Families of people with substance problems are too often “forgotten kids”.
It was several months ago, after a long running breakdown in family relationships, that my father admitted to suffering from alcoholism – something we, his family, had always known about, and had learned to live with it as part of our everyday life… It is hard to know when his drinking became a problem. He did not always drink excessively; it crept up so slowly that we did not realise its effects until it became too much to cope with. Growing up seeing my father drinking was normal to me; in many ways, it feels as if “alcoholism” is a recent issue.
One of the main problems I faced after my father’s admission to alcoholism was that I did not see him as an alcoholic. I had a stereotyped image of alcoholics as violent people who drank strong spirits all day. In my father’s case, this just was not true: he had a well-paid job, he never drank during the day, and was very loving and caring. Sometimes he would not drink for a few days, making it seem impossible that he could have a problem. I knew that he did have a problem with alcohol addiction, but I simply blocked these feelings out.
As a child I had been brought up well, taught to have good manners and strive for success,
I looked up to my parents. But, over time, I watched my father change from this role model to someone I still loved deeply but could not always look up to. The drinking had changed him slowly, bringing with it dramatic mood changes, turning him verbally aggressive one moment to the most loving and supportive person you could know the next. As I grew older, I learned to deny that my father’s drinking was a problem. I stopped inviting friends round to the house when I thought he would be stressed and drinking.
Having said that, on some occasions, he was the life and soul of the party, and friends would tell me how wonderful they thought he was.
I never mentioned dad’s drinking to other family members, choosing to avoid the subject even when they had guessed what was wrong. The trouble with alcohol addiction is that you never know which side of the Jekyll and Hyde character the drink will bring out, or when.
Hiding dad’s drinking from others led to me lying about it to myself. If anyone questioned my father’s drinking, I would become angry and shut them out. It was as if hearing about it would mean I would have to deal with it.
Soon after my father’s realisation that he was an alcoholic, he joined a clinic helping people to cope with addictions. He stopped drinking and spent every day at the clinic learning how to cope with it.
Seeing my father without the drink brought other worries. I was very close to my father before, but what would he be like without it? Would he still think of me in the same way and, more importantly, would he be the same person?
Strangely, I began to feel angry. Why had it taken him so long to realise? Why hadn’t my mother made him go to the clinic years ago? Why do you have to wait for the person with the addiction to realise what they are doing to themselves?
I became even more annoyed with myself for feeling this way.
I went to the clinic with him to find out what it was about, what it offered him that he could not get from us, the people who loved him. The staff were very welcoming and the counsellors helped me to understand that it was normal to have these feelings of resentment towards my family. They also made me realise that, for us as a family to overcome this situation, we would each need to review our attitudes and beliefs towards drinking and addiction.
As the child of an alcoholic you do not realise the extent of the damage drinking does to your family, until it comes to a head. It was hard trying to be open about the addiction to my family and friends at first, although I found them all supportive and optimistic about the future. I saw that my parents were dealing with the addiction well, making changes to their lives and setting goals.
This made me realise that I had to concentrate on my own life. It was OK to let go of the protectiveness I had towards my family. It is not easy and we all have to work together to chase away the demons of the past, but we are learning one day at a time. Slowly, we are becoming a close family unit again, talking about our feelings instead of bottling them up for fear of hurting someone. I feel that I have been given freedom from the addictive circle that was my family life.