Content Notes: Domestic Violence, Abuse, Substance Abuse
I want to share some thoughts on alcoholism as someone who was affected by it, an outsider peering in, but whose life was invariably shaped by it. My father was an alcoholic. He drank himself to death alone, just after turning 50. Several years later and I still think about him a lot. I have nightmares which put me back into a state of panic. It’s like my mind forces me to live through this part of my life again and again. It lingers. But I don’t like to talk about it, neither do my family. We don’t talk about the pain, the sadness, the anger, the violence and the fear of what it was like living with him, and then watching him die. It also feels humdrum somehow – alcoholism is common, excused as a problem for ‘certain’ people, it attaches a stigma: “they did it to themselves” etc.
I still remain plagued by so many questions: what would life have been like if my dad wasn’t addicted to alcohol? Would we have been happy? Would he have still abused us? Would I have gotten ill myself? These are perhaps useless speculations. One difficulty is that I don’t think I ever knew my dad without alcohol playing a big part in his life. Two years ago, my mum found some old footage of us together. In it, she was playing around with a camcorder we bought ourselves for Christmas. I’m about 7 years old. Me and my sister are opening presents and my dad’s watching. During the excitement, and before I’ve even unwrapped my plastic treasure chest, I suddenly stop and ask him, “why do you drink so much?” He throws one of his cheeky grins before the camera is switched off. The question bugged me then as it does now.
Would he still have been abusive without alcohol is a messier question. I certainly don’t want to excuse or apologise for his violence just because he was an alcoholic. I never bought the ‘it’s just the alcohol’ line. I knew other alcoholics who weren’t abusive to their families, they just did the other stuff, like hiding alcohol around the house, being drunk, wandering around the streets with cans, or into pubs, watch TV, sleep a lot, fall out of bed. It’s confusing though; it’s confusing because he was my dad, and because when I was younger I do remember periods of happiness, gentleness and kindness from him. I think I remember love too. But these feelings were completely void when I became a teenager, as his alcoholism became an unstoppable force wrecking and consuming every part of our lives and he became more aggressive – it’s hard not to see a correlation.
All of these complicated and untidy questions used to get me thinking about ‘choice’ – what we actually mean by it, its limits and extent. I am very familiar with dominant narratives in the UK (if not the world), which continue to restrict discussions of alcoholism to the level of the individual: to the choices we make, how hard we work (or not work hard enough), our family history, and sometimes to the biological. At the beginning, during the alcohol abuse stage, I do think choice can perhaps factor into it, but I think this can become harder to sustain as dependence sets in – this is where you vomit and shake and sweat without alcohol, where you need it to live. But I also find the nexus between choice and pathology is problematic: a lack of choice and pathologising can deny agency and responsibility, whilst it being a choice falls back on painting the person as pathologically inept – a failed human being, unproductive and surplus. There are degrees, and I suppose much of it depends on what stage someone’s at with their misuse of alcohol, and perhaps what came before in terms of mental health.
I’m also not sure that essentialising or pathologising is helpful for us in understanding why people develop substance abuse problems. Broader social relations are too often left out of the equation, our ways of life – the psycho-social, economic and political forces that exist in society and create contradiction and conflict – are muted. We don’t tend to hold to account the institutions that perpetuate unhelpful stigmatising discourses around addiction, homelessness, poverty, or even mental health more broadly, or critically engage with and scrutinise our experiences.
My dad has a somewhat stereotyped background. He grew up in a poor part of Glasgow with four younger siblings crammed into a small council house on a sprawling estate. Both his parents were regular drinkers. His mum died young, in her forties, but again no one ever really talked about that. My dad started drinking himself as a young teenager, as did two of his brothers. One of my uncles took a slightly different path and ended up struggling with a heroin addiction, a problem which my cousin would later die from in her twenties. Her step-dad also died from heroin use.
