My childhood was a nightmare. My relatives used to call our house ‘the house of horrors’

One of my earliest memories is of praying/hoping that when mom and dad got home from the pub that they wouldn’t be drunk. I remember the violence that regularly ensued after they got home. But, most of all, I remember the crushing sense of disappointment that I felt every single time they did come home because they always were drunk.

For me, the hardest part of all that was the never ending repeated sense of crushing disappointment when one of my parents was drunk again. In one way, I came to expect it but it never stopped being disappointing or painful; there’s always a small amount of hope that you cling on to when you have a parent with alcoholism. A hope that it will stop and that you can start to have some sort of a normal life. I was witness to a tremendous amount of drunken violence from as far back as I can remember all the way through to my adult years at home. Mom and Dad would become enraged when they were drunk and become violent with one another.

When I got a bit older and started going to school the situation deteriorated further. Drinking moved from the pub to drinking at home and during the day. My mother was in and out of jobs so she would frequently be at home during the day. Getting up in morning to go to school, I remember her being passed out on the couch. On other occasions, if we missed our bus, I remember waking her to take us to school and her waking, still drunk and still stinking of it, and driving us to school. More often than not we went with no lunches. And I don’t remember eating breakfast. I have a vague memory of some trouble with the school and people visiting the house (who – in hindsight I now know – were social workers). The day they arrived my mom knew they were coming and had lit the fire, cooked a warm dinner and made the house spick and span so that no one could see what was wrong. Our living nightmare was totally invalidated and we were overlooked by the services due to my mom’s performance.

When we got home from school mom would often still be passed out on the couch. Usually there would be no food in the fridge or cupboards – I remember asking my neighbours at one stage. From a young age, I learned that I did not deserve food. The message that I picked up was that I could do without it. Because it was deprived so often, down to sheer alcoholic neglect (as oppose to intent) it seemed normal to me to not have food. I have carried that my whole life and still, to this day, struggle with feeding myself and making sure that I eat. That simple thing still affects me. 
If there was no food, Dad would get home a few hours later and take us for a pizza or something. At one point, I remember him losing it over my mom being passed out drunk on his arrival and walked out of the house again and left us there with no food and a passed out mother. I might have been 7 at this stage and my sibling 9. It’s impossible to describe the fundamental sense of abandonment a child feels when something like that happens. The two people who are supposed to be nurturing and protecting the children abandon them instead. Children turn to their caregivers for comfort. But my caregiver was both the source of the trauma and the only place I knew to turn for safety from the trauma.

Children in these circumstances are totally terrified by this reality and effectively imprisoned. They will carry the scars of these events for their whole lives. As a child, I failed at everything. It was only as an adult that I discovered that I had talents and strengths. When I was younger, I was unable to focus on school or homework. My struggle for most of my life was learning to survive in that kind of battle ground. My mind was preoccupied by the lack of sleep, nightmares. My body was malnourished and in a constant state of fight or flight mode. I was always afraid. My brain couldn’t learn about school stuff because it was hardwired for survival. Homework was the last thing on my mind. However, the teachers didn’t know that and, as a result, became a further source of fear when I attempted to hide my lack of homework from them. Because I didn’t learn appropriate social skills or form healthy bonds with my parents, because they were always drunk, I lacked the skills I needed to form friendships in school. This meant I was chronically alone and isolated in school as well. It is hard to imagine from the outside, but parental alcohol misuse has a fundamental effect on every single aspect of the child’s life. Children are at the mercy and will of their parents and when the parents are drunk, their children are the first people to be affected.

The situation continued like that for many years with frequent traumatic instances and a learning that this was actually normal. As these were the circumstances I had grown up in, the only circumstances I had ever lived in, I had only a vague idea that there was another way to live life. That there was another way to be in the world. The world that I had been adapted to live in was one of alcoholism and total family dysfunction and I had fundamentally, no real idea, what living in the real world required. When I was in my late teens I developed anxiety/ depression. I remember telling the doctor, in detail, about what I was going through at home. He offered me medication and a referral to a social worker. After a number of meetings the Social Worker took a detailed record of my story and what was going on and I was told that I was too old and that the adoption agencies would not get involved at this stage. Nothing further came from meetings with the social worker. I spoke with my secondary school and they provided me with some counselling and other support. I kept telling everyone that what I needed was to get out of there but there was nothing anyone could do. I took a long time for that to sink in. The services had completely missed me. 
My relatives took me in long enough for mom to sober up and for me to see how different life was in another home; long enough that the feeling of walking on eggshells started to subside and the feeling of waiting for the next explosion started to seem misguided. But once mom had stopped drinking it was felt that I should go back to my parents house and I was sent away. I wasn’t there long when everything returned back to the normality I had always known.

Eventually, I managed to go to college after becoming estranged from my parents and this too became an issue of parental alcoholism. I have spent my entire adult life in and out of therapy, on medication, learning to live in a world which I am totally ill-equipped to deal with because it doesn’t match the dysfunctional way I learned to survive in an alcoholic family. I still struggle forming healthy relationships with anyone. I get triggered when I meet people who doesn’t appreciate how privileged their childhood lives were compared to mine and I still have to contend with the stigma that surrounds this issue. People get uncomfortable when I talk about my background. And I’ve met very few people who genuinely understand what it means when I do. Until recently, the issues of adults who were raised with parental alcoholism were totally unheard-of but the reality is that this story is not uncommon. Children of parental alcohol misuse will likely spend most of their lives contending with the impacts that their experiences had on them and for that reason need to be acknowledged and supported.