My father has been an alcoholic all my life. I’m 25 now and have more or less come to terms with his illness, even though I still don’t exactly know what has caused his dependency on drink. A little part of me resents spending time writing about him (does he deserve the time or effort?), but more than that feeling, is the hope that I’m doing something worthwhile, that even one other person will read this and be able to relate or find it interesting – I’ve also found it therapeutic to put how I feel into words.
If I try to remember childhood memories of my dad I can only think of negative ones, about his drink problem. To put him into perspective I need to describe him first, because I don’t think he’s like the average old man down the pub. He’s an incredibly intelligent, educated man, who reminds me of a modern-day tragic Charles Dickens character – he can’t live with himself sober and drinks to escape from something (I don’t know what?). I was brought up in a middle class area and went to private school until I was 12, when I had to change to the local comprehensive because my parents couldn’t afford to pay the school fees. As a child at junior school, I was aware that my dad was different, and it felt as though our family had a shameful secret that couldn’t be discussed.
I consider myself fortunate that my dad wasn’t a physical or sexually abusive parent, instead I suppose I suffered abuse through neglect. As a child, my dad never played with me or showed any interest, I don’t think he knew how to hold a conversation with a child and he’s never given me a hug. But I was incredibly lucky to have a loving, caring mother who protected me and did her best to provide stability and normality in our household. She never argued with my dad in front of my brother and I – how she was so calm I don’t know. But she couldn’t hide everything from us, my brother, who was always much more nosy than me, usually had some idea what was going on. He’d read opened letters and then tell me that dad was being taken to court and we were going to lose our house. We both knew that our parents were in serious financial trouble, it’s difficult to understand when you’re a child, I knew that things were wrong but wasn’t able to talk about it to anyone. I could tell when my mum was upset, although she never wanted to worry me and didn’t discuss anything, I could still sense her despair.
There were times when we had no food in the house, and instead of going to the shops to buy something for our evening meal, dad would disappear for hours and we would have to phone around the pubs to find him. My mum didn’t ever go into the pub and didn’t like his drinking friends, she used to say, “They’re not his friends, they’re just bar flies.” She had better standards. It was quite intimidating as a shy young girl, having to walk into the pub to find my dad. Mum was friends with a really kind couple who were quite well off. For a long time they would buy us a box of vegetables and meat every week, so that she didn’t have to worry where the next meal was going to come from – why did my dad accept this charity and not feel ashamed that we were being kept? When my Nan sent mum money, she’d have to hide it from him – he’d bleed anyone dry if he could.
He was lucky that our neighbours didn’t turn him in for drink driving. He used to drive home so drunk that he’d fall asleep in his car in front of the house, with his radio blaring, and one of us would have to go out to wake him up and talk him into coming inside. Sometimes mum just left him out there all night. It was embarrassing. Often he’d fall asleep in his armchair, even in the middle of the afternoon, so we’d pull the curtains across so that people walking by couldn’t see him out of it. At his worse, he was drinking throughout the day and night, it’s so sad to think he’d fallen so low as to go down to the kitchen in the night to swig cider or keep a bottle of scotch by his bed.
Special occasions were usually ruined by his drinking. At Christmas he could be a good cook if sober, and we did have some good years, but other years he would get so drunk whilst cooking he couldn’t finish making the meal, and would be asleep or verbally abusive and irritating during lunch. When my grandparents visited and we were all going out for a meal, he’d make out he had no money so that they’d pay for it, but somehow he’d always manage to get hammered down the pub beforehand and then ruin our fun with his drunken behaviour.
Then the worse thing that could possibly happen, did happen. My mum developed cancer when I was 11 and eventually lost her fight against it when I was 14. Experiencing her suffering was horrendous. It took a long time for me to forgive my dad for the way he treated her, even when she was too ill to get out of bed to make herself something to eat, he would be down the pub. She would still be in bed when I came home from school and dad wouldn’t turn up for hours. He should have been there caring for her; instead he’s only ever cared about himself. I couldn’t talk about my dad’s problem or my mum’s illness to anyone, my school only found out she was ill 3 months before she died, when I ran out of a lesson in tears and had to explain to a teacher. I bottled things up because it didn’t know how people would react and wasn’t able to express myself easily. I thought I was supposed to be strong, I didn’t want special treatment, or people to find out at school. I thought it might even be ammunition for people to bully me with.
One of the only signs of affection I can remember dad showing me, is when he held my hand as we walked down the aisle at her funeral. I hoped losing mum would make him sort himself out and look after me, but his drinking became much worse. Instead of taking responsibility for his children he wallowed in his own self-pity. To this day he has never once asked me how I felt about losing my mum, he’s only ever thought about himself and his own grief.
