The pursuit of peace of mind
I’ve always felt like a contradictory hypocrite stuck between two worlds: one is so chaotic and destructive (I call it the familiar); the other is so confused, alone, guilty, and fearful (I label the aftermath). I don’t always feel my feelings, and I certainly don’t always know how to communicate them. At times my heart feels empty and numb while my head works in overdrive to put together pieces of a missing puzzle. On the surface you would see happy photographs of my childhood, and I was described as a very playful, and upbeat child and at times yes there certainly were good memories and moments of love and kindness.
I’ve recognised in myself more recently how easy it can be for me to dip into a survival mode of masking my negative feelings or mimicking others positivity to remain in the present or not to feel like a burden to others, especially under times of stress. I have had to do a lot of self-work to re-educate myself about emotions (to actually allow myself to feel them), attachments, relationships, sexuality, self-identity, forgiveness and letting go.
It takes strength to rewrite your own narrative
I am still in my own healing process, taking responsibility for my own wellbeing and trying to make healthier choices to live a life I love. It takes strength to rewrite your own narrative on yourself and outlook on life. I don’t think I truly started to know myself until I became sober and although it is the most painful thing I have ever done, I am proud of the person I am today. However, it was not a decision I initially made for myself.
The older I get, the easier it becomes to accept certain elements of the trauma I experienced and the reasons for my father’s behaviour, my mother’s enabling and ultimately the reasons I used to cope. However, I still have parts that are unknown to me from my past. Likely, my brains survival tactic to protect me from that time. Untimely this fearful inner child remains in my heart and now that I am in a place of stability, she’s been screaming out and although I don’t know what it could reveal, I hope to figure it out by writing down my story. I also hope that by sharing it may bring comfort or hope to anyone who’s story may be relatable.
I am Iona, 30 years old, a registered nurse, mental health advocate and amateur photographer. I am currently in my fourth round of psychotherapy and am two and a half years sober. I started drinking when I was 14 and was a very heavy binge drinker for 14 years. Prior to that, I self-harmed from the age of 11 to 21. Many years of my life were very destructive, and I lived with severe depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety and paranoia. I still do today.
I am an only child and most of my family live in America. The family I have in England are my father, mother, an uncle and two aunts (father’s side) and for a few years of my childhood my paternal grandparents before they emigrated to Australia. I didn’t understand until I was older the reason I didn’t have much contact with my aunts and cousins in the UK due to my dad’s behaviour with drinking. So growing up, I was very much alone as a child experiencing my father’s drinking and found it difficult to make sense of the chaos.
My mother was a social worker and never asked for help for herself and in our house it was very much secretive or we labelled it that dad just had an episode. We would brush it under the carpet and pretend like nothing had happened.
My father was an angry alcoholic (and still is, but has mellowed with old age). I have memories of him throwing bottles, occasionally burning me with cigarettes when I would reach for his hand when out in unknown places and telling me in was my fault for getting in the way. My father would often slam doors, shove chairs violently, bang anything to make a loud noise (what me and mum would call, throwing a tantrum).
Those ‘aftermath feelings’ always lingered for me and I always felt I had to be on guard as not to step on egg shells and cause the explosion that was inside my father to erupt. Often, I would run away at night time, so tired of living within a toxic environment but having nowhere to go or no one to talk to. I felt trapped that it was my only option. I never felt it was safe to ever say how I felt to my father. I kept these feelings down as the fear of worst retaliation lingered and it was the only way I knew how to keep the peace.
Mum saw his behaviour and occasionally when I would become visibly upset due to being so fearful we would have long discussions, although I shut down as I felt that there was always an excuse for dad’s behaviour and that my feelings and reactions were invalid.
One parent was an alcoholic, the other a workaholic
Often she would agree with what I said and her retaliation was anger back at my father which just caused more tension, tantrums and for dad to slam the door again. He’d leave and not return for a few days (likely going on a binge). This I internalised as my fault. I only now realise that as much as I wanted it all to stop, I feared I was responsible for hurting my parents and that this could lead to my ultimate abandonment.
My mother never left me, but she distracted herself within her work and this response at times left me feeling isolated and unworthy of love. One parent was an alcoholic, the other a workaholic. In hindsight mum lived in her own denial about my dad’s behaviour and the impact it had on us both.
I recognise it’s a different dynamic for her. She had that difficulty of weighing up the good, the bad and somehow keeping him involved in my life. I think she may have been trapped and conflicted with the emotional, psychological and what I suspect occasional physical abuse she endured. I’m so proud of her now for attending Al-Anon sessions to educate herself, share openly and be supported by people with similar experiences.
It’s often easy to remember the bad but there were many good times throughout my childhood and many positive coping strategies. At a young age, I developed my love and comfort in drawing and anything creative. I was very fortunate that my mum was so passionate about travelling and had the opportunities of exploring different countries and cultures. I grew up with other children at childminders and playing with kids in the street, back in the ol’ days when phones didn’t exist.
