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 …..
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 🙂