Everyone loves my dad – they don’t know he’s an alcoholic

This piece was featured in The Guardian recently.  It was an anonymous ‘comment is free’ article from a young man whose Dad is an alcoholic.  This could have been written by me – the fine details are different but the feeling it evokes is the same and on Father’s Day it feels very prescient …..

How very droll Stella ..... your booze puts a bomb in people's lives too :(
How very droll Stella ….. your booze puts a bomb in people’s lives too 🙁

It’s far easier to conceal a drink problem than you’d think. My dad does it every day, his alcoholism almost invisible (unless you know what to look for), busy getting by until it’s almost too late.

And he’s not alone – in Australia, alcoholism is classified as the country’s “worst drug problem for more than 50 years”, and considered an epidemic more deadly and economically draining than heroin, cannabis and cocaine. There is no task force to deal with it effectively though, and the same goes for the UK. In the March budget, George Osborne cut alcohol duty for the third year running, and disregarded repeated calls from the Royal College of Physicians to introduce minimum unit pricing.

Politicians don’t want to deprive the hard-working people of this country of a well-earned pint, do they? The message is: don’t shoot up, kids, but feel free to get slaughtered at the pub this weekend – just make sure you’re back in the office on Monday. And if the health problems catch up with you later on, don’t worry, the NHS will pick up the (nearly £3bn) bill.

With my dad, the time it hits me most is when I’m picking up a takeaway from the local Chinese, steeling myself for the owner to say, as she inevitably does: “How’s your dad? He’s so funny! He’s always so drunk!” I remind myself it is just thoughtlessness, she’s not being malicious. She’s really not, they adore my dad in there; he spends a fortune, he chats, he’s the definition of “a laugh” and he’s not a nasty drunk (although, don’t push it).

In fact, everyone adores my dad. My school friends thought he was the coolest ever, pint in hand and much younger than their golf-playing, coffee-drinking dads. Ours was the house for weekend barbecues that would escalate into parties to be proud of; dad at the centre joking and putting away more cans than you imagine any parent should be able to. People are always telling me how much they love him; how they wish their dad was more like him.

What they don’t recognise is that all this fun conceals an increasingly chronic alcoholic, albeit a functioning one. His alcohol abuse, if only witnessed down the pub amid so many others, can easily be construed as, “he’s just having a good time”.

You see, he has a steady job, a long-term girlfriend, and, despite losing his house, has accommodation. He also has a relationship with his children, although we screen his calls on weekends and weekdays after 7pm. During those times there’s no way to guarantee he’s not started drinking, drunk already, or topping up from the night before. And if I don’t call him, I don’t worry about him so much, which suits me. Worrying about him makes me feel physically sick, dizzy and horribly sad, because when he’s sober, he’s wonderful; smart, sweet and face-achingly funny.

We used to joke darkly that he’d outlive us all, preserved by cigarette smoke and Stella Artois (I can’t see a can of it now without getting shaky). However, several weeks ago my phone buzzed. Perhaps it was pangs of guilt for not having texted him recently, but against form, I answered. I can tell from my dad’s voice alone how much he’s had to drink. He wasn’t yet on a second glass, so had hit a chatty peak: not slurred or over-emotional, but repeatedly saying how much he loves me, how proud he is of me – but failing to ask about my life (it’s easier that way; knowing what we’re up to and realising what he’s lost is, after all, part of what the alcohol anaesthetises). He tells me that he’s started having problems with his feet. “They’re going numb, I can’t drive so well. I’ve got that peripheral neuropathy thing. Google it.”

According to the NHS, peripheral neuropathy is “a term for a group of conditions in which the peripheral nervous system is damaged”, specifically, the web of nerves not controlled by your brain and spinal cord. It can affect muscle control, causing spasms and wasting; wreak havoc on automatic nerves, which manage blood pressure, sweating and incontinence, and, as in my dad’s case, destroy sensory nerves which enable you to feel, resulting in numb feet and hands. In extreme, untreated circumstances, peripheral neuropathy can lead to gangrene and amputation. While the majority of cases are found in people with diabetes – 60% of type 1 and type 2 diabetics will develop it – another major cause, top of the list in fact, is “excessive alcohol drinking for years”. Turns out you can really drink away your feelings.

The worst thing wasn’t getting the news itself, however shocking, but knowing that even the potential loss of his extremities is unlikely to put my dad off drinking. If anything, it will make him drink more out of fear and denial. What’s truly devastating is the fact that I can’t fix it for him, or make him fix it himself.

My dad has had a problem with alcohol since his early teens. He’s not even 60, doesn’t live on the streets and drink to keep warm and sane, or spend Friday nights in a cell for fighting (that, at least, he’s grown out of). He has a willing and loving support network, as well as the professional resources to turn to if he chose to accept that he’s an alcoholic. But it’s not as simple as that, not when his behaviour can be waved away as an accepted norm. If he can still get up for work in the morning, he can’t be in too much of a state, can he?

