Michael Johnson will tell you that he does not remember much of his childhood. He will tell you that he blocked most of it out. And as soon as he starts telling you what he does remember, you will understand why.
Chad and Ashley Johnson were married in their early twenties. Chad eagerly adopted Ashley’s 4-year-old son, Tom, as his own, and Michael came along just a couple years later. The two served together as youth pastors, raising their boys in Chad’s childhood home in Parker, Colorado.
In the beginning, Michael was doted on by his loving parents. Michael hung the moon and stars for his dad, who insisted on rocking his son to sleep nearly every night. But as life became more contentious between Chad and Ashley, Chad worked and drank and avoided home more and more.
Quickly, Michael revealed himself to be a challenging kid. Undiagnosed hypoglycemia caused extreme mood swings. That paired with ADHD and some learning disabilities led him to frequently act out. He faced bullying at school, and the problems Michael faced at school only fanned the flame his parents sparked every time they were home together.
Before he would see his tenth birthday, his parents’ marriage was over. These years are still shrouded in bitter resentment, and over ten years later, it is extremely rare to hear either parent say something positive about the other.
“Your dad left us.”
That was the only explanation the boys would receive. It was up to them to fill in the blanks.
In the months following, the boys tried to keep up a relationship with their dad, but his descent into alcoholism was too much for them to watch. Tom went off to college and completely lost touch with Chad. Michael recalls that after a while, he felt like he needed to prioritize finding his own sense of stability. He focused on his social life, school sports, and his part-time job.
When Michael was 14, Chad called him to let him know that he was breaking his biggest promise. Chad was remarrying, and he wanted Michael as his best man. The hole Michael punched in the wall is still in his childhood bedroom. He stood by his dad that day, but the weekends at his house became fewer and farther between. Eventually, Michael stopped making time for his dad.
With both his older brother and his dad gone, Michael felt a responsibility to be the man of the house. Stress caused his mom’s health to rapidly deteriorate. Boxed wine was her medicine of choice until she got hooked on painkillers after a back surgery, right before Michael’s senior year of high school.
At 17 years old, Michael went to a concert with his mom and his girlfriend. Too early in the evening, he had to carry his inebriated mother out of the venue. She will never know of the verbal and emotional abuse he suffered because she will never remember those nights. This was the only parental figure he had left in his life. His grandparents watched the situation unfold at arm’s length. He had not spoken to his dad in a few years. He was alone.
Now, he was met with a choice: accept a football scholarship three states away or pursue a basketball scholarship close to home. He had already signed to play football for Hastings College, but his conscience would never let him abandon his mom. Still, he knew he could not keep living in the same household for much longer.
By chance, he ran into one of his dad’s Alcoholics Anonymous buddies.
“Your dad is two years sober now.”
Michael reached out to his dad almost immediately. After years, they were finally able to sit down and have an honest conversation about what happened nearly a decade before. Chad was now a much worldlier man, but a jollier one. This was the dad that Michael remembered from his early childhood, the dad that Michael thought he lost. Chad told his son about his failed marriage and apologized for his failures.
This level of vulnerability and openness astounded Michael. Finally, he felt safe enough to tell someone about what he was facing at home. Chad’s heart was broken for his son, and Michael’s was broken for his mom, but the two were finally reconciled.
Chad offered to let Michael move in with him and his wife, and Michael decided that would be the best possible situation. He knew his mom would be upset, but he would still be close enough to keep an eye on her, and their house was much closer to the school that would let him play basketball.
He moved in that summer, started working at a nearby coffee shop, and realized that his relationship with his mom’s side of the family was officially fractured. For years, he had felt abandoned by them. But now, the feeling was mutual.
College was a welcome distraction. Between work, girls, and basketball, Michael was not left with enough time to dwell on his pain. In this new and positive environment, he was finally beginning to heal.
One night, he was invited to hang out with a bunch of other college students in a girls’ dorm. He knew one of the girls, and he had been flirting with her for a couple weeks. He had no idea that her roommate would be his future wife.
Within two months, Michael knew he was in love. He was already close with her family, and it made him want her to be close with his. Introducing her to his family helped him take that first step toward reconciliation, but he knows he has a long road ahead of him.
Every side of Michael’s family realized that this girl was the one, but his dad kept urging Michael to take it slow. He encouraged Michael to experience as much of life as possible before settling down. Michael tried to listen to his dad’s advice for as long as he could, but after nearly two years of dating, he knew he was ready.
“Dad, we’re getting married.”
Michael told his dad first. Michael and his fiancée decided to get married with only a few weeks’ notice, so there was no planning beforehand or a formal announcement. There were only those few words that each family member heard.
Chad heard them in person. He was immediately thrilled for his son and future daughter-in-law. Soon after, Ashley, suspecting something was up, wrestled the news out of Michael over the phone. Both parents separately supported and encouraged Michael.
Meanwhile, Michael became fully aware of the task he was undertaking. At only 20, he signed himself up for a caretaking role. His future was now overtaken by this responsibility, and he knew that someday, they would start a family of their own. He grew up too fast, but he felt that made him mature enough to handle this decision. He felt that he knew the difference between love and commitment. He learned from his own parents’ mistakes.
In front of all his friends and family, he promised to his new wife that he would do better.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.