Sometimes I think adults conveniently forget what it was like to be a child. When it comes to problems at home they assume that children don’t have the mental, emotional or social intelligence to know what’s going on. I say this because so often I hear phrases like "we don’t fight in front of them" or "they’re too young to understand". I disagree, they do know what’s going on, they hear the fighting and they definitely feel the tension. I know this for certain because I remember all these things with great clarity and felt them acutely while growing up in a home with an alcoholic father. I felt and remember all the little intricacies that went with this family disease. I remember the individual behaviors, roles and habits but more clearly I remember the feelings. Feelings of helplessness, confusion, panic, dread, fear, abandonment, and disappointment.
A home with an alcoholic is very unique, the addict dictates the pace; they hold the power because the disease is so destructive everyone else works tirelessly to try and keep it at bay. In our home there could be no alcohol and the person who dared bring it into the house would then be the cause of my father’s relapse when it would come. If drink did pass the doorway it had to be consumed promptly or removed, the temptation wasn’t fair and his sobriety was so fragile he could not be trusted with alcohol. Even if we went out for dinner and there was a dish on the menu with alcohol and he said he was ordering it, there was instant panic. Sometimes someone would be brave and say he shouldn’t have it. Sometimes I think he said it to scare us, other times I think he was testing his resolve and on some occasions I think he was purposely looking for that taste that would tip him over the edge. When he intently refused the dish with alcohol, we would be proud and think wow this is the real deal, he’s really on the wagon this time. Strange the things that stand out in your mind. These memories are pretty minimal in terms of the tornado of emotions and the associated mental torture.
Usually when he was sober we all lived in silent desperation that nothing major would happen that would make him drink. When there was a death, family or friend, we just battened down the hatches and waited for the inevitable. When drunk or sober we all lived in a constant state of anxiety and fear; waiting, wondering and worrying what would happen next. Would today be the day, how bad would tonight get? We were powerless, he had all the power. We all subconsciously worked together in making sure he either didn’t start drinking or didn’t blow up and terrify us. We all played a very crucial part in making sure he didn’t drink, even if we didn’t realize we were doing it. What we didn’t know then was we were actually making it easier. I’m not really sure how long it took us to see our efforts were in vain, this blindness and hope had only served to intensify all the emotions.
There was an anticipation that he would drink, or that there would be an outburst; we never knew when or why it might happen so we were on high alert at all times and in a constant state of anxiety. This was all pretty common place, so gradually we learned the patterns and there would be slight lulls in our anxiety and worry. Yet it was always there, under the surface, because we knew the peace or our version of it wouldn’t last very long. This setting intensifies your awareness to a paranoid level. Every look, every word, every unspoken word, noise, movement was an indication, a warning. My senses were heightened by fear, I noticed everything. You come to know all the warning signs, we tried to distract, deflect, ignore, manipulate, hoping to stop the fight. Even when we’d sit there silent, afraid to raise our head and look him in the eye, hoping he’d leave us alone, he didn’t. We fed off each other’s fear and worry and those emotions engulfed the whole house and smothered each of us. He had a power over us, he was at the centre of everything, our home revolved around him and keeping him happy, trying not to upset him was of paramount importance. The alternative was that he wreaked havoc and we would all suffer. On a night we got to bed before the chaos started you would lay awake, listening carefully for a noise signaling that he was home, you would lay there frozen to the spot, waiting, a lump in your chest, scared and sick in the pit of your stomach. He would usually find some reason to be angry and it would start all over again. You were exhausted before it had even really began and you knew when it was over you’d have nothing left.
Sometimes when the rage began it genuinely felt like an outer body experience, that you were just floating in time. Watching it and hearing it all but you weren’t really there; you were detached, out of the room for just a minute or two, disassociated maybe. There were strategies even in these chaotic moments and I would try to intervene using my sister & I as pawns in the game, hoping that seeing us cry would make him stop, that it would convince him to leave our mum alone. It didn’t, he was so deranged drunk or sober that he always reassured us it wasn’t a fight, everything was fine and they were just talking. Eventually after what felt like forever it would stop and then came a new fear and anxiety, why was it quiet, where was he, was Mum okay? What would be waiting for us in the morning?
