Silent Voices aims to provide a platform here for those who have lived with the trauma of parental alcohol misuse; give voice to their experience, so that others too can know that they are not alone.
We invited Emilie Pine (UCD), and critically acclaimed author of, Notes to Self: Essays (Tramp Press, 2018) – An Post Irish Book Award winner, IACI Butler Literary Award, No.1 Non-fiction Bestseller, to contribute her experience and how it affected her family.
Early one Sunday morning in 2013 my dad began to vomit blood. He was haemorrhaging from a hole in the wall of his oesophagus, a hole burnt by decades of alcohol abuse. He sent me a panicked text, telling me he was bleeding. I was still in bed. I heard the phone beep, I saw the message. And then I lay there for a while, wondering what it would take to ignore him. It is hard to love an addict. It is harder to walk away.
That morning, I phoned my dad and I went to help him. Now, six years on, he is alive, and not drinking, two facts I could not have imagined until very recently. And I could not have imagined, either, that we would be talking openly about his alcohol addiction.
When my sister and I were growing up, we knew that we couldn’t rely on Dad. He could be great fun, and very generous, but he wasn’t good at looking after us: making sure we had dinner, or had done our homework, or any of the boring, essential things that parents do for their children. As a teenager, I realised that I couldn’t have a conversation with him after 7pm if I wanted him to remember it the next day. He shouted insults at us if we asked anything of him. His drinking was an ever present part of our life, but we never really talked about it.
No one else wanted to talk about it either. People said that Dad ‘loved a pint’ or maybe that he was a ‘big drinker’. No one mentioned the words ‘functioning alcoholic’. The silence was part of the problem.
After my dad regained his health, I decided I was sick of the silence. I wrote a long piece about being the daughter of an alcoholic. I showed the draft to my dad before I published it. He told me that he was surprised I had been hurt by his drinking. He said that he didn’t have any idea my sister and I would be upset by it. I was shocked that he couldn’t see what it had done to us as children, and to our family. But then I realised that addicts have to build a ten-feet-deep wall of insulation around themselves. They shut us out. And then I realised something else – in trying to protect myself from the pain of alcoholism, I had built the same wall around myself. I’m still trying to take that wall down.
Now that my dad isn’t drinking he has a much better quality of life. He laughs again, in a way that he hadn’t done for years. He gets to spend time with his grandson. We talk about the important and the unimportant things. He remembers these conversations the next day. These are the small events that make life good, and that were not possible before.
The following contributions have been anonymised to protect the individual who generously lent their voice.
These contributions may, in the future, be anonymously analysed and used for research.
If you would like to contribute your voice please visit: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/X5DLZJL
“I was 30 when my daughter was placed into my arms for the first time and I whispered in her ear ‘you will always be safe, you will always be heard.’
I didn’t give much thought to the impact growing up with an alcoholic had on me and how I might create a different future until I became pregnant with her. I had told the stories of it of course. I told my closest friends about the middle of the night altercations between my parents, of my poor mother packing us all into a car and taking off in the middle of the night, of the social workers, of his quick wit when he was sober and his cruelty when he was drunk, about how generous he was when he was making up for something and how he’d take the bite out of our mouths for a drink when he wasn’t.
I recalled events with my siblings and mother and we put together pieces of stories we had remembered differently or had been too young to remember fully. We told each other stories we had hidden to protect the others.
When my daughter was born I had to do more than just recall – I needed to understand it so that I could keep my promise to her and any siblings she might have.
I had to start by figuring out not what he did, but what he taught me – that it must somehow be my fault, that I must try harder, be better, that I’ll never be as clever as him, that men are strong, that women are weak, and that we don’t air our dirty laundry in public. Things I strive to unlearn every day.
Now I’ve taught myself something new and I repeat it silently almost daily – I am at peace, I am strong, I am good enough, I am loved and my children are happy.”
My name is Harry and this is my story of living with an alcoholic and how it impacts you and shapes your life.
November 6th was my father’s 70th birthday and unfortunately he wasn’t alive to celebrate this with his family. He died 10 years ago this year due to poor health related to his alcoholism.
The trauma and chaos that my father’s addiction and inevitable death caused through my family was immeasurable. Growing up I could never understand why he wouldn’t go and get help for his problems? It was not the done thing in our family or in our community (and this always made me very angry growing up). If you had a problem you dealt with it, you didn’t talk about it and you moved on the best way you could, and in my father’s case he self medicated himself with alcohol.
After many years of begging and encouraging him my father did eventually agree to go into treatment for his addiction which was a very big thing at the time. I didn’t know of another Traveller man who had done this. We were all very proud of him. Unfortunately going into treatment didn’t work for him and he was back drinking within a few weeks of his release. It wasn’t the happy ending we were all hoping for and he remained an alcoholic until the day he died. My father was a lovely decent man but he was his own worst enemy.
These experiences as a child and later a teenager gave me resilience to overcome and to survive. I knew that if I didn’t get up and go to school and get an education, this could be my life. My one saving grace was I had a strong mother who made sure I was up every morning (rain, hail or snow) and went to school, despite what might of happened the night before or negative opinions of people who thought my place was not to be in school. I also had 3 sisters who lived nearby who I could go to if I needed guidance or advice. Sometimes you’d crack up if you didn’t talk to someone.
I got myself involved in sports; soccer, hurling and football as another way to escape what I was dealing with at home. I went to secondary school, where I was the only Traveller and finished my leaving certificate and as a mature student I went back to college at night and studied youth and community work. I got myself a job that I love, and I am still in to this day. Helping people and trying to make a difference in my community gives me great satisfaction.
Life experience has taught me that the alcohol dependency of a parent is not something I am ashamed of at the current age of forty one. It is also something I have minimal control over. I can only support that parent to make good decisions. I can encourage that parent to strive for optimal quality of life by making positive choices.