We used to take trips from our home in England to visit the family in Glasgow and stay in my dad’s old house with my granddad. The whole family always came over, but we’d often find ourselves spending a lot of time in a pub. Many of my childhood memories revolve around sitting in pubs (a tradition which continued into my late teens as I tried to ensure he got home from the rougher pubs he started frequenting, without incident.) I’d hang out with my cousins. We’d generally get up to mischief, lift booze, pinch the odd cigarette here and there, and steal sweets from the nearby shops, but we’d also play games and hang out with other kids, climbing garages, hang around in one of the neglected parks, or go to the local swimming pool. We’d also occasionally be tasked with going to the ice cream van during the long summer holidays to get the adults’ cigarettes and cans of lager – under 16, no questions asked.
I loved spending time with my family in Glasgow, it allowed us to deflect attention from my dad and, at that time, seemed to strangely excuse his alcohol abuse as somehow normal and okay. There seemed to be some unspoken agreement that this was just what poor people in Glasgow did. Although he moved away from Scotland, he remained caught in this relational web. He still abused alcohol, and later, when I was in my early teens, he moved onto whiskey, bottles and bottles of which he would hide around the house.
My mum thought things would be better if we moved to Northern Ireland where she got a job. Of course moving didn’t help anything. Although the environment changed, the social forces, the habits, remained intact. After moving around, from Strabane to Coleraine and in between, we finally settled on a small estate in a town heaving with pubs. It was an area, like many others, adorned with colourful and dramatic murals, with flags fluttering on several street corners and in the pubs we frequented, and painted on lamp posts and pavements. There were also monuments to those who had died during The Troubles, and we saw new memorials erected for the people who died in Omagh.
After a stressful period of getting used to the political situation and aesthetics of where we lived, which used to agitate him, my dad seemed, for a period, happier. He made lots of friends, used to play golf with them, and when he couldn’t find stable work, he sat in a pub all day and drank with them. There were few judgements passed here. His drinking seemed more acceptable in this small town, as it had been in Glasgow. But over the years we began to see a much angrier and scarier person as his dependence rendered him completely dysfunctional.
At one point, albeit temporarily, while he was still capable of apologising, and telling us how shameful and guilty he felt, he agreed to get help. We moved back to England and he went into hospital; a hospital I myself would later become very familiar with. After a few weeks of drying out, medication and therapy, he came out into the world, but started drinking again after a few days. We went through a long period of cycles like this – trying AA, getting medication from his GP, but the moments of sobriety and pleasantness were always short lived. Stints in hospital were always a fight – as well as the fear of going through the process of withdrawing from alcohol, he hated being treated like a child and the disciplinary structures that pervaded the institutions and the attitudes of the professionals working in them.
I hated that too. We’d argue about why I had to stay in hospital when my mental health got worse, but he could leave, and why I wasn’t given a choice. It made me think that he just wasn’t trying hard enough to sort himself out, to stop abusing us. It made me question why alcoholics were treated differently from other people who had problems with other things that weren’t labelled ‘substance abuse’. Some were framed as choices, others were not, but I struggled to see how alcohol dependence was a choice when watching my dad – why would he choose to be like this and act this way? Were we that much of a disappointment to him? Was he really just a scumbag?
Over time, he stopped visiting me in hospital. I’m not sure if that was some sense of guilt on his part, or if he’d just rather spend his time getting drunk. In any event, a part of me was thankful because I didn’t want to have to deal with him as I was trying to get myself back in touch with reality: the smell of alcohol on his breath and clothes, the way he would act in front of ‘outsiders’, all friendly, jokey and pleasant, and the constant edginess of being around him, gauging what mood he was going to be in.
He found a bit of work the first time I was away, but it didn’t last. He was finally arrested for drink driving and lost his licence after one of our neighbours called the police on him. Good. He never listened when we pleaded with him to leave the van at home, bringing it up would just lead to a fight. It makes me angry now thinking about how he used to drive me and my sister in the back of his van pissed off his head when we were children. I’m thankful that someone outside of our family was able to do what was necessary.
At the same time, this is when things got worse. He couldn’t get another job because he was disqualified, so my mum had to get another one to make ends meet. In between my own mental breakdowns, I worked at Tesco and she came to work there too. Police interactions also became a lot more frequent. They’d come round to our house when the neighbours heard screaming and smashing, but my mum never told them the full story – she was afraid to. He’d also be evasive and manipulative when the police did come and they always believed him.
