One year ago this week, my Dad died peacefully in his hospice bed.I was standing right next to him at the time, trying to comfort him during his last few breaths. Somehow, I found that I still loved him, although how this could possibly be the case after all that he had done, all that he had put me through was totally beyond me.
The truth was that, up until the age of about 13 years old, he had been my hero. I had idolised him. He had given me a passion for life, for sport, for so many other exciting childhood things and with it, I had grown a belief that I could do anything I wanted to do in life. I remember feeling really proud of him and all that he stood for. He was everything I ever wanted to be.
My very innocent life was suddenly turned upside down when unexpectedly my parents announced that they were separating. Within what seemed like only days, my Dad (my hero) had vanished too, into the depths of alcoholism, of isolation and of self-pity.
In place of my Dad there was now an imposter. This man looked the same as my Dad and sounded the same as my Dad, but he had lost any inkling of interest in me. His sole interest from that point onwards was in drowning his sorrows in endless bottles of whisky. He would start (without exception) from the moment he arrived home from work and he would continue through to the point of black-out, pretty much every night. I would often wake up and find him collapsed in front of the TV in his armchair. I would often try to wake him up, but wouldn’t be able to do so – I guess this must have been quite frightening for me at the time…..
The feelings of pride I had for him were very quickly replaced with (what I realise now were) overpowering emotions of fear, of shame, of guilt, of humiliation, of pain and of loneliness.
His alcoholism felt so personal to me and so public. Living in a small village, I imagined that the whole world were all gossiping about my Dad, and worse still, about me. It felt like everything that was happening was my fault. It was as if I shared responsibility for his addiction and I felt all of those incredibly harmful, negative emotions that he must have been experiencing, as he gradually lost all control of his life.
I remember thinking to myself that it was time to grow up and take responsibility. I suppose that I actually went into survival mode as that helped me to protect myself against any further hurt. I’m not sure how consciously this choice was made, or whether it was just through instinct, however I’m pretty sure that I knew that I had to change to be able to cope with what had suddenly become a much more difficult, more serious and much less innocent life.
I remember at the time often being told that I was “very mature for my age” (by friends’ parents etc). In a strange sort of way, I would feel really proud of myself for this. I wasn’t a child anymore and could look after myself. I was obviously behaving in the right way.
I soon started to lose interest in all the passions I had had before, in all the exciting hobbies and activities Dad had previously encouraged me to pursue. Instead, I would choose less healthy and more grown up things to do.
I remember feeling very different from my school friends as I seemed to have more freedom than they had and was able to do more of what I wanted to do, without any apparent repercussions. I would be scared to invite my friends back to my home, as I would never know what state Dad may be in. The fact was that Dad was so pre-occupied with his own self-pity and bottles of whisky that he wasn’t the slightest bit concerned about what I was up to.
As I grew older, I would remind myself all the time that I wasn’t the same as everyone else. Gradually, this began to affect my friendships and relationships. I found it hard to trust others and so I felt that I could only really rely on myself. The truth was that I would subconsciously push people away when they became too close, through fear of being hurt.
I would still go to ridiculous lengths however to protect this unrecognisable, alcoholic man who lived in our house from the outside world. I would tell everyone that everything was absolutely fine and that Dad was actually very well. It was always so much easier to lie than to be truthful about how incredibly difficult and frightening things really were.
I learnt not to talk, not to trust and not to feel.
In later life, and as Dad’s alcoholism got progressively worse, I found it easier to distance myself more and more from my Dad and not to have any form of communication with him. If the truth be told, I would always feel so much guilt for losing contact with him and such a weight of responsibility for him, despite my disgust and hatred for what he had become.
On many occasions I would visit him – having had no contact for several months or even longer – unsure as to whether I would find him still alive, whether he would have committed suicide or just passed away in a pool of his own vomit. He became a complete recluse and seemed to enjoy his isolation.
Meanwhile, I had grown up to become very independent, to have a beautiful wife and three wonderful young daughters of my own. Together with a good job and a lovely home, to all outward appearances, I led a reasonably successful and happy life.
The truth was however, that at the age of 42 years old, as my Dad was finally losing his fight to alcoholism (and his cancer), I realised that I no longer recognised nor liked myself. I had well and truly lost my true-self and I was equally concerned that my methods of coping with life were leading me in the wrong direction.
During my earlier years and in my determination to protect myself from further hurt and pain, I had learnt to control everything to cope with life. This would include both things within my power to control and things I had no right or power to control. I never thought for a minute that I was acting unhealthily (I guess I was still in survival mode) as this was just what I had done all of my life and I knew no other way.
I learned an incredible knack for being able to dismiss my own feelings in favour of trying to make everything alright for everyone else, avoiding any sort of conflict, anger, hurt or pain.
In my own mind, I wanted to make everything alright for other people so that they would like me. More often than not, I was actually diverting my attention from my own feelings onto something much more worthy, much more tangible, but belonging to someone else.
My life had become unmanageable. I was taking on so much and trying to control so much that I had started to drop all of the balls I was juggling. I had stuffed away all my feelings for over 30 years and these were now surfacing. I had no idea of how to cope with them. My self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem had hit rock-bottom. I was in need of help.
Since my Dad passed away and over the past 12 months, I have gone into recovery. I have rediscovered myself with the help of Nacoa and 12-Step Fellowships such as ACA & CoDA and I feel I have regained my identity.
Until recently, I had absolutely no idea that there were other people in similar positions to me, who were willing to talk about their experiences, their feelings and their truths so openly and honestly, and best of all, to support each other without judgement.
My life is now unrecognisable from where I was a year ago. I am gradually learning new and healthy behaviours. As a good friend of mine says, it’s like “learning a new language”.
With three small daughters, I am really excited to learn about how I can help them to be open, to talk, trust and feel in their own ways. I am really hopeful that this will allow them to cope healthily with the challenges which life throws at them in future.
My recovery is providing me with a sense of self-worth and self-love which I can honestly say that I have not felt before.
I have also learned gradually to let go of those negative emotions and in turn, this has allowed me to make peace with my Dad.
Actually, if it weren’t for his alcoholism, I wouldn’t be the person I am now…….so for that Dad, I am grateful J
……Rest easy my hero x
This post was written, bravely, by Joe Leigh. Joe is a volunteer for Nacoa, if you would like to be involved, check out here.
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