When my mum finally left him, after years of heartbreak, what was strangest for me was seeing how people judged her rather than my dad. Family friends told her she could have “tried harder”, claiming his drinking “wasn’t that bad anyway”, “he just likes a few – don’t be a spoilsport.” I wish those so-called mates of his loved him as much as they say they do – as much as I do – because my dad is a hell of a lot more fun when he’s sober.

The line about peripheral neuropathy and drinking away your feelings feels so sad and poignant.  My heart aches for this man and his family.

To end this on a more positive note today I wanted to share with you a link to a news piece that relates to a friend of mine.  She bravely gave the interview to Bella magazine detailing her history of drinking honestly and her successful 18 month sobriety since and it got picked up by the Daily Mail (complete with alarmist headline!)

‘I was always drunk for the school pickup’: Alcoholic mother-of-three who drank through pregnancy and abused her family speaks about her journey to sobriety

I’m really proud of you Sarah and the coffee and cheese scone or fancy hot chocolate is on me next time we meet 🙂

14 thoughts on “Everyone loves my dad – they don’t know he’s an alcoholic

  1. Food for thought, especially given my last post. “Turns out you really can drink away your own feelings” is both incisive and, as you say, heart breaking.

    Apropos of absolutely nothing, though, have some of this. And remember…..you started it.

    The first salvo has been fired. You’re an absolute inspiration as far as this sobriety goes, truly you are, so I won’t rub it in when you concede defeat 😉

    1. Thanks Jimsdad. Concede defeat? Now that sounds like fighting talk 😉 PS Love Divine Comedy so thanks for that, and especially for me – set in a hospital ward too! You’re so thoughtful 🙂

  2. Could you please repost the link to your friend’s interview? The link isn’t working for me.

    Thank you for the article. So poignant.

  3. So this is day 3 for me. Again. This is the day I have failed to get past for several months. Probably years, but have only been noticing for the last few months. I’m so tempted to just stay in bed all day to avoid drinking. Usually, like this morning, I wake up feeling better because I’ve probably got the booze out of my system, but by tea time, I’ll be telling myself I can just have a couple and then I’m right back to square one. I know I can’t hide in bed forever, but I would really like to get past today. Any suggestions that might help me get through today would be gratefully received. Thanks for reading this and thanks for your blog. It’s really helped me wake up to my behaviour.

    1. Hey Ted’s Girl Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! Actually as strategies go staying in bed all day if you can do it is a good one so if you can – do 🙂 Otherwise have you tried the 15 minute rule? https://ahangoverfreelife.com/2014/01/03/the-15-minute-rule/ I found this tool massively helpful in the early days. Change up your routine, buy nice alcohol free drinks and treats that are not booze – chocolate, flowers, magazines etc and know that you can do this.

  4. wow, found your site from the Living Sober Blog. I can so relate to what you said about an alcoholic father, you’ve got many articles/ideas I can relate to. Thankyou so much.

    1. Hey purplegirl Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog! Living Sober is ace and so glad you found me 🙂 You are most welcome.

  5. Yes! You expressed exactly what my ex husband of 11 years is like and how I was too the bad guy for leaving. My biggest realization about loving an alcoholic came to me recently and it’s painful but truth. The constant anxiety, let downs, irrational arguments, let’s party, lighten up and have a cold one with me, too drunk to function plus many other actions of my alcohol focused husband I endured and finally split. But…our now 8 year old son is having to endure it when he’s with his father. I never truly believed being free from the dysfunction created by my x husbands drinking was going to become part of our sons reality. My son told me he wished I’d do something about it….I thought I did. That’s the crushing thing about a functional alcoholic. There’s nothing you can do and no one knows what you’ve been through or going through except those very closest to the drunk. Often if you talk about it you sound and look like a bitchy stick in the mud. What a joke. Alcohol ruins lives and relationships yet it’s so accepted and amusing. I’m dedicated to learn and understand as much as possible about alcoholism so my amazing son can understand it and be open about his father’s problem and maybe, just maybe he won’t render as much burden &pain about his Dad because of having an understanding and acceptence about alcoholism. ..If any son’s have words of wisdom for us love to hear it.

    1. Hey Mary! Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. Thank you too for sharing your experience. I’m sure you will help your son understand the issue regarding his father/your ex-husband and alcohol and from my experience after a certain age they are wise enough to figure it out for themselves. Plus if your son is being put at risk by his father’s drinking when he is with him then this would affect his custody rights too wouldn’t it? If I have any sons of alcoholics contact me I will be sure to ask them to share their wisdom and ask to then share it here 🙂

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