad at Chaucer’s Bookstore on Wednesday, June 17 at 7 p.m. On Father’s Day, also be sure to check out the “Cowboy Burger” at Yellow Belly (2611 De la Vina Street; 805-770-5694; yellowbellytap.com) in honor of Cowboy Dad.