I was 18 before I could admit out aloud to myself that my father was actually an alcoholic. Even then it took another 12 months before I was brave enough to tell anyone else what I had always regarded as my deepest secret and something which I was also terribly ashamed of. I’m now 22 and the last four years of my life have been the biggest emotional roller-coaster I’m ever going to take a ride on, more so than an entire childhood of growing up being the child of an alcoholic. It’s taken me a few weeks to begin to write this experience, I wasn’t sure if it would sound right, but now I think that doing this is going to be the most therapeutic thing I’ll have done.
I can’t remember when exactly my father started drinking. On the same hand, I can’t remember a time when I was growing up that he was actually sober. What I do remember is the violence, the smell of whiskey when he kissed me goodnight, and the times spent crying in my room, scared of what he might do next. For many years I watched my father systematically drink his way through several bottles of whiskey and then begin to berate my mother. It would start with him going exceptionally quiet and becoming withdrawn. It would slowly escalate into an argument, and then the violence would begin. My mother suffered broken arms, black eyes and broken ribs, I suffered the confusion and unhappiness of not understanding why one minute my dad could be the most amazing man in the world, yet the next he was an ugly, frightening man.
It wasn’t until I was older that I could understand that my father lost many of his jobs because he was either drinking at work, or going to work in a stupor. One of my earliest memories at school was when I was about 10 years old and a friend had come to my house for dinner the previous night. The next day at school he told all of my friends that my father had been drinking, and they all laughed at me, even though they had no concept of what it meant. Perhaps this was one of the many reasons I couldn’t tell anyone what really happened at home. I know we were portrayed as the perfect family, so much so, that nobody really believed me when I became brave enough to talk about what really happened behind our closed door. Every special event during my childhood, such as gaining my GCSE results, became tarred with a drunken argument at home and my father becoming violent and aggressive.
I never blamed myself for his drinking, but I always wondered how different my life would be if he didn’t drink. I frequently wondered what a ‘normal’ family life would be like, without my father reaching for his first drink of the day at 7am. Progressively my father’s drinking escalated, he went from drinking expensive bottles of whiskey to drinking several litres of cheap white cider. He was once such a proud man, now he cared about nothing, he would not bath for days, would rarely change his clothes and I became incredibly ashamed.
I wouldn’t invite even my best friend round to my house, I couldn’t bear for anyone to see my father. I was worried they would talk about me, worried about what they would think of me. In reality, I know now they would have thought no less of me, because his drinking wasn’t about me and was no reflection on me. But all the same these thoughts would run around my head and every time my father got his glass out my heart would sink.
Of course there were times he would attempt to dry himself out, but these never were successful, perhaps because up until very recently my father was unable to admit that he had a problem with alcohol. Eventually my family split up and my father moved 40 miles away from us.
To everyone’s surprise I was over the moon about this, of course I love my father very much, but him not being there meant the end of arguments and fights and not having to worry anymore about what people might say about me. I was able to admit that he had a problem and able to talk a little about it. Even today there are many things I can’t talk about because the stigma of shame never goes away. I thought that part of my life was over, how wrong I was.
I still visited my father. I know some people would say that I should have given up on him, in fact many people did say exactly that. But he is my dad, I love him, I could never desert him, probably because I am all he has. In August 2004, I visited my father for the first time in ages. It was clear he was still drinking, he’d lost lots of weight and looked terrible. Two weeks later I telephoned him to see how he was and he told me he’d been sectioned. My father had been detained in a psychiatric unit because of his drinking and the way it had destroyed his mind.
This is when I felt my world crumbling around me. I felt immense guilt, perhaps if I’d been to see him more often this would not have happened. Maybe I could have prevented his drinking. Obviously I know now that I couldn’t have done anything to help him as he clearly didn’t want to help himself.
When he was released 4 months later, he was determined to begin afresh. And he did incredibly well. It wasn’t until January of this year (2006) that the drinking began again. This time it did destroy him. I had known for several weeks he was drinking and it broke my heart. But still I could not desert him. Again I felt immense guilt, like I had not helped him enough to remain dry.
In March of this year I fought for an appointment for my father at the local rehab clinic and took him myself. He was admitted and diagnosed with Wernicke’s Syndrome. The brilliant engineer I knew and loved had become both a physical and mental wreck. He is even now unable to remember the day of the week, what he has eaten for dinner, or his date of birth. All this, because of something in a bottle which amazing is now legal to attain for 24 hours of the day. My dad now spends his days in a residential home, being cared for by nurses as he is unable to do so for himself.
And what about me? My father’s drinking has had a profound effect upon my life and the person I have become. I struggle to form relationships with people, it is ingrained into me that nobody can be trusted, and that all promises are false.
When I do form relationships with people, I cling to them tightly because I am scared they will leave me and in the end frequently this obsession only serves to push them away. I find it difficult to talk to people, and open up. I think this is something I’ll never be able to do.
I can’t bear the smell of cider, with it I’ve so many memories associated, ones I try hard to bury away. It literally makes me sick. I often cry, when I think about what my father has become, and I think about the way in which things could have been different.
Then I realise that my father only served to make me stronger, I have been through 22 years of pure hell, there is little now that I cannot at least attempt to tackle. I love my father with all of my heart, I know I could never desert him, and I only hope that now he is on the long road to recovery. In this I then hope that I might begin to recover myself, to extract the demons that have raged inside me for so long. And this is the first step on that road for me.