On growing up with alcoholic parents, part 1: Dad

Four years ago, when my first-born child was just four months old. My father was admitted into hospital.  He’d had an epileptic fit.  He hadn’t had epilepsy before but, as an older man, he started to have ‘funny turns’ that would cost him a chunk of his memory.  This time he had a fit, several in fact, and eventually he aspirated some vomit and ended up on a ventilator.  They were quite worried about him.  He was more unwell, they said, than a man should have been for simply having had a fit and aspirated some vomit.  He was delirious and was eventually intubated.  We spent Christmas and New Year in the waiting room outside of the intensive care ward. I quietly researched the effects of alcohol withdrawal and worked out when we might begin to see an improvement.  I was spot on.  He was placed on anti-epileptics which meant that he shouldn’t drink.  As soon as he got home, he had a drink. 

A little over a year later he went into hospital again, this time with a urinary tract infection.  His brain checked out again and this time he picked up pneumonia.  I was told that, with no captain at the ship, the body was not able to fight the infection.  He was placed on end-of-life medication and he died.  Just before the twenty-week scan of my second pregnancy.  They had tried to ascertain the cause of his mental withdrawal but had been able to find no physical cause.  The only conclusion that could be reached was alcohol related brain damage. 

I loved my Dad.  If I let myself, I would ache with the loss of his eyes and his warm hands, the sound of his voice and the love he had for me.  The love he always had for me even when he was at his worst.  I was told once not to hate the man but to hate the disease, alcoholism, but alcohol is so mixed through my memories of my father that I hardly know how to tell them apart.  It wasn’t always bad and it wasn’t all bad even when it was.  I have a secure attachment style but I am insecure.  It is swings and roundabouts.  My Dad was not what you would imagine an alcoholic to be.  He was high functioning.  He had a job and friends and most people who knew him thought very highly of him but alcohol can do funny things to a person. 

The truth is that for a long time I didn’t know that my parents were alcoholics.  They lived normal lives, just ones that were soaked in alcohol at the end of the day.  It got worse after they stopped going out to work and my Dad become self-employed and worse again when my father’s parents died.  It was after that that I used the word, ‘alcoholic’, to them.  It wasn’t until much later that I used it within family circles.  Later still that I used it with friends and only now that I make it public.  It felt disloyal and unjust.  I told my Dad’s best friend that he died of pneumonia, it is on the death certificate.  ‘I didn’t know people died of that anymore’ he said.  How could I tell him?  What right did I have to destroy what he remembered of my father? If you ever read this Uncle Michael, I’m sorry.  I’ve wanted to call you a hundred times, but I can’t.  There is no straightforward path through all this, I am shutting down and baring up and breaking and wading through and drowning all at different times.  Even now, writing this as a form of therapy, I will not share it amongst family circles.  I fear how it will make them feel.  My father’s issues feel like shame.  My shame, his shame.  I don’t want them to be cross with me. 

When Dad first died, I was recommended a book written by the children of alcoholics.  I didn’t read it.  I felt like a fraud, complaining about nothing, my story couldn’t possibly compare to theirs.  But the more I think on it, the more I realise that the road has been far from smooth and that maybe it might be okay to admit that, while I loved him, my Dad hurt me very badly, and not just because he wouldn’t listen to the doctor’s advice. 

Ours was an argumentative household.  Alcohol drives extreme emotion.  I often felt like the piggy in the middle in my parents’ arguments.  I felt compelled to try and keep the peace; they thought it was all part of the fun. To me, it was always a matter of controlling my reactions, what I did could drive how well a situation unfolded. Mothers talk that way about their children. A well timed hug or distraction could keep Dad calm, an expression of anger or frustration could blow everything up.

My Dad was also a pass master at gaslighting.  Not because he meant to be, just because he couldn’t remember.  For a long time, even before I acknowledged how bad things were, I knew not to talk to him about anything important after midday.  When I still lived at home, he could say awful things and then deny them in the morning.  His rational brain would tell him that he’d never say such a thing.  He was quite right, he wouldn’t, not rational, not sober.  But under the influence, he would.  Then he’d accuse me of making things up, he’d tell me that I was unbalanced.  He’d follow me around the house relentlessly pressing an opinion on me until I would scream at him to stop, feeling overwhelmed and unheard and wondering if maybe he was right and I was unbalanced after all. 

There was a time when I was cooking dinner for my parents.  I was only about sixteen or seventeen and I was making a Chinese style watercress soup.  I dropped a handful in, without chopping it first, and it all clumped together, I should have reached for scissors but I was young and I panicked and I reached for one of Dad’s kitchen knives, the ones that he kept so carefully sharp, and tried to slice it against the side of the pan.  Dad went ballistic.  He stormed off up to bed, saying he was leaving us because of my appalling behaviour.  I was on my knees, sobbing, begging him to reconsider.  It was a mistake.  A silly mistake really, but that night is etched on my memory as one of the worst in my life, feeding my fear of failure and of making mistakes.  He didn’t leave but I was utterly broken for days afterwards.   I put myself back together because that’s what I do.  I’m an emotional girl but I’m resilient. I’ll get back up, every time, just you watch me.

Every Christmas we would have a party around lunchtime.  My parents would drink and not eat and once the house had cleared, they would open a bottle of champagne and we would open our presents.  After we’d opened our presents, they would fall asleep.  When they woke up, with their blood sugar somewhere down by their shoes, Dad would often be irritable.  One Christmas, I carefully tidied the living room while they were sleeping, put away all the presents.  I wanted to surprise them.  When Dad woke up, he didn’t notice, he flew into a rage over the state of the kitchen.  I tried and tried and tried to help and to placate but his anger wasn’t rational and I was ignored until eventually I lost my sh1t too.  Completely.  The worst Christmas ever.  I’m not proud of myself, but you can’t be the emotional regulator, of everyone, all the time.  It’s like a pressure valve that eventually has to blow.  

Once I moved out, things got easier.  I’m ashamed to say that I was probably at my happiest when they lived in Thailand for a year.  There were still problems, but they were only problems when we tried to spend time together.  We would invite them round, they’d try to turn up for dinner at midday, eventually when they realised we weren’t having it, they just started cancelling at the last minute.  Then complaining that we never invited them round.  We’d have blazing rows on the phone as Dad became less and less rational over everything from xenophobia to his attitude towards our extended family.  The relationship became more strained. 

But for all that, I loved him.  So very much.  In amongst the awful, there was wonderful.  The nights sat outside putting the world to rights, toasting french bread on the embers of the barbecue, eating it with cheese and washing it down with red wine.  Talking about everything and nothing, following the same star, as my father would say, even if we had very different paths to reach it.  The Dad that would do stupid magic tricks at my childhood parties, the one who supported me through teenaged breakups, the one I would call home to from university because mother would rather watch the TV than chat on the phone.   The Dad who would enlist boys to carry my bags up the stairs at halls (they didn’t even realise what he’d done until they were half way up the third flight of stairs).  He was like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.   When he was good, he was very, very good but when he was bad, he was horrid.   

For a long time, I thought I had nothing to complain about, not really.  I figured all this stuff was normal.  Maybe it is.  Maybe I’m just whining.  Maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But at least I have finally, got it off my chest.