Growing up, we knew that we couldn’t rely on Dad


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.