I never felt like I was a priority
I had a decent social life although no one knew what was going on back home. I think I likely came across as insecure and awkward, but I think a lot of us did at that age while trying to figure ourselves and life out.
My father could go from being intoxicated and verbally abusive but then later apologise or laugh it off or buy gifts. I used to get a new stuffed animal for every time dad forgot to pick me up from school. I never felt like I was a priority, as a child I felt I was the burden. I also felt guilty that repeatedly he apologised. He wasn’t always the monster I made him out to be and I doubted whether I had a right to feel anger or sadness.
At that time, I think I believed it to be genuine but when the behaviour never changed, I always expected disappointment from my father. I’m still processing where the line is between those apologies being used as a manipulative tool to regain power and trust vs the helplessness of living with addiction and genuinely not wanting but not knowing how to change his behaviour.
My parents decided to divorce by the age I was eleven. Dad accidentally put my life at risk passing out intoxicated with the oven on. The kitchen was directly below my bedroom where I was sleeping. By that point we had been in several car crashes when I was younger, fortunately all minor incidents. My mother recognised the severity of the damage that was being caused and told my father to leave permanently.
I did not want to see him
At that time, he was in full-time employment but struggled financially as he spent his earnings on booze, cigs and at the ‘bookies’ (gambling on the horse races). He lived in a caravan and I think I saw him every other weekend. I remember begging my mum that I did not want to see him. The memories of seeing him living in utter filth stained my brain. Vomit soiled duvets and clothes, takeaway wrappers and cigarette ash everywhere. I often had to try to make my own food or go without.
I would try to get him to eat but the preference was always beer. I saw how unable my father was to take care of himself. He lost hope and blamed my ‘bitch mother’ for his circumstances. He lost his job due to his volatile behaviour and had received complaints from co-workers. His perspective was there no point in trying—everything was pointless and he was worthless.
My mum told me she couldn’t live with the guilt of knowing that he may attempt to kill himself and she did nothing about it. He moved back in when I was sixteen and spent months in bed. Suicide was a hard concept for me to fathom as I was young and naïve to what it means to live with a mental illness.
I would find his hiding places
I felt completely betrayed by my mum for bringing this scary, negative creature back into our home. I hated them both and couldn’t wait to leave. My father didn’t stop drinking either, he just started hiding it and I would find his hiding places and he would let me drink as long as I promised not to tell mum. I used this secret as a tool so that he would buy booze for me and my friends.
I’d already been drinking from my parents’ booze supply from the age of fourteen. My mother went back to the States for a few weeks after my grandmother had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer so my dad was supervising which meant a house party in my mind. I never knew there was a limit to drinking. I had never seen my dad ever have one drink and finish there, but of course he had a high tolerance compared to my complete sobriety. It tasted good and made me feel good and I wanted the feeling to last, that had seemed logical to me after downing two bottles of spirits.
I became paralytic. The morning after I panicked as I had blacked out and wasn’t sure what damage a bunch of young teenagers could have done to my house and if my father found out (at this point he worked late shifts and did not return home till 11pm). I remember creeping into his bedroom to see vomit on the floor next to his bed, then looking up and realising it was fine as it was his own vomit. In retrospect, I don’t necessarily think my dad was working a late shift and likely was going to the pub.
Studying was a distraction for me
I socially binge drank for a few years, I often blacked out and started feeling this sense of hopelessness. My intimate relationships were non-existence and I definitely had a real fear of men for many years. My first sexual assault encounter happened when I blacked out at a friend’s house party at sixteen years old and then again when I was eighteen by a stranger in a club who also physically assaulted me. At these points I started feeling deserving of this behaviour.
Fortunately, I did exceptionally well at school and got unconditionally offers to study at universities. Studying was a distraction for me. I had a real strict routine in place which I think in many ways was the only way I knew how to balance the pressure of work, being creative and fitting in physical exercise. However, I became increasingly controlling over food and what I ate and experienced periods of body dysmorphia. Being a teenager can be such a confusing time, you compare yourself constantly and feel so many pressures to be ‘pretty’ to be ‘skinny’ to ‘fit in’ to ‘do it all’.
I recognised that they were human
It took me leaving home at the age of eighteen to fully understand that my parents were not these superhero adults that I expected them to be. I recognised that they were human, had their own issues they were coping the best they knew how. They didn’t have all the answers. Yet a part of me mourned that they didn’t and couldn’t be better and that I didn’t have that emotional support as a child I so longed for. I didn’t have much communication with them when I moved to study in Scotland.
Leaving my parents behind and moving to a new country felt a true sense of freedom. I wanted my life to just be one big party. I wanted that magic feeling I achieved when I drank. I didn’t want to feel negative emotions or feel sad or angry. I didn’t want chaos I wanted fun, and on the occasional night there were memorable fun nights, but I started feeding my addiction and I ended up in a familiar world of chaos.
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