This was in The Guardian in January about family and it’s impact while they are still drinking and once they have sobered up. Presented without comment.
I wasn’t around to witness my dad’s rapid decline between 2005 and 2007, I would hear stories by the time it was too late to do anything about them, but my conscience finally crept up on me, and with news coming in that perhaps he might not make it beyond the next year, I went back home to visit him for lunch.
It was the first time I’d seen him for two years. He’d been a functioning alcoholic all his life, but now he was unable to do anything but drink, and I was so, so nervous. I felt like I was meeting a ghost. I had convinced myself that he didn’t exist any more.
I felt uncomfortable during the short walk to the Chinese restaurant we’d decided to eat in, but nothing could have prepared me for the next wave of emotions. My dad could barely walk or talk. It seemed that he was under the influence of a terrible mix of both medication and a lot of alcohol. Walking into the empty restaurant that quiet lunchtime, I saw a reaction I didn’t expect from the staff: they looked on with utter fear. My heart sank. My pride fluttered away in front of me, and I felt nothing but embarrassment. I was so ashamed of my dad. I didn’t even want to call him that.
My dad had completely vanished. In his place was somebody who had no idea what day it was, and it broke my heart. When the waiter came over, with a glance in my direction that showed nothing but pity, my dad asked if he could order some poppadoms. He was trying so hard to act sober – in that way drunk people do – that he took about three minutes to pronounce the word “poppadom”.
Without ordering anything, I told my dad I was leaving, that I wanted to go home. The worst thing was that he never questioned why. There was no protest, because I know that he knew what he’d done. He was living in darkness, surrounded by it. As we walked up the road to where I was about to leave him, I pleaded with him to remember who he used to be. But his eyes were glazed over. He wasn’t listening. I ran off and cried my eyes out in private.
I saw him once more after that. It took another few years of zero contact before I could muster the courage to put myself through it again. By this point, he was very unwell. We were aware that he was drinking at least a bottle of neat vodka a day and barely eating – sometimes soup if he could remember to buy it. We went round on Boxing Day for a late Christmas dinner. He fell asleep halfway through our conversation and we all left.
Then, after a few failed attempts, he agreed to live in a rehab centre, thanks to the will of my oldest sister. For the first year, my dad sent me texts I didn’t reply to. I blocked his number so he couldn’t call me. I had convinced myself that I had no dad any more. That man had gone. It made me feel lost, scared, like a little child, to tell myself that, yet I still did. It was my way of coping, I suppose.
The hardest thing I’ve noticed for anybody who’s hurt a lot of people is that even when they accept that they’ve done wrong, they still can’t understand why you haven’t forgiven them yet.
It just felt to me like he was getting away with it. That if I just suddenly forgave him, I’d be the fool. It made me angry. I would swear and say nasty things about him. I would feel ashamed by what he’d become. I’d envy anyone with stability in their home life. There’s the shame; the shame of letting the outside world know that your father has a problem, that you feel he has failed you, or that others might look down on you because of what he is.
That feeling doesn’t go away, but it does subside. There were still unhappy times; The first time I saw him in the rehab centre, he terrified me. But as each Christmas visit passed, I started seeing glimmers. Gone was the skinny, hard-working grafter of a dad I once knew, but there was in his place a jolly, pot-bellied man who still loved me more than anyone else in the world.
Every time you see them, you know it may be the last. Because you can’t see inside their body, can’t see the damage that’s been done that the doctors have told you is irreparable. Even though the future might look bright on paper, there will always be that fear of relapse or worse in all of us – most of all him.
It’s a strange feeling to have to learn to love a parent again; somebody you thought was beyond help; someone you felt let you down so badly that you couldn’t call them for help in times of real need. Someone who had made you feel so alone you couldn’t ever imagine having a relationship with them again.
But, at the same time, life really is short. So I’m going to make sure that he’s rewarded for the hard work he’s done, if only by making sure there are never any more regrets between either of us. Because more darkness cannot drive out the darkness. Only love can do that.