Holes in doors and walls, light fittings smashed, a silence that would slice through you like a knife, one that nearly made you wish the shouting would start again. And then it was back to normal, regular business would resume, household duties, bills, dinner… I remember the feeling of total bewilderment as to how it could all just be forgotten and how Mum would clean his clothes and cook for him after everything he did and said to her the night before. I was so baffled and confused, was this how other homes functioned, was it the normal state of play. For whatever reason and I still have no idea why, I gradually became irritably aware of how abnormal all of it was. It frustrated me and enraged me and I thought if we could all just stop pretending, maybe he would have no choice but to change, maybe if there were repercussions and consequences and we all didn’t just tip toe around him he would have to be accountable. He would have to acknowledge what he was doing to us. But no, in the codependent, dysfunctional mess he was wrapped up and kept totally oblivious to the carnage he was causing every day. Anything for peace and a quiet life.
"Peace at any price, is no peace at all" – Eve Curie
Slowly as I grew up I started to care less about being quiet and keeping him happy, it drove me crazy and frustrated me beyond explanation that someone could so destructively and carelessly dictate all aspects of our lives and make us feel so powerless. So I started fighting back, saying what I wanted, telling him when he was out of line and when he was wrong. This made for an even more chaotic house, but the balance of power did change slightly and even that little glimmer was enough to give hope that things could be different. I couldn’t sit back and take it, none of us deserved it, there was a realisation that he would never change and so the only solution was to get him out of our lives. This became my mission and I felt like the protector, if no one else had the fight left to take him on, I did. This was the battle of a lifetime but I didn’t care. I was determined to defend what was right and would not let him bully us, scare us and degrade us any more.
Looking back had I not adopted this strategy, I believe the spirit would have slowly been sucked out of me. This approach wasn’t perfect and it filled me with anger. The powerful sense of injustice does have negative implications on my life in some ways as an adult. Still, I believe it was the only way to survive and I’m proud I stood up to someone and something that once had the ability to truly terrify me. His power and selfishness counted on our fear, without it he had to be held accountable, take some semblance of responsibility. This tact drove him insane and he did everything in his power to make me feel like dirt, he tried very hard to make me feel like I was nothing. I knew that he was wrong, I felt sad, hurt, bitter and some days my heart broke but I knew I would one day prove him wrong. The words he used towards me were actually true of him.
As an adult I have battled two bouts of depression; I still have low days, my anxiety, self doubt and remnants of my childhood worries sometimes hit me like a ton of bricks and my mood hits the floor. I keep getting up and despite the bad days know the truth of who I am and what’s inside of me. It’s important to acknowledge the effect this type of childhood has on us as children but also as adults. It has definitely shaped me as an adult and in some ways I am grateful for my past. I have a deep sense of right and wrong and strive to achieve social justice, fairness and equality in my professional and personal life. Without the experiences I’ve had I don’t think I would have such a deep understanding or empathy for others and their circumstance. Living with an alcoholic parent felt absolutely terrifying and exhausting; in adulthood it has left scars of self doubt, frustration, sadness, and insecurity but I also have a personality made up of passion, commitment, strength, love, empathy, fairness and determination.
To be honest the words that I have used don’t do the array and intensity of feelings justice. I have thought about my life now and wondered could I cope with that life again in this moment. I really don’t think I could. I truly don’t think I would be able to bear another day or night feeling those feelings. People experience much, much worse than this, but this is my reality and I am trying to honestly and accurately depict the feelings felt then and the impact on my emotional and mental well-being today. Sometimes I wonder how it didn’t drive us utterly insane; it was like a form of insidious torture. The emotional equivalent of someone dragging their nails down a blackboard. That is how it felt.
Guest Blogger- Maddie