An adult child of an alcoholic gives advice to his younger self – and anyone else going through similar experiences.
This piece has been written and sent in anonymously, which is something anyone can do on coaisathing.com if they wish to share their experiences as a the child of an alcoholic. You can do that by using the contact form or by contacting directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also remember that the Nacoa volunteers are always ready to offer help and support, should you feel like you need it.
Like many children of alcoholics, I had two childhoods.
There was the happy one – full of songs, stories and summer holidays. And there was the private one – full of anger, violence and shame. I never knew which one I’d come home to.
In lots of ways, I was lucky. I had two parents. I loved them and they loved me. They supported me and encouraged me, telling me I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it.
But at the same time, I was not lucky. My parents drank. With every drink they put away,
the bonds that held our life together loosened. Days out we’d planned never materialised. School events were missed. Each broken promise seemed small. But they piled up like litter around us, until we couldn’t see what was normal and what wasn’t.
Soon after I started secondary school, the love that filled our lives began to leak away. My parents were quicker to anger, less willing to care for me, or for each other. Slowly but surely, responsibility for holding things together shifted on to me. When my mother’s drinking binges began to extend from the weekend to the week, it was me that stayed home to keep her safe. I wasn’t just caring for her, but for my father too – me staying home from school meant he could be at work. Who was the parent now?
There was no one moment when my parents lost control completely. It was an imperceptible slide, playing out in slow motion over years. One year, we missed Christmas Day as a family. As other families tucked into Christmas dinner, I sat alone with no presents, both parents unconscious upstairs. We bought my presents on Boxing Day in the sales. They spent far too much money.
I knew they were assuaging their guilt, buying my cooperation.
That year – or maybe the next – we were supposed to go to my older brother’s house in London for New Year. But the night before, they got drunk and then fought. My father hit my mother, giving her a black eye and a split lip. It wasn’t the first time it had happened.
But this time it stopped us leaving for London. We didn’t even call my brother to say we weren’t coming. He was furious. Looking back, it seems obvious that I should have called him myself. Telling him what was happening would have helped the situation, maybe brought it to a conclusion. I might even have found a way to go to London on my own, leaving my parents to it. But I was locked in, a co-conspirator, a signatory to the unofficial secrets act that kept our family silent. I was fifteen.
I thought I was protecting them. But I see now I was enabling their behaviour.
The worst example of this came one summer, when my parents made me lie to the police. My mum and dad worked together in a residential special school. We lived in a house in the grounds. One afternoon in the holidays, my mother walked five hundred yards, blind drunk, from our house to the school’s front door. She took out her keys, let herself in to the building, and tried to take an overdose of pills from the school’s medicine cabinet. Moments later, the school’s burglar alarm went off. She’d got the code wrong. Minutes later, the police arrived. My father told me to go and face them, to say that I’d let myself into the school, and that the mistake with the code was mine, not hers. I took a severe grilling from the policeman, but eventually he accepted the explanation and my parents got away with it. They didn’t even say thank you.
Behind closed doors, the violence continued to get worse. My mother threw a wine bottle at my father’s head. It smashed against the wall, leaving a stain that wouldn’t wipe away. She hit him with a Spanish guitar, with such force that the neck tore away from the body. She ripped into him with sharp fingernails, until blood poured from his face and arms. He hit her so hard that her false teeth broke into three pieces. She had to take a fortnight off work, while the bruises faded and the dentist made her new teeth.
This time, I did find a way to go to London. I stayed with my brother for a while, but I still didn’t reach out to him for help. I was still lying to him. We would call home and speak to Dad. But when my brother asked to speak to Mum – who I knew was 50 miles away staying somewhere else – Dad and I would cook up a story between us. She’s in the bath. She’s hanging out the washing. She’ll call back in ten minutes. We’d hang up, then my Dad would get her to call back from where she was staying. My brother knew nothing.
After that, my father shifted to punching her in the stomach. He once boasted to me, looking me in the eye as he hit her, that he knew where to hit so it never left a mark.
It left a mark on me.
The next year, my father caught shingles. This was the trigger for a full physical and mental breakdown. In a manic phase, he would wake at 4 in the morning, come downstairs, and write reams and reams of notes on scraps of paper. In a depressed phase, he would lie in bed with the curtains drawn. He’d allow me to go in and talk to him, but he wouldn’t let me look at his face.