For some reason dad has never taken any responsibility for me. Whereas my mum had been a protective parent, suddenly I was thrown into a situation where I could do what I wanted and there was no one to stop me. I was forced into growing up too quickly and had to get on with things, doing my washing, making sure I had clean clothes for school or did my homework, getting myself a meal. I rarely invited friends round for fear of not knowing what state he’d be in and never knowing what I was going to come home to. I started sneaking out at night and getting up to things I never would have done had my mum been alive. My dad didn’t seem to care where I was or what I was doing; it’s easy to go off the rails when there’s no one there to stop you.
I’m quite ashamed to admit that when I was young I had a bad habit of stealing things from friends at school or shops, not even things I needed, but things I wanted because I felt like I didn’t have anything – I knew it was wrong. Three months after my mum’s death I was arrested for shop lifting and got away with a caution. At least that brush with the police was enough to scare me and I didn’t do it again. Although at times I had to steal money from my dad when I needed things, but he never noticed – I couldn’t exactly ask him when I needed money for sanitary products!
Christmas and birthdays without mum were really depressing. I think I spent the first Christmas with a friend’s family, dad was nowhere to be found and my brother spent it alone in a filthy house with an oven pizza for his lunch. A few months after she died, dad’s drinking had got so bad that he was forced into rehab. We had received a phone call from his local saying that he’d left an envelope there for us, and to come and pick it up. Inside was a note saying ‘Look after yourselves’, and £150. We didn’t know what his intentions were, he had disappeared and we had to call the police. He’d driven to another county and was found drunk and asleep in his car. Whilst dad was in hospital my brother stayed in the house and I moved in with our next door neighbours.
After his first stay in rehab he really made an effort to stay sober and I was very proud of him – he even got out of bed in the mornings to make me sandwiches for school. We thought he had beaten it, but after eight months his pub friends invited him out for a drink on his birthday, and that was it. For someone who is usually very calm and controlled, I shouted at him and stormed out. Why wasn’t he ashamed that his 15-year-old daughter was taken into care? Why couldn’t he look after himself? He’d had a really good job but at some point he lost it and eventually he lost our home as well.
Much of my teenage years are a blur, I don’t know if it’s because part of my brain has blocked out all the distressing things that happened or because I messed myself up with drink and drugs. I desperately wanted someone or something to rescue me from the extreme pain I felt. I wanted people to understand, to know what I was going through, but no one understands unless they’ve experienced it themselves and I was too messed up to let people get close. I couldn’t handle relationships even though I desperately wanted someone to love and look after me. Although suicide crossed my mind often, it was never really an option because I couldn’t put my Nan through losing her grandchild; she’d already lost my granddad and my mum.
When I was about 17, my brother called me at work to say that dad had taken an overdose and was in hospital, we rushed up there and went in to see him after he’d had his stomach pumped. I remember saying “I love you dad, why did you do it? I’ve lost one parent, I don’t want to lose another.” I didn’t get an answer.
At college, my tutor organised counselling for me, I was really against the idea at first and went along determined not to take it seriously. But it really helped to have someone to talk to who wasn’t involved in my life, who could see things from another perspective. Despite having no help whatsoever from Dad, I’ve achieved academically, although I still lack confidence in my abilities and haven’t really settled into a career. Next month I’m starting an evening class in counselling, and if I get on well I might retrain, because I really want to do something worthwhile and I feel the need to help others.
By the time I got to university I felt that I’d lived a lot more than other people, who were living away from home for the first time, and I always felt extremely lonely and misunderstood. I regret many things I’ve done and choices I’ve made along the way, but I don’t think that’s entirely my fault – things would have been different had I had the love and guidance I needed from my dad.
Because of the lack of stability I experienced, I have developed a strong sense of self-preservation. At times it has scared me that I might have inherited dad’s addictive personality, but then I have too much common sense to lose control completely. Although even now I sometimes have a bad relationship with alcohol, I don’t seem to be able to do things in moderation. I enjoy having a few drinks every couple of weeks, but don’t always know when to stop and often spend the next day cursing myself for stupid drunken things I’ve said or done.
I have never lost contact with my Dad because I feel a sense of duty, and I do love him in a twisted sorry for him kind of way. I don’t always answer when he calls my mobile, because 9 times out of 10 he’s paralytic and can’t string a sentence together. He’s a lonely old man who lives alone and goes down his local for some company. He’d love to meet a woman, but no educated intellectual woman would attach herself to an alcoholic with no money. I try not to think about him much, because if I did he would be a constant worry – several times he’s passed out in the street and cut his face, and a passer by has had to call an ambulance – he’s vulnerable walking home at night.
Having an alcoholic father made me determined never to get myself attached to a man with any kind of habit. I’ve wanted what my mum deserved to have, and am very lucky to have met someone supportive, who loves me despite all my faults, and provides the stability I need. We are planning to get married next year and I don’t know whether to ask my dad to give me away, I certainly don’t feel like I’m his to be given away! Besides, can I trust him not to ruin our day?