As a child, however, my insight was not mature enough to deal with parental alchohol dependency with these beliefs and coping strategies. As a child, the gradual awareness at age seven that this was a significant part of my life, filled my daily world full of worry, shame and fear. A feeling of accountability remains with me to this day.
Through life experience, I have learned that excess offers of support can have negative consequences for my quality of life and those of my children and husband. However, I refuse to let alcohol dependency of one parent to negatively impact another generation. My long-term coping strategies are to set boundaries on the amount of support I provide to that parent. It is equally important to ensure all my dependents are given due attention for everyones’ health and well-being.
In my professional work, I have recently seen HSE guidelines for parents to manage alcohol and children/teenagers. I would like to see readily available resources like ‘Coping Strategies for children dealing with parental alcohol dependency’. If there is already such resources, please forward them to me.
My father caused no end of chaos and trauma to my mother, my siblings and me over a sustained number of years, from my early childhood into my teens and beyond. He was a successful and famous person in life, hugely admired & respected. This added a layer of complication. Like so many other families blighted by alcoholism, ours was a very dysfunctional family.
The following words illustrate some sense of my experience: hyper sensitivity, needy, co-dependant, low confidence/self esteem, anger, sadness, shame, violence, numbness, rigidity, chaos, difficulty fitting in, fearful, bullied, unsafe, stress, anxiety, fright/terror, avoidance, protective wall, unseen, loss, put down, wooden plank, caged, energy sapping. Flipping these words to consider a “normal” experience is illustrative.
There were periods of “normality” as a functioning family. We (siblings & me) came through with a good education and basic needs met. Life was very unpredictable & didn`t know when the next hurricane would hit.
It had a significant impact on friendships, relationships, decisions, focus, career choices, etc. Our connection was poor/non-existent. My mother had a very difficult life with him.
It caused significant arrested development & delayed maturity. I was well into my adulthood when propelled to search for healing through books, courses, therapy and ultimately training as a psychotherapist.
My father made amends and redeemed himself in sobriety for the short time he had left, which makes me very glad. I regret for him and for us all that he had this disease. It raises so many what if`s.
The most commonly felt and dominant feeling was fear. It was so normal I did not notice it until I became aware as an adult of the persistent knot in my stomach, gradually disappearing in my 30s.
Fear was due to unpredictability of family life, always busy figuring out moods, watching and waiting for signs of an imminent “binge”, ”skite”, ”session”, ”feed of drink”, all words that fall so easily into “normal” drinking vocabulary. This was sure to happen at the w/e, Bank holidays, Christmas, post matches or other sporting celebrations often returning to our home with fellow drinkers and resulting invariably in noise, chaos, possible violence all the while oblivious to the fact that we were all asleep. From a very early age I kept a vigilant guard at my bedroom door slightly ajar awaiting an eruption.
I hated winter as the darkness went on for so long which seemed to prolong the misery of the night -it was as if the darkness enabled it to happen.
I felt safer in the summer brightness as my childhood assumption was that maybe it will remind them to stop as it is now day,it is bright.
When it all ended, my most treasured gift was a full night’s sleep.
The ongoing and underlying distress was the effect that all of this was having on my mother. I could see how tired, hurt, depressed, hopeless, terrified, lonely, embarassed, ashamed, helpless she used to feel and I was dedicated to trying to make things better for her.
As a result I feel I never lived my childhood as freely and spontaneously as I was meant to.
My parents’ drinking created constant chaos and fear in our home. My father was a ‘normal’ drinker, in the sense of what society defined normal to be during the 80’s and 90’s: pub most nights until late, and when he’d have a few drinks at social events he would often times get so drunk he couldn’t stand up and would need to be helped to bed. He still behaves like this, at times. My mother died from her alcoholism a few years ago. She suffered a ‘traditional’ (if you can call it that) addiction experience: periods of intense sobriety broken by periods of even more intense drinking. She wouldn’t eat but would consume mind boggling volumes of straight vodka. A typical routine for her during these periods would be something like this: wake up, be sick, drink vodka, fall asleep for half the day, repeat.
This behaviour brought the following: constant fighting between my parents, before and after their separation; guards and social workers occasionally showing up randomly to our house, screaming relatives showing up with threats to pull me and my sibling away from our home; no food at home, bills unpaid, threats arriving by post because of debts. But two things still haven’t left us, they are fear and shame.
I’m an adult now, settled, happily married and with a young child of my own. In the past year of being a parent, the reality of my childhood experience has hit me with such stark force that I’ve sought professional counselling to help process it. My ‘normal’ is not at all normal. I’m functioning on a shaky foundation of fear and self-loathing, but covering it up with the niceties of an education, job, relationship etc. A good counsellor is helping with all this. But what stings my heart is that none of my parents ever said sorry to me or my sibling. It never seemed important at all.
I am 65 years of age and still carry the scars of my childhood surrounded by alcohol.. I do not have many actual memories of what happened but the emotional defences I had to put in place to protect myself, for many years. I still carry around it has affected my trust in other people and resulted in hopeless relationships. Fear and rejection were overwhelming, the constant screaming and shouting at one another, lying in bed at night listening to the two people you love being so cruel to one another and feeling so helpless and alone. It has been said that in a family situation the alcoholic picks on one child to vent their feelings – out of 4 siblings I was that child being subject to verbal/physical/emotional abuse whenever the whiskey appeared. When a child sees their parent/s out of control it is terrifying and the feelings of warmth and security dissolve and is replaced by fear. I suppose what I am trying to say is in a household where there is alcohol abuse the child/ren may by physically well looked after but the alcoholic’s behaviour/speech/violence will cause emotional distress that young children cannot possibly comprehend.