Besides the fear of being around him when he was drunk, I was also embarrassed. I remember having a house party when he came home and started fighting with my friends. Another time I had someone sleep over, they went to the bathroom and saw him passed out naked on the floor. We were lucky in that we had locks on our doors, so we could at least try to avoid angry confrontations with him. Sometimes we’d hear him in the early hours of the morning alone in the living room, shouting, smashing bottles and other objects. I was so sad when I woke up one morning to find that he had smashed the model ship we had given him one birthday and family photos from a time that was still troubled but didn’t seem as full of fury and rage as the situation had then become.
He’d wield kitchen knives, strangle and shove us. Once he bought me a chocolate bar. I smiled and thanked him and he went away, only to return moments later and attempt to shove it down my throat. I thought he was going to break my jaw, until my mum intervened. When I got older I fought back because fuck him. I was full of rage, anger and fury too, so much so that I seriously considered ways to kill him – I needed it to end; I knew I’d be punished, but I didn’t care. Our routines and different personas in public and private had become so normalised. I didn’t really have time to think about how unhealthy all of this was, and I think my mum was just busy trying to survive with an abusive partner and a poorly daughter.
Eventually, when I was functioning again and with encouragement from my mum, I found an escape route – I went to college to do an access course to get to university. I was really worried about leaving my mum because I couldn’t protect her if things got too much – my dad wouldn’t go for me anymore the way he did her, but my mum was keen for me to get away. I lost contact with him for a while. My mum eventually left him too. I saw him on and off when I did get the courage to go back home and revisit sore memories. He had a new girlfriend, she tried to support him, he wore smart new clothes, no longer sported a shaved head, but there was nothing she could do either. As time moved on his contradictory mantras of “I’m too old to recover” or “I don’t have a drink problem” became further entrenched.
In the midst of finishing off my final year of university, my mum called me and told me to come home because he was in hospital after someone found him unconscious in his bedsit. I saw him in hospital. He’d lost so much weight yet remained puffy and bloated, especially his stomach. His eyes were a vivid yellow, his skin, also yellow, had a strange odour. I remember him being so small and fragile in the hospital bed; he was a shell of the person I remembered. He woke up when I came in and pretended to be fine, shifting himself up in the bed to ask me how I was. I wanted to shout and scream at him but I knew that this time he was going to die and that felt like retribution enough somehow.
I went home after spending about 30 minutes with him, but was called back the next day as his liver failed during the night. When he was lying in intensive care he couldn’t even look at me. I think he was scared as he realised that he wasn’t going to be lucky this time. I sat with him, fighting with myself about whether it was weird if I touched him or held his hand. I think I did, but only when he lost consciousness – I didn’t want him to think I had forgiven him. He hadn’t even apologised. I could see his body rising with the ventilator strapped to his face. After four last deep breaths, he died. I knew this day was coming, but it was still a shock. I remember feeling relief, like a weight had been lifted, but then a heavy sadness crept in.
I didn’t want to acknowledge the sadness because he was abusive to us. I didn’t want to cry because it felt that I was somehow excusing his violence towards the women in his life. The trauma couldn’t simply be explained away because he was drunk and ‘unaware’ of what he was doing because there were times in the past, when he was functioning, that he would do or say abusive, sexist things. For example, he used to say to me that I should have been a boy and he used to bully my mum about her appearance, so the tendency towards patriarchal relations was very much alive and well before his condition worsened.
In terms of his addiction, I do think the odds were stacked against him: it seemed generational, a short-term comfort for people growing up in my family, for those forced into specific relational spaces and conditions – a deindustrialised, alienated, deprived part of Glasgow. Some are able to unstick themselves, but for others these things are terminal. It’s almost as if my dad was a walking, visceral embodiment of an internalised and painful hopelessness about the future, but the women he supposedly loved ended up being hurt the most, and we are still trying to pick up the pieces.
by Sara | Images by Soofiya Andry