One Thursday night the following year, my father hit my mother for the last time. I was in bed when I heard her scream. I ran into the bedroom and found them at opposite sides of the room, naked. I saw him stride across the room and punch her full in the face. I stood between them and told him to stop hitting her. He told me to move so he could hit her again. I refused, so he went to sleep in the spare room. I stayed with my mother until the morning, even though she was hurling abuse at me.
Maybe this incident shocked them as much as it had me. They stopped drinking. Things improved almost immediately. It was like the parents that I’d known and loved had returned to the house, just as they were before drink destroyed our lives. The ceasefire was fragile, but it held.
Three weeks later, on July 1st, my father died. He’d felt unwell, walked from his office in the school, to the living room of our house. He sat on the sofa and dropped dead on the spot. He was fifty-five.
I came home from school, while my brother travelled down from London on the train. My uncle came to pick us up to take us back to his house to stay. On the way, my mother asked to stop at the off licence to buy a bottle of whisky. I begged her not to drink. I still remember her words today: “You wouldn’t begrudge me this, on a day like today, would you?” I stayed silent, as I always did, but I knew what was coming next.
There was not one single day that summer when she wasn’t drunk. She even drank on the morning of my father’s funeral.
Now there were no secrets between me and my brother. He saw the horror first hand, as she stumbled and slurred from one day to the next. I finally told him everything. But it was too late. The brakes had failed, and her slide towards destruction couldn’t be stopped.
She drank all the way through the next year – my last year of school. Throughout my A-levels I fended for myself, cooking, cleaning and keeping things on track as best I could. I would search the house for drink, diluting it, pouring it away. It made no difference.
Some days, I would have to wash and dress my mother. I changed the bedclothes when she soiled herself in her sleep. Most of the time, she was incoherent. The rest of the time, she was vicious.
I passed my A-levels and got a place at university. When I called from a phone box to tell her, she was drunk. She didn’t even congratulate me.
I went on holiday to Ireland that summer. When I returned, I discovered that my mother had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. It was for her own safety. She’d been hallucinating and wandering naked outside the house. At almost the same time,
she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Days after coming out of mental hospital, she had a mastectomy – and almost died on the operating table because her blood wouldn’t clot. The surgeon explained that the problem was caused by liver damage.
I stopped keeping secrets. The choice became obvious: speak out or sink. The first person I spoke to outside the family was my girlfriend. She told her mother, a social worker, and her mother advised me to go to Al-Anon, the support group for relatives of alcoholics. I only went to one meeting. When I arrived, they handed me a piece of paper with twenty questions on, designed to establish whether this was for me. Are you upset by a relative’s drinking? Do you think if they loved you they would stop? Are you embarrassed to bring friends home? If you answered yes to three or more, you had a problem. I answered yes to all twenty.
It was a turning point. I couldn’t stop caring about my mother. But I could stop caring for her. I resolved to stop searching the house for bottles, pouring vodka down the sink, watering it down. I stopped cleaning, and cooking, and getting my mother dressed. If she was drunk, I left the house.
One Sunday afternoon, two weeks before I was due to leave for university, I came home to find her unconscious at the foot of the stairs, with a head wound and a horribly swollen eye. I called an ambulance and travelled to Accident and Emergency in the back of it with her. My mother was barely conscious. At first, they assumed that was down to the two bottles of vodka she’d drank. But as a new day dawned, then another, then another, it was clear that the blow to her head was having lasting effects. The scan revealed subdural haematoma, a potentially lethal build-up of blood on the brain.
They transferred her to a specialist neurology unit, where they operated to save her life. My brother and I sat by her bed after the operation. When she woke, she didn’t know our names.
When I went away to university, she was still in hospital. Her last words to me as I walked out of the ward was that she didn’t care if I came back. I cried in the lift down to the ground floor. Looking back, I can’t believe I went at all. I could have deferred my place, stayed to care for her, to piece together what was left of our lives. Maybe that would have been the right thing to do. But at the time, leaving seemed the only option. It wasn’t about self-preservation – though that would have been an entirely understandable motivation. I was just sleep walking. All my school friends left home, so I did too.
They transferred my mother from neurology to a general ward, and from the general ward to a mental hospital – the same one she’d stayed in when she’d been sectioned earlier that year. In the mental hospital, she went to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When she was discharged from hospital, she kept on going. It wasn’t plain sailing but she never drank again.
