This piece was sent in by Rini, and really portrays just how long lasting the emotions of being a child of an alcoholic are. Remember, Nacoa will always listen if you want to share some of your emotions to someone you trust, who will hear you. As ever you can send in your own stories if you wish, just get in touch.
After reading a very brave account by a ‘child of an alcoholic‘ on Twitter recently, I wanted to share my own experiences. Her story was far more traumatic than mine but my experiences have stayed with me for a lifetime and I have often, not helpfully, minimised their true impact.
I could relate to the roller coaster of emotions. I experienced the ups and downs of growing up with an alcoholic parent including the uncertainty of what to expect next. I wondered if help as a young adult may have enabled me to acknowledge and begin to deal with my emotions sooner. Writing my own account has also prompted me to reflect on how, as a GP, I support children and adults going through something similar.
Beginning with the roller coaster of emotions. I remember the acute embarrassment when my Dad picked me up from a school prize giving event – I was 16 years old, he was drunk, slurring his speech, unable to remember where he had parked the car and worse still he was driving my best friend home too. He’d be the life and soul of family parties, but as his drinking got more out of control we began to dread the end of the night. He would often drink-drive my brother, Mum and me home. I was mortified when once we got pulled over by the police, but also frustrated they let him off with a caution, how was that helping us? I felt anger and fatigue too when he sometimes raged through the night and was abusive to my Mum over the years. I’d then have to go to school the next day and pretend everything was okay. I ended up burying myself in my schoolwork, ashamed and alone…no-one else had families like this, did they?
I felt sad and hopeless that he needed first thing in the morning an “eye opener” (booze to start the day off) and surprised he managed to hold down his job right until the end. We’d discover the hidden empty bottles of whiskey which of course he’d say didn’t belong to him.
I remember the tremendous sense of relief and guilt when he died. Could I have done more or said something else to help him I often asked myself in the early days?
There were a few people who didn’t help me at his funeral, surprised at the cause of his death, some asked me why I didn’t take him to the dr or stop him drinking, I was a medical student after all! One kind friend, a junior doctor, just sat with me and it was exactly what I needed rather than what felt like harsh and unfair judgements, of course we’d tried to help him I wanted to scream. Subconsciously, I realise now, I tried and still do on occasion to dissociate myself from all these difficult feelings, often using food and sometimes alcohol when I was younger.
My Dad died directly of alcohol related causes, at the age of 58. Even in the hospital when he was vomiting up blood and being transfused, he was in denial, claiming it was the Ribena my Mum had given him! Rather ironically, my brother and I always think, he died on St.Patricks Day, 21 years ago now when I was a final year medical student only 21 years old myself. That’s half my lifetime!
I have almost lived more years without my Dad in my life. He didn’t live to see me graduate, meet my husband or his three gorgeous grandsons. I have felt angry at him for a long time and having children of my own makes it harder for me to forgive him for leaving us, I would NEVER do that to my children.
At a very deep and unconscious level for many years it made me feel unlovable and never good enough, if I was wouldn’t he have stuck around?
The rational part of my brain understands his lack of self-esteem, anger, depression and the use of alcohol to mask these spiralled into dependence. His alcoholism was an illness, a vulnerability after years of physical and emotional abuse from his own father. It was not a positive choice, not what he would have wished for himself or his family and not his fault. It made me vow not to use alcohol in that way myself or marry someone like my father.
When my Mum died of cancer a few years ago, I saw a bereavement counsellor and surprised myself by spending all the time discussing and finally grieving my Dad’s death, 15 years after he died! I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much as I did in those first few counselling sessions and I remember when the counsellor said “you were just a child, you shouldn’t have to have dealt with this, it’s not your fault.” Hearing someone else say this to me really shifted something in me, saying those words to myself had never been enough. I am so lucky to be surrounded by loving family and friends (many of whom are doctors) but no-one else had ever said that to me, perhaps I wasn’t ready to hear it either.
I have used similar words as a GP, with patients who are children of alcoholics. I’ve offered and signposted services in the hope that they can come to terms with the emotional car crash that can be left behind by an alcoholic parent far sooner than I did. I also recognise and acknowledge my own feelings of frustration with some (not all) of my alcoholic patients and then move those aside to continue the dr-patient relationship. I am so impressed with my patients who have managed to beat their addiction, and turn their lives around. I am there for those patients that continue to be dependent on alcohol, encouraging them, ready for when…and if they want to make a change for themselves. No-one else can do it for them.
My husband recently commented that some of my core values – treating people equally, working hard and being independent – come primarily from my Dad. It feels important for me to remember and acknowledge all the goodness in my Dad as well. That too has influenced who I am. I can tell his grandsons what he taught me about life, grieving and how much (despite everything) he loved me and my brother even though he couldn’t always show us that.