This piece is such an important one. It highlights the damage caused by the behaviours and emotions that surround an alcoholic parent and how little they often have to do with the act of drinking itself. I am sure many COA’s will relate to living with a ‘dry drunk’ parent.
I didn’t know that Dad was drinking when he was. He was just so good at it, it looked like an advert, and our middle-class white culture neatly permitted the way that he drank. He’d arrive home from his well-paid job and pour himself three fingers of whiskey into a crystal tumbler, or four if the day had been particularly tough. Our house was large but not easy – six kids, a grandmother, even a cousin lived with us for a while for reasons that were never made exactly clear. Very little was ever made in any way clear. The family system ran on ambiguity, half-truths and people claiming to protect each other by not talking about how they felt what they thought or anything that might approach human. Slow death by politeness.
Not even anger was allowed, and so I think that’s why Dad drank every night. It must’ve taken the edge off the enormity of it all and the fact that he didn’t like any of us. He tolerated my oldest brother but the rest of us needed to be faded out while his image of good father, good husband, good working man, good man of the church… needed to remain intact.
In latter years my mother would tell me that eventually his craving for that one evening drink scared him so much that he went to his doctor for help. He got sober immediately. I think the idea of it being a sin would have troubled him more than the idea that he was hurting his children with his silence and lack of warmth. At this point, though, your sympathies are probably largely with this hard working father, obedient to my mother and only slightly less so to the church.
But this is the problem: NEGLECT IS ABUSE. Emotional neglect is abuse, which is why our foreign holidays didn’t help much. I tried for years to get his attention, going with him on trips to run errands, trying to delight him with stories of school achievements, being quiet, being amusing, being there, being not there… Nothing would work.
A parent doesn’t need to be fall-down- or passed-out-drunk in order to hurt their children (although these are a lot more scary) they just need to be completely checked out. I was to become an expert in, ‘proximal abandonment.’ This term means that although someone is physically there, they have essentially abandoned the space emotionally, communicatively and spiritually.
I wondered, and still wonder what it would’ve been like to have a father, and I can’t tell anyone because their reasonable response would be, ‘But you did have a father and he was always there; he was a great Dad!’ When he gave up drinking nothing changed, he just numbed himself out using trips to the supermarket, endless television and radio newscasts, later on finding project work that would take him out of the country for weeks on end. His frustrations and irritations bubbled up un-healed if now un-drowned. Hearing the term, ‘dry drunk’ was a godsend. It made sense of how all my childish prattle was never listened to, the homework never supervised, the complete lack of any interest in any of our inner or outer lives, the lack of artwork on the fridge. I’m writing this because a YouTube video I watched today featured a father agonising over throwing away some of his child’s vast collection of finger paintings. I sobbed for an hour and I’m well over 40. You can lose a parent to alcoholism but it’s worth remembering that we really lost them to the pain that caused them to take up drinking in the first place.
My father has never drunk alcohol since. Neither, sadly, has he ever learned to care.