I’ve joked that if I’d known a tumble down the stairs would stop her drinking, I’d have pushed her. The fact is that, to all intents and purposes, I did. If I hadn’t stopped supporting her, she wouldn’t have fallen. If she hadn’t fallen, she wouldn’t have stopped drinking. I withdrew from her to save myself. But it ended up saving her too.
She lived another 22 years. If she hadn’t stopped drinking, I don’t think she’d have made 22 weeks. It took me most of those years to forgive her, but eventually I did. I told her on the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. The barriers that had stood between us for years crumbled away. When she died, we were in a good place, closer than ever. A few weeks before she went into hospital, I’d stayed with her for my 40th birthday. Our relationship felt like it had when I was five – loving, simple, pure.
It’s taken me longer to forgive my father. He was snatched away in the middle of this, when I was still a child. I never had the chance to have it out with him, to tell him that what he’d done was wrong, that the worst things you can do to someone you love is hurt them physically or neglect them emotionally. So, despite all my efforts to move on, I’m still angry.
But I know it’s passing. One day, it won’t be there at all, and we’ll be at peace.
Where has all this left me? I doubt everything and everyone. The closer someone is to me, the more I doubt them. Like a soldier scanning the high street for explosive devices ten years after their tour of duty, I scrutinise every relationship for signs that something’s not right. I convince myself that my best friend wants to cut me out of his life, because of something I’ve done. I worry that my brother won’t invite me to his wedding, or that he doesn’t want to spend Christmas with me. None of it’s got any real substance. It’s just me finding the slightest sign of trouble, then amplifying and distorting it.
I doubt myself too. Even when my head tells me I’ve done something good, my heart can’t agree until someone else has given it a stamp of approval. My entire adult life has been a quest for this kind of validation. I crave conditional love, love I have to work for and earn, because I see it as a sign that I’m a good person who deserves to be loved. My need to please people colours every choice I make. I say yes to everything, even if it’s self-defeating. I feel that if I put myself first, the people close to me will drift away.
I blame myself for almost everything. As I’ve written this blog, I’ve listed out without thinking all the reasons why it was my fault, picked over all the things I could have differently. I know it’s a symptom of what I’ve been through. When you carry a weight like this as long as I have, you start thinking that it’s part of you. I’ve got so used to taking responsibility, that I feel like I’m responsible for everything.
But with every day that goes by, it fades. It’s being replaced by another emotion: pride.
I’m proud of myself for surviving – then, and now.
I’m proud of what I did to help. It wasn’t enough, but it was more than anyone could expect a child to do.
I’m proud of my decision to stop helping, when I could see that carrying on would take me under. I think it saved my life, and my mother’s life.
I’m proud that I’ve used this experience to be a better, kinder person.
And I’m proud of myself for learning to be open and honest about what happened.
They say that when you give advice to someone else, it’s really just you talking to a younger version of yourself. So let me say this to younger me, and hope that it helps the people reading this blog too.
What’s happening to you is big. It would be hard for anyone to cope with. You’re doing incredibly well just to hold it together. You’re still functioning. You’ve got friends. They care about you. In thirty years’ time, they’ll still be part of your life.
I know that things are really bad. I can see how much it’s hurting you, even if no one else can. It’s sapping your energy, it’s making you ill, and it’s making you choose destructive behaviours that aren’t helping. Sometimes you’re trying too hard. Sometimes you’re too quick to react. Sometimes you’re too closed off. But it’s OK. It all comes from somewhere good, and eventually you’ll learn to deal with it.
No matter how bad things are now, there will be a time when things are better. You’ll live in a happy home, with people you love, and who love you.
But let’s talk about now first. You’re trying hard to make things better, but it’s more than anyone could manage. The first moment you’ll feel better is the moment you stop trying to fix everything.
You feel alone, but you’re not. There are people that would help you if you gave them a chance. Open up, and they’ll surprise you. You’ve been trained to feel shame, embarrassment and guilt. But you have nothing to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty about. None of this is your fault. You’re not doing anything wrong.
Here are some other things that could help:
Put your health and especially your mental health first.
Do things that give you energy, or bring you peace.
Take time to try to understand and fully experience your feelings.
Write them down. Give them a name.
Be an honest person – it’s liberating to tell the truth.
Finally, keep on trucking. You’re miles more resilient than you think you are.
You’re strong enough to handle this. But any time you feel like you’re struggling, I’m here for you. I believe in you – the person you are and the person you could be. We’re a team, you and me. It would be my privilege to help you. You don’t know it, but you’re helping me too.