The Difficulty of Loving an Alcoholic Parent

TRIGGER WARNING – Contains themes around alcohol use disorder, being the child of an alcoholic, and berevement.

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When my Dad was sober he had a cracking sense of humour. Slapstick humour, funny faces, quirky little sayings, he was hilarious at times and he always knew how to cheer me up!

I said some awful things to him out of frustration

But when the drink controlled him it was a different story. When he had had a drink he would be transported back to his past, remembering his trauma and it would make him bitter, resentful, and angry. I remember trying to have numerous conversations with him where I would try to “understand” what he was going through. It usually started with him talking in a slow but deep tone of voice (his drunk voice), he would repeat himself, the same sentence was on loop. I would get unbelievably frustrated and I would shout at him, I said some awful things to him out of frustration:

“You’re doing this to yourself”
“Just STOP drinking why can’t you just STOP?”
“You’re a waste of space”
“You’re being selfish”

Sarah with her Dad Steve on her wedding day

So there we were always in a dark room with curtains drawn, that distinct smell, my Dad laid on the sofa with a drink in hand, eyes glazed but barely open, his face puffy and bloated, and he would be repeating the same thing over and over again.

“How on earth was I supposed to fix him”, I would repeatedly ask myself.

“What is my next scare tactic that will threaten him into submission”, I was always thinking.

I had a chest of ammunition, metaphorically speaking of course. I would go into that dark room and confront him with a well thought out script. “This will make him change”, I stupidly thought. I would attack him verbally where I knew it would hurt, genuinely believing that it would make him see the pain and the damage “he was causing”. You see I tried the loving approach, I tried ignoring him, I tried walking away, I tried empty threats, but nothing was working! Nothing.

I wanted so badly to just make him better

Sarah aged 6 with her Dad Steve

I desperately wanted to fix him. I wanted so badly to just make him better. Giving up on him wasn’t an option for me, I’m often told how stubborn and relentless I am.

I wanted my old dad back, the dad I remembered from when I was a little girl. But I hated him and I even resented him at times. I blamed him for all the landmark moments we missed out on, family days out ruined by his obsession to have another drink, family gatherings tainted with us being on edge worried he would say or do something stupid.

But, he wasn’t always drunk, don’t get me wrong he was drunk more than he was sober. But there were random moments. I savoured those sober moments, I clung to them and cherished them and imagined that this was him all the time. Brief moments where I would get him back for just a little bit. But I always knew when it was coming to an end, his attitude changed, he became more irritable.

Looking back his urge to drink was just too strong, for my dad being sober was a constant reminder of the trauma he had endured, but for me it was my old man and how I remembered him. His gentle tone, his Yorkshire accent, his laid-back attitude, his random spurts of “I love you ah lass”. I just couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just stay like that. I suppose that’s why I clung on so much, because he was still in there, he just slipped further into the distance as time went on.

My point is I developed an insane amount of frustration and resentment towards him. I blamed him entirely for what he was putting us through, I felt he was selfish, a burden, and he was self-inflicting his pain, and I was always fighting him, always!

He used alcohol to suppress a great deal of torment

Little was I aware of how difficult it really was for him, how he couldn’t just “stop”, how much he hated being that way, how much he needed professional help. His drinking was not the cause it was a side effect of his trauma and we missed it. He used alcohol to suppress a great deal of torment and anguish as he was conditioned to believe that having a mental illness was a sign of weakness, so instead he got trapped into the vicious cycle of alcohol addiction. I can’t help but think that his repetitive conversations were him trying to pluck up the courage to open up to me. Drunk dad wasn’t my real dad, drunk dad was his traumas talking, his alter ego. My dad was a man called Steve and he was the most loving, kind, and forward-thinking dad I could have wished for.

Steve on Sarah’s wedding day

I speak so openly now because for too long we hid his illness. Shamed into remaining silent because of societies cruel stereotype against him. By the time I realised my dad even had an illness it was too late, and we were switching off his life support machine. I know from 17 years of lived experience how hard it is to love an alcoholic. I wanted to walk away many times and to not be weighed down by the burden of alcohol. If only I could have detached drunk dad from sober dad. Maybe then when he was alive, I would have spent more time loving him compassionately than resenting and hating him.

I don’t blame myself anymore like I used to though, and nor should anyone in my situation. Because how could I have known? There is no handbook on how to handle a loved one’s drink problem, which is why I share so openly now #foramancalledsteve

Thanks for reading, Sarah x

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