By Beverly, 2021
Even if you’ve never read any poetry, you might recognise these lines from Philip Larkin:
“They f**k you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to, but they do”
As kids, we’re so sure we’ll never end up like our parents but give it a few years and we’re spouting the very worst of their favourite phrases. Whether we like it or not, some of those family catchphrases and the behaviours we swore we’d never repeat have been imprinted on our DNA. When you grow up with a parent who is a heavy drinker, some of those negative behaviours can have a lasting impact on your relationships long into adulthood.
The author Douglas Stuart has said that children who grow up around addiction soon learn they are not the most important person in the room. It seems obvious, family life often comes second to addiction. Growing up I remember worrying a lot about keeping my dad’s drinking hidden from the outside world; thinking up excuses for why friends couldn’t come to my house after school or why my dad couldn’t come to speak to the teachers at parents’ evening.
I even shied away from celebrating any achievements at school as I didn’t want to draw attention to myself or my family.
Habits like that are hard to shake off and to this day I would rather deflect the spotlight onto someone else if possible.
No doubt there are thousands of children out there who realised that no matter how hard they worked, no matter how well they did at school, their achievements were never important enough to stop their parent from hiding a bottle of vodka in the washing machine.
At home, we were constantly attuned to whether my dad had been drinking, scrutinising his language and behaviour for the slightest tell-tale sign. We walked on eggshells, never knowing what to expect, never able to trust that he would follow through on promises. Hypervigilance is still part of me and carries over into relationships today.
When I join friends for a night out, I find myself scanning their behaviour, trying to gauge how much they have had to drink already.
For many years, at Christmas parties, I was the one who stayed sober to look after my drunken friends. Anxiety is exhausting and the need to always be in control makes it hard to relax and be spontaneous.
I spent many years being angry with my dad because of his drinking. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just stop, especially if he noticed the damage his behaviour was doing to his family. When I learned more about addiction, I began to understand why my dad might have been drinking so much and why it was so hard for him to “just stop”.
I think my dad was drinking to deal with depression, he was self-medicating as so many people do. With this understanding, I was able to let go of a lot of my anger.
When I started volunteering with others who had a history of heavy drinking, spending time talking to them on a regular basis, I began to see my dad in a different light and was able to forgive him. I could see him in many of the people I talked to, people who were drinking out of loneliness, sadness, and to cover mental health issues. Although he died before we could properly repair our relationship, I can now appreciate the good things he passed on to us, his creativity, his sense of humour, his love of the outdoors.
Alcohol can have a toxic impact on my family relationships and the damage may only be apparent years later. I wish my family had been able to find support much earlier to give us a chance to heal our relationships. Understanding the long-lasting impact of living with addiction has helped me forgive my dad and change some of the negative legacies his drinking left behind.