The quiet, compliant children are struggling too
I’m Lucy, an only child. My mum suffered from postpartum psychosis and other mental illnesses, and my dad was an alcoholic. Life was chaotic in my early years while my mum was resident in psychiatric hospital and my dad had to work as a painter and decorator.
One of my earliest memories was my dad reading me bedtime stories, and I loved it. He would do voices for each character in the book, and sometimes use puppets, that would have me laughing till my stomach hurt. My dad often wasn’t around in the evenings, so my mum would offer to read to me, but it wasn’t the same. I started to sense her tension when I was waiting up for him to come home, which would be late and I should have been asleep.
I also noticed that something wasn’t ‘right’ with dad when he did read to me, he would slur and say the same thing over, which made me uncomfortable. If he fell asleep on me, I learned to stay still as he would shout at me if I woke him up.
Neither parent had the capacity to deal with each other’s issues.
As my mum had severe mental health issues, she was often not present and heavily medicated. Neither parent had the capacity to deal with each other’s issues. A family member said to me one day, “it’s no wonder your dad goes to the pub, he has to do something to relax”. Drinking was a socially accepted medication for my dad.
Every few months my parents would have explosive rows, and I learned to appreciate the in between times when it was quiet, but dread when the next one would be. They were mainly verbal, sometimes physical, and would last many hours. I would try to intervene to end the conflict. Days out were always tense as my dad would leave my mum and I to find a pub, and we would just have to wait until he decided to come back.
He would then drive us home. Neighbours would tell me later how they saw my dad falling out of his car drunk. The shame I felt about this was excruciating, I felt that the whole world was peering in on our abnormal existence. When I was older and knew my dad was drink driving, I was faced with a dilemma…do I report my dad to the Police? I couldn’t do it…more guilt.
My teacher said I would be okay
I withdrew from life and refused to go to school. A paediatrician at the local hospital asked me if there was anything wrong – I said no. As far as I was concerned, this was my normal life! My GP at the time later told me that she had concerns about me, but decided not to act. My primary and secondary schools were informed by my mum that my absence was due to a variety of ailments, no enquiries were ever made by them.
When I was 15, I broke down at school. My teacher said I would be okay and I should go to get to my next lesson. She never followed up with me. I was starting to realise that many of my daily experiences were not normal. My only escape was dancing, where I felt free performing on stage. My dad loved to watch me and this made me happy.
In my teenage years, my mum’s mental health improved whilst my dad’s deteriorated. When he was at home, the lounge was his living and sleeping area. It was out of bounds, which was fine by me as it smelled awful as he did not wash, and was littered with cans of Special Brew. Despite this, he continued to work every day. I once visited my dad’s local pub with him. He was a completely different person there. It was if that was his home and family, where he could laugh and relax. Why couldn’t he be like this with me, was I not good enough?
My strategy was to be as amenable as possible
My strategy for survival was to expect nothing, to ease the hurt of being let down, and be as amenable as possible to prevent any conflict. I’ve been left hungry, alone in cars, locked out of my home, threatened, called names. I was an obstacle to my dad’s drinking, but he always found a way. As an adult, I had two glimmers of hope.
The first was that when he was caught drink driving, he made a promise to me that he was never going to drink again – the first time he had ever acknowledged his drinking to me. I believed him. A few months later at a family wedding, he was drinking again like nothing had happened. I felt confused and stupid, I thought things would be different – he promised on his life. A family member told me not to distance myself from my dad, “we know all what your dad is like, and he won’t change.”
The second was that I thought that after the birth of my two daughters, he would become a more involved grandad that he was a dad. That wasn’t to be, he was absent with them too. That made me think that the problem was with him. Even if I had done something wrong to him in the past, my baby daughters had not, and they deserved a present grandad.
When he was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2018, I told him for the first time that I loved him. He couldn’t say it back, and turned away from me. He passed away in 2019 leaving me with mixed feelings, but I know grief wasn’t one of them, and I feel guilty for that too. Everyone should mourn their father? I have issues as a result of my past but I have a beautiful family, a job, an inner strength when needed and a realisation that things maybe weren’t my fault.
So that is a snapshot of my story. A common theme running through is that I was let down by people there to protect, my teachers and doctors – even when I asked for help. The thought of this happening to another child fills me with sadness. At some point I would love to work with Nacoa to ensure that the signs are recognised and it is the quiet, compliant children that are struggling too.
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